What Patriotism should mean in Modern-Day America
“Now […] at the height of modern progress, we behold unprecedented outbreaks of hatred and violence; we have seen whole nations desolated by war and turned into penal camps by their conquerors; we find half of mankind looking upon the other half as criminal. Everywhere occur symptoms of mass psychosis. Most portentous of all, there appear diverging bases of value, so that our single planetary globe is mocked by worlds of different understanding. These signs of disintegration arouse fear, and fear leads to desperate unilateral efforts toward survival, which only forward the process.”
— Richard M. Weaver, ‘Ideas Have Consequences’
Recently while passing through a remote Southern village, I found myself wondering why every street corner was adorned with a small American flag. Confused, I tried to recall which national holiday would land on the third week in September. It was only after reaching the outskirts of town though that I realized the display was in honor of the 21st anniversary of 9/11 — Patriot’s Day.
I doubt that I was the only American to be caught unawares. Each September 11th approaches more quietly than the last, and every year we are left wondering whether our wounds have finally healed or we have just learned to ignore them. To recall that tragedy is to conjure a world that feels entirely alien now. The flag-waving of yesteryear elicits embarrassment, and the righteous anger that surged in the early days of the Global War on Terror has all but evaporated. Twenty years, trillions of dollars, and the best blood of a generation yielded none of the fruits promised by that alien world. Instead, the dangers lurking beyond our borders remain, and enemies both seen and unseen continue to plot our destruction. If our intentions were ever noble, surely they were borne out of a desire to protect the near and dear. But soon defending ourselves became a project to transform the world, and along the way we became disfigured ourselves. Now, we struggle to articulate what it was that we were defending in the first place. Was it freedom? Democracy? The homeland?
I found myself in a similar quandary as a young soldier laboring on the edges of the American imperium. My reasons for enlisting in the Army during the Global War on Terror were many. I longed for adventure, and I wanted to prove myself as a man. I also come from a long military tradition reaching back to the early 17th century, and the sacrifices of my forebearers, no matter how distant, have always inspired thoughts and actions. But above all, I believed my nation had been attacked, and I felt a responsibility to defend my family, friends, neighbors and homeland from enemies. However misguided my perception of the world was at the time, that sense of obligation to the near and dear was paramount. Looking back, it was always the essence of my patriotism.
In troubled times like these it should come as no surprise that there is little appetite for patriotism. Exiled to the realm of ideas, where custom, culture, history, and tradition are dissected and dissolved, America is increasingly hard to love. We no longer know how to define our homeland, much less our relation to it. And in an atmosphere like this, can we really fault ourselves for losing faith when America repeatedly fails to embody its Apollonian image or represents the worst impulses of empire? When patriotism is a bumper sticker, a slogan, a shakedown, or merely an assent to nebulous ideals, should we mourn its loss? Is there still a place for it?
Born under a blue sky in November on a lonely Pennsylvania green, America the idea owes its existence to the genius of an Illinois railsplitter. Just months after the greatest bloodletting in American history, Abraham Lincoln delivered a 272-word address at the dedication of a newly established National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Unlike popular speeches of the period, these remarks at Gettysburg were short and bereft of historical analogy. But Lincoln’s words were poetic and brimming with powerful religious overtones. Through this gnostic injunction, the Railsplitter was able to galvanize his cause, quietly bury the Old Republic of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and inaugurate the ‘new birth’ of a nation. Much of our modern understanding of patriotism, national identity, and our country’s origins can be traced to this mythic juncture.
Lincoln’s selective reading of the Declaration of Independence is a cornerstone of our political religion today, and his portrayal of the most devastating war in American history as a purification ritual is widely accepted in North and South alike. Abraham Lincoln’s radical departure from the historical and legalistic confines of the nation’s first founding is his most lasting achievement. Whereas the Declaration of Independence is bound to a certain place and time in history, with a specific people striving to recover their political inheritance as Englishmen, the Gettysburg Address recognizes no such boundaries. Instead, the nation Lincoln speaks into being is one that defers to the primacy of truths far beyond the limitations of law, history and human nature. Uprooted from its ancient constraints, the American nation ceases to be a polity and is rendered an aspirational project – forever condemned to a process of becoming. This is the America of the second founding, America as an idea. And though the disinterested patriot might not fully recognize his conversion and the gulf that separates him from his so-called Founding Fathers, he will inevitably articulate his own patriotism as the pursuit of amorphous ideals, with freedom and equality foremost among them.
