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The American left is fond of bumper sticker slogans. One of their favorites comes from arch-wit Samuel Johnson, who once reportedly remarked, “Patriotism is that last refuge of a scoundrel.” Johnson was describing false patriots – his 1755 dictionary defined “patriot” as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” Nonetheless, leftists have rallied around the anti-patriotic banner.
Their current leader is lauded scholar and campus hero professor Howard Zinn, quasi-Marxist author of the virulently anti-American “A People’s History of the United States.” On July 4, Zinn posted his most recent diatribe against patriotism: “On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.” He wrote, “We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history. We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”
Zinn’s point of view is radically blunt, but it is a mainstream component of American liberal thought. According to the left, the current chaos in Iraq is a result of American arrogance rather than religious sectarianism; America’s failure to embrace European relativism must be attributed to a benighted American exceptionalism.
Blaming the world’s ills on American nationalism is a predictable result of a broader attempt to undermine nationalism. Nationalism, in this view, inherently carries with it a pernicious distinction between “us” and “them” – a distinction that often leads to dehumanization and human rights abuses. Hannah Arendt articulately summed up the sentiment: “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends, and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”
This critique carries a grain of truth. Nationalism clearly creates distinctions – those within the nation are more highly prized than those outside it; national goals are more important than the goals of outsiders. And in many cases, these inherent traits of nationalism cause more harm than good. Nazi Germany’s nationalism meant Holocaust and fascist conquest; Soviet Russia’s nationalism meant purges of dissidents and tyrannical expansionism.
Nationalism, then, reflects the values of the nation. For some nations, nationalism is an evil. But it is an evil not because nationalism is inherently evil – it is an evil because the national values manifest in that particular brand of nationalism are themselves evil. A nation that seeks evil is evil; a nation that seeks good is good. The problem isn’t nations – the problem is values.
And not all values are equal. Those who oppose patriotism on its own terms either embrace the lowest sort of moral relativism or foolishly bank on a set of yet-to-be-discovered universally accepted values.
American patriotism does indeed create outsiders and insiders, as all value systems do. But the distinctions drawn in America are based on the highest set of values ever embodied in national form. American values discriminate based on hard work, determination, individual initiative and traditional moral values. They do not discriminate based on race, religion, class or sex.
American patriotism is the deeply held belief and hope that American values ought to be purveyed – that the spread of American values is good for humanity. Any American who stands against patriotism stands against American values – the same values responsible for the liberation of Europe, the end of Soviet communism, the spread of democracy around the globe and the most tolerant society ever devised.
“Is not nationalism – that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder – one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?” Zinn asks. Not American nationalism, untold millions answer. God blesses America uniquely because America blesses the world uniquely. Anti-Americanism is the last refuge of the fool; American patriotism is the sanctuary of the good.
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