There is perhaps no holiday I look forward to more in my adulthood than the 4th. I have several traditions that have taken hold over the years; watching the wonderful series “The Revolution” on the History Channel all day, playing patriotic music both old and new, steaks on the barbecue, watching the White Sox, and finally a trip to the local fireworks show.
And never far below the surface is a powerful emotion that can emerge at the most unexpected of times. Sometimes, a particular song can make the throat tighten or a passing memory of a childhood patriotic celebration will cause my eyes to mist over. These outward manifestations of patriotic feelings are, I am sure, shared by many if not most conservatives. We love this country of ours. We worship its past – the great men and women who risked so much and sacrificed all to create the greatest nation on earth. We glory in our traditions and the symbols of our nationhood.
This despite the fact that most of us also recognize that America has failed at times to live up to the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution; that to this day, the words “all men are created equal” ring hollow for those who suffer the effects of racism, sexism, and bigotry. And that we, a nation of immigrants, don’t always welcome newcomers the way we should.
This is one of the major reasons I love history. America is, at bottom, the most schizophrenic nation imaginable. As long ago as 1765 in the midst of the Stamp Act crisis, wise old Samuel Johnson, the English man of letters who compiled the first English language dictionary, wrote to a friend “Why is it we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of Negro slaves?”
Johnson nailed the historical dichotomy of America that continues to this day. We are nation in love with peace who have fought uncounted wars and battles just since the end of World War II. We are a nation with a Statue of Liberty who welcomes immigrants with the stirring words “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, …” who then turns around and puts up signs “No Irish need apply” or “English only spoken here.”
Herein lies the great chasm that separates liberals and conservatives when it comes to defining the word “patriotism.” The right sees patriotism as a physical, emotional connection with the past; an open acknowledgment and tribute to those who came before us and guaranteed with their blood, sweat, and tears that we, their progeny, would live in freedom. We are aware that America is not all it could be but rather than dwelling on our imperfections, we celebrate all that is good and decent in this land and its people.
The flip side of the same coin is how liberals define patriotism. They seem to intellectualize their love of country. They distrust outward displays of patriotic emotion, tending to equate fervor with patriotism’s evil twin – nationalism. Liberals see a problematic past for America and are not shy about pointing out where America has fallen short in its promises of liberty and equality.
But does this mean that liberals are less patriotic than conservatives?
Is it unpatriotic to want your country to live up to its extraordinary ideals? Is it unpatriotic to criticize what liberals see as hypocrisy in our history, where we celebrated freedom while keeping millions in bondage? Or speak glowingly of Native American culture while treating them abysmally?
How can one quantify patriotism? How can anyone weigh the patriotism of a liberal and declare your patriotism superior? How can you say one person is “more patriotic” than another? Is there only one definition of patriotism?
The problem as I see it is that both sides base their patriotism on a singular vision of what America was, what it is, and what it could, or should be. That’s why it’s so easy to delegitimize the other side’s love of country. The fundamental differences between right and left rest not on whether one side loves America “more” or actually hates our country, but on our inability to see what the other side sees and feels when thinking about the United States.
Can you disbelieve the notion of American Exceptionalism and still be a patriot? Why not? Who has granted you the ability to peer into the souls of men and glean something as personal as love of country while judging it relativistically? There is no scale on which you can place a liberal’s emotional attachment to our homeland and weigh it against your own. It borders on arrogance to make this attempt.
One of the most liberal senators of the last half century, Paul Simon of Illinois, was one of the most patriotic men I ever met. When he talked about his vision of America — nearly 180 degrees opposite of mine — he could become as emotional as any conservative politician. He called on the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and other patriots of yore — just as any conservative patriot would do. But his love of country was based on a different idea of America and it’s history than those of us on the right. Calling Simon unpatriotic or “anti-American” is absurd and is not based on anything except an exceptionally narrow and partisan view of what patriotism is.
Liberals have died for our freedom as often as conservatives, I’ll wager. And when they got to heaven and were welcomed by patriots from our past, I doubt very much whether they were asked where they stood on abortion, or affirmative action, or environmental issues. They gave that “last full measure of devotion” as selflessly and as willingly as anyone on the right.
Let’s remember that today, of all days, when our differences should melt away and we celebrate America — no matter how we see her.