Patriotism, Oikophobia and the Roots of Liberal Self-Regard
The issue of the patriotism of the political left, and of Barack Obama in particular, has been raised once again in recent weeks, instigated by the public comments of Rudy Giuliani, and then amplified, first by the outrage of Obama's defenders, and then by conservative pundits in response. These conversations always place leftists in an awkward position, because they wear their "citizens of the world" identities as badges of honor, and sneer at the notion that Americans might subscribe to Orwell's definition of patriotism as "devotion to a particular place and particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world." That people who use the term "flag-waver" as a pejorative might legitimately have their patriotism questioned still elicits in them a sputtering fury.
In private moments with pollsters, as Rich Lowry points out, self-identified "solid liberals" (40%) are significantly less likely than solid conservatives (72%) to "often feel proud to be an American", but it's considered especially bad form for anyone to call them on it. As concerns Obama, I was among many making the observation that a man who loves his country doesn't feel the need to "fundamentally transform" it, as Obama vowed to do on the eve of his first term. As Jonah Goldberg quipped at the time...try that with your wife; "Honey, I love you, I just want to fundamentally transform you".
Questions of another's patriotism are ones "that we are not allowed to ask in polite society," says Kevin Williamson. "Why? Because polite society does not want to hear the answers." Well, at least we are not allowed to ask them of leftists. No progressive batted an unapproving eye when Obama called George Bush unpatriotic for increasing the national debt, or habitually accused the GOP of "putting party over country" when they opposed one or another administration policy. Williamson says asking if Obama loves his country is a fair question ("Call me a rube for saying so..."). In fact, he asks "Why would anybody who sees the world the way Barack Obama does love America?" Another fair question.
For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison? A bunch of rotten slaveholders, hypocrites, and cowards even when their hearts were in the right places. The Declaration of Independence? A manifesto for the propertied classes. The Constitution? An artifact of sexism and white supremacy. The sacrifices in the great wars of the 20th century? Feeding the poor and the disenfranchised into the meat-grinder of imperialism. The gifts of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor? Blood money from self-aggrandizing robber barons.
All of this talk put me in mind of an old Goldberg File column called Patriotism Litmus Test. Its 2002 vintage makes it free of Obama references, but generally speaking, Jonah's rule of thumb is that "the more negative your view of America, the more positive your view of the United Nations," a tendency Obama has exhibited in his foreign policy with regard to Israel and Iran...and that's just this week. But Goldberg's main point is that we observe people's statements and behaviors, and draw conclusions about them, and we are free to comment on them publicly...except for patriotism...
...in American politics you can flagrantly indict someone's racial tolerance, their love of children, their charity, and so forth -- Democrats do it all the time to Republicans -- but if you "question" someone's patriotism you're an ogre, a bully, an (always ill-defined) "McCarthyite." Questioning an opponent's patriotism isn't necessarily nice or appropriate, but I don't know why it's any worse than Jesse Jackson suggesting Republicans are Nazis or Ralph Nader categorically asserting that businessmen are greedy.
The double standard for political rhetoric is something conservatives are used to, but it points up how conflicted, and therefore touchy, leftists are about patriotism and its cousin, the notion of American exceptionalism.
It's Not Superior, It's Unique (which kind of makes it superior, if you don't mind my saying so)
When the term "American exceptionalism" is employed, people seem to come to two quite different interpretations of it, and I think that drives much of the disagreement. If it were taken to mean purely American superiority, rejecting it as hubris, or as an unhealthy nationalism distinct from patriotism would be understandable, and one could see how people in other countries might well disagree. Obama's well known response to a 2009 question about it..."I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism" is fairly well balanced by the context of that remark, and many others statements of his acknowledging the good that America has done.
Still it falls short of recognizing the other, quite different interpretation of the term....that of American uniqueness, in other words, as an "exception" to the general rule of nations. Can there really be an argument that America, created as it was on the basis of the dual values of individual liberty and limited government, is unique in world history in that regard? Granted, much more is glommed onto the notion of exceptionalism than just those two concepts, among them the idea that because of our uniqueness, we have responsibilities in the world...to promote freedom and self-government and human rights abroad, for example. But all that is quite different from a simple assertion of superiority.
