Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Patriotism Left and Right

The Fourth of July holiday used to be about fireworks, parades, barbecues, apple pie, and visiting relatives you were glad you moved away from.

Now the Fourth is also about who loves America more . . . or less.

In USA Today, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg lays out a case that Barack Obama and people on the left aren't patriotic because they aren't happy with America "as it is."
"Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is."
But there's a problem with Goldberg's definition. Practically nobody in the United States thinks that America is "good as it is" right now. Recent surveys of whether the United States is on the right track indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans are dissatisfied. The numbers range from 76% of people polled by Newsweek answering that the country is "seriously off on the wrong track" to 84% of those polled by Gallup claiming that they are "dissatisfied" with the way things are going. Others are undecided. None of the current polls have more than 17% of the population as being satisfied with the current state of affairs.

According to Goldberg, that would mean that no more than 17% of the population is patriotic.

Contrary to Goldberg, I view conservatives as more dissatisfied with the current direction of the United States than liberals. Of course, there are things that liberals are unhappy about and want to change, including the war in Iraq, global warming, racism, exorbitant corporate salaries, high poverty rates, homophobia, and misogyny.

But there are many things that liberals of all stripes are fairly happy about these days. The Obama and Clinton campaigns are both strong indications of progress on the racial and gender fronts. Likewise, there's a relatively high level of personal freedom in the United States. That includes freedom of expression in various media, sexual freedom, access to contraception, abortion rights,. the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians as full citizens, freedom of religion, and freedom to reject religion. People in the "liberal coalition" are highly aware of various kinds of oppression in American society but can realistically view the United States as a relatively progressive society despite all the resistance and backsliding on social progress.

In his patriotism speech, Barack Obama viewed the ability of the United States to make continual progress in relation to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence as the cornerstone of American greatness.

". . . Patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America's ideals - ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion . . . I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better. I came to understand that our revolution was waged for the sake of that belief."

To the contrary, conservatives all over the country view the United States as in a state of terminal decline and decadence. The right-wing identifies abortion with murder, sexual freedom, liberal divorce policies, and popular culture with decadence, and secular liberals as the heirs of fascism. Conservatives are extremely suspicious of "global cities" like Miami, New York, and LA, treat the East and West coasts as foreign countries, and are even starting to view the suburbs around the cities as beyond redemption.

Conservatives identify "America" with rural life, evangelical religion, "traditional values" about sex, and traditional suspicions of African-Americans, gays, "women's libbers," labor unions, and others who were dissatisfied with social hierarchy. But they also see that America as dying out and being replaced by a multi-cultural nation that they don't view as their own.

Conservative media figures are forthright in their disgust over the current state of American life. Conservative jurist Robert Bork expressed that dissatisfaction in the title of Slouching Toward Gomorrah. More currently, popular right-wing radio talker Michael Savage cries into his mike about American decline for almost three hours a day, five days a week. Just last year, Thomas Sowell was so unhappy about American "decadence" that he started musing about a military coup as the only way to put the country back on the right track. Expect right-wing unhappiness with the U. S. to intensify if Obama is elected and withdraws the American military from Iraq.

Of course, conservatives can still stir up some positive passion for "traditional institutions" like the military and police. They also have a strong identification with the American flag. But what conservatives identify with the flag is a traditional world that no longer exists. In the South, an uncomfortably sizable minority of white people display the Confederate flag to emphasize their identification with a particularly noxious version of the American past.

It's somewhat of an irony, but when you see a conservative person handling an American flag, that person might be raising, lowering, and folding the only part of American life that he respects or cares about.

That's how narrow conservative patriotism is starting to become.

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