Friday, July 4, 2008

What's to Love?

People on the nets seem to like this Peter Beinart essay on American patriotism. Not sure why, exactly, except that it has that middle-of-the-road quality that makes everyone feel like they got their props. "Liberals think patriotism is x, and conservatives think it is y, but isn't it really a bit of x and a bit of y?" This is the bad dialectics that believes it has mediated two concepts when it has imagined itself to have kept what is good about each and discarded what is bad.

Anyway, the essay ends with this bon mot:
So is wearing the flag pin good or bad? It is both; it all depends on where and why. If you're going to a Young Americans for Freedom meeting, where people think patriotism means "my country right or wrong," leave it at home and tell them about Frederick Douglass, who wouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July while his fellow Americans were in bondage. And if you're going to a meeting of the cultural-studies department at Left-Wing U., where patriotism often means "my country wrong and wronger," slap it on, and tell them about Mike Christian, who lay half-dead in a North Vietnamese jail, stitching an American flag.
What immediately jumps out at me is that when Beinart needs an case of pathological right-wing patriotism, he can appeal to an actual organization, but when he needs a balancing case on the left, he goes straight into the ether of Platonic forms. No actual institution is needed, for he can appeal to that august "Left-Wing U."

This seems to me to be a symptom of the underlying schema by which patriotism is usually discussed. Conservativism is rooted in the actual institutions and traditions of the nation, and therefore loves the past of the country. Liberalism aspires to the regulative ideals of the nation, and therefore loves the future. Its the contest between Right and Left Hegelians, between those who emphasize the constitutive reality of the idea and those who emphasize its critical, regulative reality. The right loves what is, the left loves what ought to be.

But the world just doesn't divide up that way.

Liberals love the past just as much as conservatives, they just love a different past--the past of labor organizing, abolitionist struggles, civil rights movements, etc. Liberals love the liberal past, which seems to them to be embodied more in struggles and movements than in official institutions. Conservatives love the conservative past, which tends to be the officially recognized and sanctioned institutions of the military-industrial complex and the nuclear family.

And the pasts loved by both liberals and conservatives are not actual, but imaginary. They are at least as regulative and ideal as they are constitutive. Beinart claims at one point: "To some degree, patriotism must mean loving your country for the same reason you love your family: simply because it is yours." But this never happens. We may say this from time to time, when we are unable to give an account of why we love something, but our inability to give voice to something ought not be mistaken for a positive sign of that something's non-existence. On this question, I am convinced by Plato and Aristotle: we recognize something as ours only because we think it good. The bad parts get excised.

For patriotic folks, conservative and liberal alike, the parts of America they don't like don't count. The bad parts are the inessential, the accidental dross, the mere appearance that is overcome by the inner reality. The disagreement is not about America's past versus its future, or the real versus the ideal America, but about what is good and lovable.


Atrios: "Amazingly, on every single issue there is, both political parties get it wrong but Peter Beinart gets it just right."