On our nation’s 242nd birthday, national holidays are increasingly an occasion for Americans to disparage patriotism. On social media, fringe and establishment voices on Left and Right spew outright cynicism or, at best, a paltry, half-hearted patriotism of sentiment, disconnected from any firm belief in national principle and purpose.
Disregarding the tired clichés promoted by the small-minded spite of our educational establishment and the irresponsibility of our dissolute elites, the truth is that habitual patriotism is better than intentional value-signaling; and even thoughtless patriotism is better than witless cynicism, as cynicism is not a virtue, but the default mode of decadence.
Apathy and snark about politics and political forms are the hallmarks of the worst tendencies of modernity; a sign of the severe decay of the corpse of western political thought. This current distaste for patriotism—made possible by a bloodless corporate globalism and the disgraceful lack of serious political thought in elite education—leads to much that could be called mere “silliness” if the results were not so harmful. And the hollow mainstream value-signaling of the virtue-less is not any worse than the hopeless dirges of the tiny groups of fringe traditionalists or leftists harboring utopian visions of unicorns and rainbows amidst their anger at “modernity” or “liberalism” or whatever.
These tribes are united in their essential impotence.
Claremont Review of Books editor and Claremont Institute senior fellow Charles Kesler opened the Institute’s annual Publius Fellowship program last week with readings that put these hollow voices in context:
“The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose,” wrote Leo Strauss in 1963. After leaving his native Germany before the rise of the Nazis, the Jewish professor spent the rest of his life helping American students read the great books and ideas of the western tradition, which American education had already begun to neglect.
Alongside this loss of purpose, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,the famed Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner, told the 1978 Harvard graduating class, “[t]he Western world has lost its civil courage” and this loss is “particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite.”
Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, remained deeply concerned that the result was that “parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children” and warned us “of an eradication . . . of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Our educated class is taught to use a wry aura arising from an unconsidered and arbitrary moralism as a shield to evade dealing directly with the serious political questions that undergird the swirling currents of opinion. Paradoxically, they use this shield to avoid looking closely or for long periods at what is moral. As they hold to an ethics of simplistic assumptions about pure ideals, which they think are beyond rational or systematic consideration, they simultaneously develop a habit of political thought that simplistically savages the reality in which we actually live. Our collective ignorance and miseducation thus prevent any serious attempt to think about politics, never mind maintain a healthy political regime.
The net effect is to render cheap and easy cynicism a kind of civic virtue. The “news” becomes something best imbibed ironically through satirical comedic performances. But insofar as citizens deliberately cultivate this breezy ironic posture, we remain divorced from reality and unable to deliberate or evaluate deliberation over politics, thus perpetuating the very problem that caused our cynicism in the first place.
Cynicism is a never-ending, self-fulfilling prophecy of civic decay. What the critics of Trump fail to understand is that he is not buoyed primarily by gullible rubes fooled by carnival barking, but by a cynical public who has completely lost faith in the powers that be — by a cynical public that sees him as a visceral response to hollow, ineffective propaganda they increasingly recognize as such. Many do not wish to follow those they perceive as chestless, apolitical, unspirited pseudo-leaders anymore, but would rather follow Trump—in full knowledge of his defects—rather than follow those who mistakenly believe that they cleverly disguise their own defects.
Americans Are Tired of Being Pawns
Habituated to think that serious political thought is mere condemnation or deconstruction amidst a world of propaganda, we are unaware that this habit of thinking undermines and ultimately eviscerates our own political desires and aims, rendering us pawns in the game — leaving us at the mercy of forces, the existence of which we may be completely unaware. Yet, increasingly, at the end of television’s reign, amidst yet another era of new modes of media, we are all too aware that such forces are trying to manufacture our consent. And, like good Americans, we have begun to rebel.
This is not the kind of “unthinking patriotism” at which our elites are so ready to sneer. That sort of thing is rarer today than our pseudo-educated snobs believe, and, at least, it has the benefit of being a kind of necessary and normal sort of defect.
The intelligentsia loves to think that the many are simple idiots who adopt a “my country right or wrong” mentality even as the commoners generally understand political life in a much more realistic manner. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, for instance, is a serious work of political philosophy, providing a better definition of politics and patriotism—for good and ill—than much modern political science. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is another great case in point. The intelligentsia loves to point out that such works are pure protest, and misunderstood by the poor, benighted, and common people who listen to them with some kind of patriotic feeling. These rubes just don’t get it, they jeer.
The idea that the people who actually had to fight in wars like Vietnam or who daily have interactions with worthless public schools and the bureaucrats who administer them believe in a simple “my country right or wrong” mentality is asinine on its face. They know more of what is “wrong” in the country than the elites who welcome self-criticism only when they think they are above it.