In a 2010 piece in NR by Ramesh Ponnuru (which I believe originally cited Rich Lowry as a co-author), titled An Exceptional Debate, an attempt is made to define the American creed:
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character -- especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force -- to form the core of American exceptionalism.
These brief excerpts don't do it justice, so save it for later if you can't read it all now.
Bill Maher's reaction to Giuliani's remarks were a crudely put, but perhaps representative summation of the leftist critique of conservative patriotism. That our love of country requires that we deny, or at the very least ignore, all of America's sins and foibles:
You know, when it comes to America, conservatives, they're a little like blackout drinkers. They remember all the good stuff about the night before, the laughs, the winning at beer pong, but no recollection of the bad. The pissing in the lobby fountain, groping coworkers, wiping out the Indians.
Which is a shame because you can't turn the page on America's bad stuff if you won't print the page to begin with, if you won't acknowledge that many of the good things that America has done are actually reversals of bad things America did.
I think it's great that gave the Indians the casino business in America and I'm proud of the Emancipation Proclamation. I'm proud of women's suffrage, of the Civil Rights Act, of legal gay marriage in 37 states and counting, but all of that wouldn't have been necessary if we hadn't been dicks in the first place.
This fetish with "making the perfect the enemy of the good" is by no means a new form of leftist argumentation. To hear them tell it, we have no standing to promote democracy abroad because we have aligned at times with foreign despots and we once sponsored a coup in Iraq. We have no standing to criticize the treatment of women in the Islamic world because we have a disproportionately small number of female CEO's in our Fortune 500 firms. Slavery is not viewed as a human institution that has existed since the dawn of man on every continent, but rather as a uniquely western sin, and the fact that we fought a bloody civil war in order to end it and to draw closer to our founding principles is to be ignored.
Other examples abound, but you get Maher's drift. To be critical of America's sins is to be further evolved. There is virtue in proclaiming America to be a racist hotbed...a global bully...a genocidal murderer. Love of country is déclassé. In their own minds, they are better people because they focus on America's faults and mistakes.
I have never felt particularly guilty personally about the stain of slavery on America. My ancestors came to this country after the Civil War, so I am not descended from slaveholders. But an old Charles Krauthammer column recently had me rethinking that sentiment. He doesn't believe in collective guilt per se, but he does believe that we all share responsibility for America's debts...
My American identity entitles me to certain corporate privileges: life, liberty, happiness pursued, columns uncensored. These benefits I receive wholly undeserved. They are mine by accident of birth. So are America's debts. I cannot claim one and disdain the other.
So we all must take the bitter with the sweet, and share collective responsibility for America's sins. I get that. None of that requires me to assume a default position of contempt for my country. And I suspect most of our leftist countrymen don't feel a genuine contempt for their country either. They are no doubt far too caught up in those "certain corporate privileges" of life, liberty and happiness pursued that Krauthammer was talking about to truly bear a real animus toward America.
I am left then to think of this pose as just that...a pose...one that helps them to feel good about themselves, and for which society has taught them they will not only pay no social penalty, but can expect to be thought of as worldly and wise.
The Road to the Good
In a recent issue of NR, Shelby Steele relates the story of a public appearance he made on behalf of a charitable cause. He was giving a talk in the course of which he happened to use the term "American exceptionalism". He was politely booed from a certain corner of the room for this affront to modern sensibilities, and what followed in his account struck me as an eloquent summary of the Left's intellectual contortions, in its attempt to shed its share of that collective responsibility for America's past:
Instantly -- almost before I could get the words out of my mouth -- quiet boos erupted from one side of the banquet room. Not loud ugly boos, but polite remonstrative boos, the kind that respectfully censure you for an impropriety. I was shocked. This was a young, bright, prosperous American audience reproaching me for mentioning the exceptionalism of our nation. It was as if they were saying, "Don't you understand that even the phrase 'American exceptionalism' is a hubris that evokes the evils of white supremacy? It is an indecency that we won't be associated with."
