Friday, July 4, 2008

Liberty and Justice for All

Ed Kilgore hits it:
But Beinart is definitely onto something, and I would argue that America today particularly needs the form of patriotism he identifies with liberals. To the extent that our country's past has been characterized by true greatness, it has been when we did take our founding ideals seriously, at the expense of blind obedience to tradition or the kind of sentimental self-praise that is natural to people everywhere. And if we want people everywhere, and future generations of Americans, to consider this country something unique in the annals of nations, it's a very good time to recommit ourselves to freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, and the wise and generous use of the blessings we have been given by our forebears.
Precisely. When liberals point out our country's flaws and mistakes - its racist past, its overthrow of democratic regimes, its tolerance of radical economic inequality - it's not to denigrate America, but to point out how our actions contradict our ideals. That's why reflexive, uncritical "God Bless America" patriotism is so appalling. Abject patriotism is as dangerous as abject faith; it's driving blindfolded at 100 mph at night with the headlights off.

Some commentators have bitched that no one brings conservative intellectuals like William Bennett to task when they talk about what a filth pit and cesspool America has become. Why can conservatives trash-talk America with impunity, while liberals are regarded as suspect?

This points out another striking difference, I think, between conservative and liberal patriotism. Conservatives tend more to question the people, and to blame the majority for squandering their inheritance - people on welfare are lazy, gay people should stop being so gay, etc. Liberals are more apt to blame the system, and point up the ways that it's failed to support the people. Conservatives (ostensibly) want to decompose the system to allow for greater accumulation of wealth and the perceived freedom of cultural discrimination; liberals want to fortify the system to correct economic inequality and curb cultural prejudice.

And that's what lands liberals on the patriotism no-fly list. People who are especially patriotic take their patriotism personally. Liberal critiques of the very structure of the country become internalized as self-critiques. Conservatives twist that into arguing that liberals have never loved America, and want to re-shape it into a socialist state more to their liking. As Kilgore notes, liberals can do a better job of arguing that we seek to fulfill America's original promises - promises conservatism wants to squander in an orgy of monopolistic business, environmental degradation, antiquated prejudice, and perpetual warfare.