Monday, July 14, 2008

What Does it Mean to Love Your Country?

To conservatives, it would appear to include denouncing liberals for not loving their country. John Holbo at Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion of that phenomenon which demonstrates that for conservatives, patriotism is something that exists largely so they can accuse liberals of not having it. Of course they try to disguise that behind something approaching rhetorical flourish, and of course they fail, as Holbo explains:

Frum: “There is this one problem: that hypothetical country does not as yet exist. This is not patriotism – it is a wish fantasy. And it is this wish fantasy, this shrinking from realities, this attempt to let phrases do the work of real ideas, that is the ultimate failure not just of a single book, but of the whole new approach to patriotism.”

So it is absurd to think the American Revolutionaries were patriots, or that the spirit of the American Revolution is an appropriate object of patriotic attachment? Abraham Lincoln was indulging a wish fantasy, expressing no patriotic sentiment, when he appealed to the ‘better angels of our nature’ (as opposed to the ‘actual, warts-and-all angels of our natures’)? Seems like a sorry sort of patriotism that forbids you to accentuate the positive about your own country, on pain of failure. (Sigh.) Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.

Getting back to bloggingheads, at one point Goldberg describes some editorial backchat at NR, during which Ponnuru apparently made the standard ‘can’t love of my country be like love of my mother?’ point. Which is actually pretty much the right thing to say. All the other stuff – the stuff about loving America because it is objectively exceptional in certain ways – is not really it. If you love America because it is objectively the best at doing certain things that’s fine but not patriotism. That’s like loving your football team only so long as its winning, which is sort of the opposite of team loyalty. As I was saying: who thinks that loving your mother means loving everything about her to the point of being opposed to your mom improving herself or getting her act together or overcoming her problems? If your mom has problems – maybe really serious problems – and your brothers or sisters are trying to help, do you stand athwart the train of helping mom crying ‘stop!’ On the grounds that you love her too much to bear to see her become better, hence un-mom-like? Suppose your mom is a drug-addicted schizophrenic, living on the streets. Is a condition of still loving your mom that you find a way to love the fact of her drug-addiction and mental problems and lack of housing?

So in other words, liberals can't possibly be patriots because the country we love is the ideal hypothetical country that we know would exist if Government would only enact our policies. Holbo agrees with Yglesias (who he links to above) in describing the conservative's version of patriotism as something like the love of a sports team; you love it fiercely, but of course wish that your team would make the changes necessary to win. Perhaps, but when conservatives defend their love of country, it sounds an awful lot like the "My country, right or wrong" though of course they can't possibly believe that, because otherwise they wouldn't lobby for political change with as much vigor as liberals do. I suspect the "right or wrong" approach is adopted most frequently as a knee-jerk reaction by criticism of American policy from without and within, especially in the sphere of foreign policy though, frankly, that approach or the sports team approach to patriotism are each equally childish and naive.

Anyway, I'm sure conservatives believe themselves to be greatly patriotic. I take issue with the usefulness of their patriotism however since, to borrow Holbo's anology, it's the kind that would keep mom on the street and hooked on drugs. And frankly, I take issue with the validity of their patriotism in the first place, since I believe that today's conservatives, living in earlier times, would have been more than happy to take up arms for the monarchy against the long-haired insurrectionists who had no respect for tradition and wanted to enact all sorts of radical ideas about social justice, liberty and property.

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