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Some Thoughts On Patriotism


Our old editor Peter Beinart has a terrific essay in Time about patriotism. Peter explains that liberalism and conservatism each have their own definitions of patriotism. Liberal patriotism means loving America's ideals and striving to bring the reality into closer alignment with them, while conservative patriotism means loving America unconditionally and celebrating its past. Peter argues that neither definition is perfect, and that true patriotism requires a blend of both. Give it a read.

Meanwhile, in yesterday's USA Today, Jonah Goldberg offers up a perfect specimen of the undistilled conservative patriotism that Peter so ably dissects. Oddly, Jonah ofers up this strange example of liberalism's alleged contempt for the United States:

Many progressives in the 1920s considered the American hinterlands a vast sea of yokels and boobs, incapable of grasping how much they needed what the activists were selling.

The Nation ran a famous series then called "These United States," in which smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the "backward" attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country. One correspondent proclaimed that in "backwoods" New York (i.e. outside the Big Apple): "Resistance to change is their most sacred principle." If that was their attitude to New York, it shouldn't surprise that they felt even worse about the South. One author explained that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal "missionaries" so that the "light of civilization" might finally be glimpsed down there.

The last example is especially strange -- despairing about the political culture of the South in the 1920's, where disenfranchisement, lynching, and even slavery were routine practices, is a sign of insufficent patriotism? If that doesn't show the deficiencies of the right's style of patriotism, nothing does.

Even Jonah's other example, about smug New Yorkers sneering at backwoods America, doesn't prove quite what Jonah thinks. Yes, throughout history and up to the present day you can find plenty of examples of urban liberals disparaging what's now called "red state America." But you can find just as many examples of rural conservatives disparaging what we now call "blue state America." Indeed, the latter has now become far, far more common. You can scarcely pick up a conservative magazine or newspaper without seeing insults hurled at the effete, latte-sipping blue states.

Conservatives tend not to think of their anti-blue state biases as unpatriotic, because they like to portray them as tiny coastal enclaves totally unrepresentative of the "real" America." This is a common trick, based on the misleading fact that red state America consists of geographically large but low-population density places. The reality is that blue state America accounted for just over half the electorate in 2000, just under in 2004, and is probably above that now.

So if expressing contempt for the political and social mores of half of America is evidence of a lack of patriotism, then most conservative pundits and intellectuals aren't patriotic.

--Jonathan Chait