In booing, these audience members were acting out an irony: They were good Americans precisely because they were skeptical of American greatness. Their skepticism was a badge of innocence because it dissociated them from America's history of evil. To unreservedly buy into American exceptionalism was, for them, to turn a blind eye on this evil, and they wanted to make the point that they were far too evolved for that. They would never be like those head-in-the-sand Americans who didn't understand that American greatness was tainted by evil. And you could hear -- in the spontaneity of their alarm, like a knee jerking at the tap of a rubber hammer -- that their innocence of this evil was now a central part of their identity. It was reflex now; they didn't have to think about it anymore.
In its hunger for innocence, post-1960s liberalism fell into a pattern in which anti-Americanism -- the impulse, as the cliché puts it, to "blame America first" -- guaranteed one's innocence of the American past. Here in anti-Americanism was the Left's all-defining formula: relativism-dissociation-legitimacy-power. Anti-Americanism is essentially a relativism -- a false equivalency -- that says America, despite her greatness, is no better an example to the world than many other countries. And in this self-effacement there is a perfect dissociation from the American past, and thus a new moral legitimacy -- and so, finally, an entitlement to power.
In this adaptation from his new book, Steele goes on to discuss the irony that is "conservatism as counterculture". With liberalism controlling the commanding heights of the culture, a conservatism that is comfortable in the role of traditionalist finds itself today in the role of radical, and change agent. "When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean -- you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the "correct" meaning." He goes on:
The polite booing I elicited by mentioning American exceptionalism at the charity dinner also simply reflected -- for the booers and their cohort -- the meaning of things. It was a culturally conditioned response. American exceptionalism was a scandal that one booed in the name of humility and decency. Dissociation from it was the road to the Good. And this was so sealed a matter that booing me was only an expression of one's moral self-esteem -- the goodness in oneself bursting forth to censure a heretic.
But there is more to the story. After the polite boos from one side of the banquet room, there came a round of defiant cheers from the other side -- as if the booers and the cheerers had staked out their own territories. Clearly the cheers were a challenge to the idea that American exceptionalism was somehow anathema, something to be booed. I appreciated the moral support, but I knew the cheers had very little to do with me. The tension in the room was between those embarrassed by American exceptionalism and those who took pride in it.
The Bill Maher remarks quoted above are a great example of the disassociation from evil that Steele is talking about. Implicit in his sweeping indictment of conservatives as hungover frat boys who can't remember all the bad things America did last night is the presumption that he, and of course all of his friends and associates, were sipping tea in the parlor and taking notes on all the misbehavior. "Don't blame us. We ain't no flag-wavers".
Since this reigning post-60's liberalism controls the culture, and thereby gets to say what things mean, it tries to offload all of America's sins onto its political opposition, setting themselves up as guilt-free. As Steele put it, "conservatism--as a politics and a philosophy--became a centerpiece in liberalism's iconography of evil. It was demonized and stigmatized as an ideology born of nostalgia for America's past evils-- inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest."
Perhaps someone should tap the Bill Mahers of the world on the shoulder and remind them that their grasp of America's history isn't all it might be. For example, that their progressive movement has an execrable record on race....that they support the party of Bull Connor and Jim Crow, and have elevated Klansmen Hugo Black and Robert Byrd to high office...that it is their party that worked to preserve slavery and opposed desegregation and civil rights legislation...and that the conservatives they smear today belong to what has long been the party of civil rights. The Left's lazy explanation for the rise of the Republican south that "the southern bigots switched parties" has been exposed as the myth that it is, and all that remains is racial name-calling to take the place of substantive argument.
Not that this kind of myth-making is unusual. They have somehow convinced whole generations that Nazism was a movement of the political right, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was a right-wing wacko. But I digress....(what do you mean, again?)
