July 4, 2007

The Case for Patriotism

One of the most arresting essays on patriotism was written by John Scharr back in the time of the Vietnam war.  Case for Patriotism

Perhaps, I like it so much because it focuses on legacy, on that extraordinary gift we have been given just because we were born in the USA, that gift entrusted to us to pass on, if not enlarged,  than intact and not diminished. 

Trouble is patriotism seems such an old-fashioned virtue. 

Millions of Americans are simply without patriotism, and this large group includes all classes and kinds of persons. They do not think unpatriotic thoughts, but they do not think patriotic thoughts either. The republic for them is a vague and distant thing absent from their hearts, lost to their eyes. Reflecting this difference, our great patriotic holidays, now administratively arranged to provide long weekends, are less occasions for shared remembrance and renewal of the political covenant than boosts to the consumer economy.

The word patriotism is a member of a family of words and largely takes its meanings from its membership. Some other members of the family are legacy covenant, reverence, loyalty, nurture, roots, citizen, debt, gift, republic. These words, which once clarified the matter, today encounter the same barrier of mystification-distrust-in- difference as does patriotism itself.

Sophisticated types find it simple-minded, lacking in nuance for the multi-perspectival, multi-cultural and diverse society we are today.  I used to be sophisticated, but I'm glad to say I've grown out of it.    Increasingly, the old-fashioned virtues seem to me to be the only ones that last, the ones necessary for a good society, the ones we must pass on.

  At its core, patriotism means love of one's homeplace, and of tthe familiar things and scenes associated with the homeplace. In this sense, patriotism is one of the basic human sentiments. ... We become devoted to the people, places and ways that nurture us, and what is familiar and nuturing seems also natural and right. This is the root of patriotism.
To be a patriot is to have a patrimony; or, perhaps more accurately, the patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor.  There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts;: one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt: or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality.

The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines what he or she is. .... The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those who will come after.  But such primary experiences are nearly inaccessible to us. We are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities.

There is something distinctly different about American patriotism, that reaches far beyond love of homeland or people.  Scharr calls it "covenanted patriotism"

Americans, a motley gathering of various races and cultures, were bonded together not by blood or religion, not by tradition or territory, not by the calls and traditions of a city, but by a political idea. We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles, and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world.

What our Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence

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.

Abraham Lincoln called "the electric cord ...that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."

So long as we remember.

John Quincy Adams wrote to his wife

Yesterday the greatest question was decided which was ever debated in America; and a greater perhaps never was, nor will be, decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, that those United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.

He also said
Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.

Do you make good use of it?  Is the Fourth of July just a day off with fireworks?  Or is it a time to consider again what patriotism means and what value it has in our lives today.

I quite like what Edmund Burke wrote about society being a partnership among the deceased, the living and the unborn. Even more than a partnership, Burke saw it as a trust, with the living as the trustees of an inheritance they must strive to enhance and pass on. 

Patriotism is the virtue that  conserves and safeguards the best  of the past, to pass on undiminished, even enhanced. 

I am a conservationist at heart.  Not just of the natural world, but of art and society and Western civilization.    And what Lincoln called "The Golden Apple" is this:

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.

Via Powerline, I just read what Calvin Coolidge said in 1926 on the 150th anniversary of the signing.

It is not so much then for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound. Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken. Whatever perils appear, whatever dangers threaten, the Nation remains secure in the knowledge that the ultimate application of the law of the land will provide an adequate defense and protection.

That Declaration, Coolidge said, came from a movement by the people

The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.

The most important civil document in the world

It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world.

A great spiritual document

A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

Exceedingly restful in its finality

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful.... If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.

God Bless America.

Posted by Jill Fallon at July 4, 2007 7:53 PM | Permalink