Patriotism

"Patriotism" is such a brass-band word that it's hard to get a handle on. We're all familiar with the martial trappings of patriotism - the thrill of pride at our country's triumphs, the urge to sacrifice, the homage to veterans who have made the sacrifice. But is that all? Where is patriotism when danger disappears? If patriotism is love of country, what kind of love is it? What, at bottom, is patriotism?

The first step on the road to understanding is to make distinctions, so let's begin by distinguishing between two kinds of government - dictatorship or absolute monarchy on the one hand, and democracy on the other. In a dictatorship or absolute monarchy, the individual is a subject ? he is subject to laws and dictates that originate from on high ? and patriotism requires no more than obedience. In a democracy, by contrast, the individuals are citizens. Through voting and other political activity, they decide on the course of government. In a democracy, citizens are in control and they bear responsibility.

Think of this in terms of a family. In an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, the government is like a parent inasmuch as it has control of its children, the subjects. In a democracy, the relationship is reversed; the citizens are the parents, in control of the government and responsible for it.

If you believe that our government should operate like an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, you can stop reading now. But if you think of yourself as a citizen in a democracy, please continue.

In a democracy the citizens are parents to the government, and democratic patriotism - love of country - is like the love of parents for their children. That love expresses itself most in the children's upbringing. Good parents make every effort to teach their children the principles of morality and wisdom, and when children take the wrong path, good parents call them to account. To be sure, parents have obligations to their children, but obedience and acquiescence are not among them; "My child right or wrong" is not a proper formula for parenting. To be sure, parents want to be proud of their children but not at the cost of being blind to their defects.

Wouldn't good and loving parents try to correct their children if they were bullies? Wouldn't good and loving parents try to correct their children if they were unconscionably selfish? Or arrogant? Wouldn't good and loving parents try to save their children from harmful addiction?
Likewise, would not citizens who love their country criticize their government if it was aggressive or selfish or arrogant? Or if it encouraged a lifestyle that is self-centered or self-destructive? Criticism of one's government is not only a right but a duty.
Democratic patriotism is patriotism of principle, not obedience. Patriotic citizens will see to it that their government adheres to the principles of justice and wisdom, and they will call the government to account when it goes down the wrong path, just as good parents call their children to account when they err.

However, patriotism of obedience must have its place, and the place where it is most prominent is in the hearts of soldiers. Soldiers must obey orders, and their orders call for sacrifice. Their patriotism, therefore, consists of suppressing their own judgment and desires and sacrificing their own comfort, perhaps their own lives, as their government demands. This is as it should be, but the patriotism of soldiers should never be confused with or encroach upon the democratic patriotism of the citizen.
No one wants to believe that their efforts are worthless, much less efforts that are attended by great sacrifice. Therefore the soldier in war is moved to believe that his sacrifices are worthwhile and justified. But if the soldier is to believe that his sacrifices are worthwhile and justified, then he must believe that the war as a whole is worthwhile and justified. So -- as we see all too often -- the soldier's patriotism breeds a belligerent and chauvinistic attitude in civilians as well as soldiers. When this happens, patriotism is taken to mean that one must support every war and avenge every slight on the nation's honor, suppressing any expression of doubt and any murmur of criticism. The soldier's patriotism of obedience runs wild and crowds out the citizen's patriotism of principle.
This should not and need not happen. We can, and should, maintain a clear dividing line between democratic patriotism - the patriotism of principle - and the soldier's patriotism of obedience. The latter is appropriate when one has to fight for one's country. The former is appropriate at all other times.

Just as good and loving parents must sometimes show tough love to their children, so democratic patriotism sometimes requires that citizens harshly criticize their government. For this, such citizens are often said to "hate America." Such a charge is of course bogus; if I criticize policies of the American government, it no more means that I hate America than parents' criticism of a child's behavior means that they hate the child. In criticizing my country's policies, I am acting on my patriotism of principle; I am being a citizen. Conversely, the slanderers are mired in the politics of obedience.

Critics of American policy are also belittled as chronic pessimists who cannot see America's promise. We can all agree that the U.S. has great promise, but only an outlandish Pollyannism would deny our country's faults for the sake of an unquestioning loyalty, shutting down our adult intelligence in favor of a childlike acquiescence.

If we are to carry out the obligations of democratic patriotism, we must see our country clearly, with all its faults as well as its virtues. We must speak out and we must do what we can to raise our nation and its government as close as possible to the great principles it aspires to.

Supreme Court Note

During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that a judge should be an umpire and merely call the balls and strikes.

Well, as every good baseball fan knows, different umpires have different strike zones. In coming years the country will discover what Justice Roberts' juridical strike zone covers. Let us hope it encompasses humanity, compassion, fairness, and a respect for all persons.

In any case, I hope that he doesn't conceive his umpire's function to be that of divining the original intent of the Founders, or the original meaning of their words. That is a fool's errand for at least three reasons, as I have argued (August 23).

We must attend not to the meanings of the Constitution, but to the meanings behind the Constitution.

Of course, "originalism" may simply be judicial cover for denying many of the rights that have enhanced the lives of the American people over many decades.

From someone of Justice Roberts' surpassing intelligence, his remark is surprisingly naĆÆve. But that is understandable as one more indication that legal education, like most professional education, runs deep but narrow. Or to put it more plainly, professional education and the frame of mind that goes with it almost invariably contain an element of institutionalized foolishness.

Bravo West Wing:

Those who watched the November 6 episode of West Wing saw what a political debate could, and should, be like.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 12, Posted 02.58 PM / 30th November 2005.