But the problem is that in the tyranny of abstract principles, values, and ideas, nothing is too sacred to sacrifice on the altar of disembodied ideals. For this reason, America as an idea offers little protection against mobs, idealogues, and fanatics. Instead, the corrosive project moves at a breakneck pace, and patriotism becomes incoherent. Mass democracy leaves our national symbols starched of meaning, and the star-spangled rhetoric of politicians engenders disgust rather than devotion. For decades we have witnessed the United States government varnish its every blunder, scandal, and defeat with a patriotic gloss, all the while blaming the public’s treachery for its own corruption and deceit. And an empire of elite self-interest burnished with decidedly American universalisms spans the globe, even as the country of its birth remains frail and shrinking.
At some point every veteran of the Global War on Terror has peeked behind the curtain to witness the American empire’s unsightly entrails. For many, there comes a bitter realization that simple loyalty to one’s people and place does not steer America’s war machine, but rather provides an endless supply of fuel ripe for abuse. To find yourself in the belly of that beast and to behold the corruption and deceit firsthand is to wrestle with a set of existential questions that the American public is just now beginning to grasp. And yet even after peering into Leviathan’s maw, a dedicated number of American warfighters stayed in the fight; some, like Joe Kent, serving more than ten combat deployments. This dedication is commonly mistaken for concurrence with US foreign policy or allegiance to the federal bureaucracy, but if my own experience is any guide, the devotion practiced by everyday men and women throughout our most recent conflicts was most firmly rooted in their loyalty to one another — to the near and dear. When ideas failed, there was still a brother to your left and right.
Many Americans have already had their funeral for the country and are now busy dividing spoils or building castles in the air. Those who lack the means or wits to loot tend to anticipate some kind of collapse or moral victory on the horizon — a chance to wipe the slate clean and build something better from scratch. Though the story’s hero inevitably varies, it is a common daydream. But retreating into the abstract is an age-old temptation that rarely bears fruit. In these airy realms, the limitations of the physical world are overcome through passion; relationships, habits, customs, and whole societies are redesigned or invented out of whole cloth; and human nature itself — a perennial thorn to dreamers everywhere — is defeated and redeemed through the power of ideas. Perhaps this is the second founding’s greatest obstacle: even our purported solutions usher us back into the realm of ideology and only further the process. For those who cannot be consoled through corruption or apocalyptic visions, what can be done?
To understand true patriotism, we need to recover our country from the realm of ideas and conceive of our homeland much as our fathers of the first founding did. To the Revolutionary generation, patriotism was a devotion and a responsibility to one’s people and place. Honoring these attachments required a strong sense of obligation and personal virtue, and it was expected of every man, no matter how lowly his station. Patriotism for the American colonists was to prioritize the particular over the universal, the real over the abstract, and to recognize one’s commitment to the living, the unborn, and the long dead. These Americans understood themselves to be beneficiaries of a political inheritance that had accumulated over centuries. They had a keen awareness of their collective past, the origins of their rights as Englishmen, and they commonly traced their habits, customs, and traditions back centuries to their Anglo-Saxon forebearers, who they believed to be a free people and the original authors of English liberty. Jealously guarding that liberty was considered a patriotic duty and it bordered on obsession. To the American colonist, his rights and liberty were not the product of an abstruse theory or some gnostic force; they were his birthright, and as such, they could be seized by the “grasping” and “tenacious” hand of tyrannical power.
This patriotic resistance to any and all encroachments on the ancient rights of Englishmen animated the loyal opposition of Lord Bolingbroke’s Country Party in England and later the restorative revolution in colonial America. It became the lifeblood for all revolutionary ferment in the colonies and forged an unbreakable bond between disinterested commoners and the educated, aristocratic exponents of American independence — all firmly rooted in the near and dear. When Jefferson approved of “a little rebellion now and then,” he was not endorsing the endless pursuit of ethereal goals and ideals. He was speaking within a continuum of historical rights and liberties dutifully tended, carefully guarded, and from time to time, restored through vigorous action. This was the simple yet sacred responsibility of the patriot.
I believe we can and should recover that patriotism; a simple obligation to those things that are embodied, not to lofty ideals and aspirational projects. You cannot transcend your own national history any more than you can create heaven on earth, and attempting to do so will keep us all trapped inside the tyranny of ideas. We Americans are exhausted from living in a state of perpetual revolution, and we bristle more and more when ideology dictates our most basic needs and desires. But these might just be the final moments of America the idea. And Patriotism – the way it was originally intended – might be the only effective tool we have against this ideological regime.