Poll after poll shows most Americans have little faith in their leaders and national institutions, and this faith has declined over time during the post-World War II era. The idea that those who are most affected by the decisions of their leaders every day—those who must live with those results—are simply sanguine ‘Merica lovers is absurd.
In fact, the common understanding you hear in both pieces of music is a bittersweet and nuanced one. You hear the whole of politics—good and evil together—set within the underlying realization that one can’t escape political life and ought not to try. It is a patriotism that understands we live in a painfully imperfect world and nation and yet it is ours, and we love it as we do our family, and it is sometimes painful, sometimes noble, sometimes ugly, but always serious and our love remains.
Love Looks Beyond the Warts
What the common man understands looking up from the ground floor of the regime is that you often can’t do much about the bad decisions of your leaders, especially after they happen, and you have to learn to live with them. But that’s life, which is naturally communal, or political.
Even more significantly, what the common man understands is that what makes the intellectuals possible is a politics that the intellectuals often do not understand—a community that sticks together and protects its own and deals with its many imperfections the best it can precisely because it loves its own. That this love—which is necessary, normal, praiseworthy and good—is often the source of pain when things, inevitably, go awry.
One ought to fight against bearing the weight of injustice, yes, but bearing this weight is also part of political life—and all of human life, really. The political community and its corresponding sentiments of this basic, communal sort are necessary and the ground upon which our increasingly apolitical (even if politically active) intellectual stands, and not only when it comes to tangible, material necessities.
It’s rarely “my country right or wrong” but rather an understanding, however inchoate, that “my country” allows for the basic ground of my existence and even to some extent moral judgment itself. Communal life is rife with imperfection, but it’s all we’ve got. This is why more people than you might think intuitively understand what Gilbert and Sullivan meant by the “idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/all centuries but this/and every country but their own.”
Charles Kesler puts it this way:
Courage never demands that one be perfect or morally pure, and [Trump] isn’t, so this virtue fit his rhetorical needs and strength. America does not have to be perfect for him to defend her wholeheartedly against her enemies. He does not have to be perfect to seek or to assert the privilege of defending her. Warts and all. It’s necessary only to love her.
Citizens and Intellectuals
The problem with “America First” taken literally without historical baggage is not that it is morally repugnant but that it is redundant. Like saying “Family First.” Far from being immoral, such sentiments are in some sense the basis of morality itself. It is true that we are called to love others: as we love ourselves. You can only love others to the extent you love yourself.
When the masses are asses, their problematic sentiment isn’t normally “my country right or wrong” but “what can we get away with” or “how can I avoid discomfort?” Then again, it’s the same problem for the experts. Like all humans, they like to act as if they are simply humble lovers of the common good—mere retired investors living on a pension in Florida.
But if the masses are asses, the intellectuals are sophists. Any of the sophists, one gets the sense, would have taken up the offer of his friends and escaped from Athens if the city unjustly sentenced him to death. The city-state, he might say, was clearly decaying as a political form and good riddance to it and all its injustice. My country right, but not wrong.
Socrates, of course, did not do so. He let his country unjustly sentence him to death and willingly accepted the punishment. My country right or . . . wrong? But then again, thankfully for us, he was no intellectual.
We hear more calls from intellectuals for a change to the Constitution and witness a sad lack of confidence in—along with a lack of understanding of—our form of government. Those actively thinking about alternative options, however, should consider: the only way to re-form is through the existing form.
Perhaps we should be thankful that much of the idiocy on display during patriotic holidays is simply ignorance of the past and the positing of fantastical alternatives. You can’t blame them for what they do not know and have never been taught to consider. It is easier to paint politics in black and white, and speak of intrinsically evil and intrinsically good regimes. It is easier to write it all off and throw it all out due to the growing cancers rather than perform difficult surgeries, especially when you don’t have the right tools or training.
Does anyone? Hell if I know. But we all must do what we can regardless. Sadly, the institutions that ought to provide us those willing to try and lead us forward have failed us. This is why the Publius Fellowship exists. It shouldn’t have to.
Neither should the American people constantly have to defend their own patriotism against arrogant friendly fire.
Don’t give in to the wry arrogance accompanying education and wealth that disdains patriotism. After all, it was your country which gave you that wealth and education. Don’t give in to the quiet whispers or the tortured qualifications that eat away at any real acknowledgment of the genuine good of this stunning land—qualifications based on abstract or romantic and childish assumptions about other times and places. If you want as bad or worse, look closer at history.
If you want better, look closely at our principles (start by reading the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech) and consider how we can better live up to them. If you love this country and your fellow citizens, persuade others, and thank the universe for the opportunity afforded you by your birth or your circumstance: a regime that still yet allows for the possibility that the force of persuasion rather than the force of arms can guide our communal human life.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”