Pinning Down Patriotism

In 1994 a relatively unknown Australian politician contributed an article to Quadrant, a political journal. Up until then, Australian patriotism had been redefined by the politics of the 60s to the point where it became synonymous with self-flagellation. The only thing that remained worthy of a real Australian, or so its public intellectuals argued, was a willingness to say "sorry". Not so, the Quadrant article argued.

Much of [Paul Keating's] rhetoric about building a so-called new Australia is built on a denigration of our past and its achievements. We are consistently told that Australia's history is a litany of intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. ... The truth is that, compared with other nations, Australia's behaviour in the area of human rights, personal freedom and general tolerance has been impressive. This is an Australian achievement stretching back over more than 200 years of which we should be positive and proud rather than negative and ashamed. So much of Paul Keating's attack on the national identity is the rhetoric of apology and shame rather than that of praise and gratitude.

The author of the article was John Winston Howard, then two years from becoming the Prime Minister of Australia. Howard clearly understood that modern politics had become not simply a contest for governmental power; it had become a "battle of history"; a fight for the nation's soul.

Thirteen years later Jonah Goldberg, writing in the LA Times, would realize that American patriotism was being redefined in exactly the same way. It consisted in the willingness to say "sorry". You could drape yourself in the flag, but only if the flag was sack-cloth lined with ashes. For those types of patriots, allegiance could only be owed to a contingent America, one purged of its ills. Patriotism consisted in an allegiance to a future amid a present in which there was nothing to love.

I've come around to the view that the culture war can best be understood as a conflict between two different kinds of patriotism. On the one hand, there are people who believe being an American is all about dissent and change, that the American idea is inseparable from "progress."

But there was another type of patriot, for whom a loyalty contingent on the fulfillment of expectations was as hokey as an IOU written on a paper napkin. What mattered to them was that America was home today; it demanded a commitment today. It was where you lived, as France was to the French and Mexico to the Mexicans.

America is certainly an idea, but it is not merely an idea. It is also a nation with a culture as real as France's or Mexico's. That's where the other patriots come in; they think patriotism is about preserving Americanness.

In a roundup of essays on The Future of the American Idea in the Atlantic, the Winds of Change blog found an essay by John Hope Franklin, which archetypically illustrated the first type of "patriotism": a parole held out for good behavior and time served, based on what Winds of Change called an "uncritically critical view of America".

If the American idea was to subdue Native Americans and place them at the disposal of European settlers, to import several million Africans to the New World and subject them to a lifetime of slavery, to impose on Asian immigrants a lifetime of discrimination, then perhaps the American idea was not so admirable.

If the American idea, once the Civil War had concluded, was to sentence the freedmen to a lifetime of racial segregation, discrimination, and humiliation, then perhaps the American idea was not so praiseworthy.

Such a horrible country could not even be dignified with the name of home. Its culture was as empty and cheerless as a packaged birthday party at a fastfood restaurant. Franklin's essay continued: "The American idea is the nation's holiday garb, its festive dress, its Sunday best. It covers up an everyday practice of betraying the claims of equality, justice, and democracy."

Yet if things were as bad as many in its intellectual elite saw it, then why were large numbers of immigrants flooding into America not only from the Third World, former Communist countries and even from Western Europe? Did immigrants come in ignorance or were they ready loaded with that modern, modish sort of patriotism; the kind that promises love and loyalty in some distant future but offers only scorn today?

Five years before John Winston Howard called upon his country to believe in itself, Ronald Reagan examined the paradox of patriotism during his own "battle of history". In his final goodbye to the nation Reagan believed "an informed patriotism is what we want." With shame where it was due and pride everywhere it should be felt.

Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. ...

But now, we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. ...

So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.

Reagan's final words were of a patriotism that spanned the generations: rooted in the past and hopeful for the future, without much regret. And maybe that's the way it had to be for Reagan, a man drawing to the close of his life, when it is impossible to hoard one's love only for a future you will never see; when there is only time enough to love the things that are, and barely enough to give thanks for all the things that were.

And that's about all I have to say tonight. Except for one thng. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. ...

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that; after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

PJM Sydney editor Richard Fernandez blogs at The Belmont Club