Not Just a River in Egypt
It's not that self-styled liberals don't feel guilt for the sins of America and the larger West. No doubt they do...hence the need to first, shift blame for them onto the people they constantly characterize as wanting to "turn back the clock" to those evil days, and of course to deny their own considerable role in that history. Lean Forward, and all that. In a recent piece on the thought of James Burnham, Matthew Continetti gets at the root of liberal self-regard. He quotes Burnham's belief that "Human beings believe an ideology, as a rule, not because they are convinced rationally that it is true but because it satisfies psychological and social needs and serves, or seems to serve, individual or group interests", and then continues... (internal quotes are of Burnham)
Guilt is the psychological need satisfied by liberalism. Not only is man a fallen creature, according to Burnham; man is conscious of his fallen nature. And such awareness produces in him existential dread, unease about the world, a restlessness that manifests itself in enthusiastic activity. What soothes this dread for most people in most places at most times is religion. [...] But modern society, especially educated society, is secular. The religious answer is ignored, regarded as a private affair, attacked and subverted. What is an affluent and credentialed and professional and secular man to do? "Liberalism," Burnham writes, "permits him to translate his guilt into the egalitarian, anti-discrimination, democratist, peace-seeking liberal principles, and to transform his guilty feeling into" a "passion for reform." Liberalism for Burnham is a form of political religion. It responds to the tragic facts of life by denying those facts and substituting myths.
"For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this: that the liberal, and the group, nation, or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself."
Whether it is the Soviet Union, Third World insurgents, the criminal underclass, student revolutionaries, Vladimir Putin, the Ayatollah, the Castro brothers, or Hamas, whether it is rioters, drug pushers, or pornographers, liberalism offers reasons to justify, sympathize with, and appease the agents of violence and disorder and decline. Acting like a narcotic, it enables the intellectual "to leave the real world and take refuge in that better world of his ideology where tigers purr like kittens and turn in their claws to the United Nations." Which is why Burnham called liberalism "suicidal": It "permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution."
For the Left, in anti-Americanism, there is virtue. It's a "Get Out of Guilt Free" card
There really ought to be a name for this felt need to denigrate that which is ours and to elevate that which is not.
Turns out, there is.
The estimable Roger Scruton put a name to it in his essay "The Need for Nations", and expanded on it in a 2006 speech in Belgium. Excerpting....
This repudiation of the national idea is the result of a peculiar frame of mind that has arisen throughout the Western world since the Second World War, and which is particularly prevalent among the intellectual and political elites. No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with 'them' against 'us', and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably 'ours'. I call the attitude oikophobia - the aversion to home - by way of emphasizing its deep relation to xenophobia, of which it is the mirror image. Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the Left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers.
A chronic form of oikophobia has spread through the American universities, in the guise of political correctness, and loudly surfaced in the aftermath of September 11th, to pour scorn on the culture that allegedly provoked the attacks, and to side by implication with the terrorists.
The oikophobe repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed from on high by the EU or the UN, and defining his political vision in terms of cosmopolitan values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community. The oikophobe is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of oikophobia that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it.
Scruton was referring to the phenomenon is his native UK and Europe at the time of course, but a year later, James Taranto drew on Scruton's diagnosis at the time of the Ground Zero mosque controversy, noting the ways its American version was necessarily different:
There is one important difference between the American oik and his European counterpart. American patriotism is not a blood-and-soil nationalism but an allegiance to a country based in an idea of enlightened universalism. Thus our oiks masquerade as - and may even believe themselves to be -superpatriots, more loyal to American principles than the vast majority of Americans, whom they denounce as "un-American" for feeling an attachment to their actual country as opposed to a collection of abstractions.
Yet the oiks' vision of themselves as an intellectual aristocracy violates the first American principle ever articulated: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . ."
This cannot be reconciled with the elitist notion that most men are economically insecure bitter clinging intolerant bigots who need to be governed by an educated elite. Marxism Lite is not only false; it is, according to the American creed, self-evidently false. That is why the liberal elite finds Americans revolting.
He's not the first to notice that the America loved by the left is "a collection of abstractions" as opposed to the one we actually have, warts and all. Hence the never-ending imperative to fundamentally transform...to straighten the crooked timber of humanity through enlightened government.
As for our President, he is hardly atypical among leftists. Ponnuru again, from "The Exceptional Debate"
The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country's honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation. [...] In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it. From Richard Rorty to Todd Gitlin, they have proclaimed their allegiance to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being rather than to the one they inhabit.
The individualism (and limited government) on which our nation was founded, and its opposite number, collectivism, both have addresses in American politics. The Left can argue that they advance the superior social and economic model for human flourishing (as long as they ignore its spotty résumé). What they cannot argue is that their imperative to constantly expand the size, scope and power of the State is in any way authentically American. Small wonder then that they are conflicted on the issue of patriotism.