Identity, Progressivism, and American Patriotism


Ever since I started working full-time in politics about three or four years ago, I noticed something about myself that had not always been clear when I was a younger man: I really, really love America. I don't just mean this is the sense that I think America is one cool place among many (which it is), that it has great potential that remains unfulfilled (which it does), or that I just feel a strong personal connection to American culture (which I do). I mean it in the sense that I don't want to live anywhere else in the world besides America, and that I feel a strong obligation toward civic and institutional engagement within the country. I mean it in the sense that, dare I say it, I actually feel patriotic when it comes to America.

More in the extended entry.
Now, I know that some of you will think I am reifying a right-wing caricature of progressives by hesitating to personally self-identify as patriotic, and /or by implying that there are there is a tendency among a fairly substantial group of progressives to hesitate making such a self-identification. Let me just state that those caricatures of the left as unpatriotic as simply bullshit, and I don't buy them for a second. Sure, sometimes when I self-identify as patriotic to some of my progressive friends, it can often result in wincing, muffled groans, or other signs of discomfort. The problem many progressive have with self-identifying as patriotic, however, is not what right-wingers believe it to be. Of course progressives love their country. Rather, the problem is based jointly on the common usage of the term "patriotism," and on the cultural underpinnings of the contemporary middle and upper class progressivism that hesitates to self-identify with any form of fixed cultural identity.

The concept of patriotism, in its most frequent vernacular usage, has been dominated by (and, in an American context, contorted by), conservatism to an extent that it has developed a meaning that is ultimately an anathema to contemporary progressives. More often than not, "patriotism" means an allegiance to a specific, fixed, unique, and discrete cultural identity. Granted, this is not a new usage of the word, nor is it one that arose in a strictly American context. Since at least the early nineteenth century, the concept of patriotism had been intimately connected to the idea of nationhood, which in a modern concept has largely been interchangeable with the idea that sovereignty and self-rule should being granted to, and delineated along the lines of, discrete, unique and identifiable cultural groups. Many national unification and post-colonial movements were largely based on this idea, whether we are discussing the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860's (Italians and Germans should not be separated into multiple state governments), the struggle for independence in countries like Ireland and India in the 19th and 20th centuries (Ireland should be ruled by Irish and India should be ruled by Indians), or even government-led, linguistic homogenizing policies in places like China (all citizens of a country should have a shared cultural identity). Patriotism, in when understood in this quite common context, is an allegiance less to a state government than it is an allegiance to a distinct cultural identity that itself serves as the ultimate moral and legal justification for the existence of any given state government. The state government flows from the cultural identity, and thus patriotism refers to the cultural identity, not the state government.

And therein lies the problem. Allegiance to a fixed cultural identity is fundamentally at odds with a progressive worldview. Over the past two years, I have written about this at great length in articles such as Maybe It Is A Battle Of Civilizations, Try Something New, and The End of the 1960's? Differing concepts of the value of identity form one of the core differences between progressivism and conservatism: pluralism vs. cultural supremacy, and fluid identity vs. fixed identity. Since progressivism highly values both pluralism and fluid identity, the long-standing, dominant use of the term "patriotism" described in the paragraph above clearly becomes a difficult term with which ideological progressives can self-identify. How is it possible for someone to value both pluralism and fluid identity while simultaneously self-identifying allegiance to a fixed, idealized--even absolutist--cultural identity? That is not very easy, and does not come without a lot of internal tension and self-contradiction.

Or does it? Turning more specifically to the issue of American progressives feeling patriotic, I think there is a quite clear resolution to this seeming contradiction. America both is and always has been--or at least supposedly is and at least was always supposed to be--fundamentally a place where pluralism and fluid identity reigned supreme. Unlike "old world" and / or pre-colonial nation-states, America has never found the moral and legal underpinnings of its sovereignty and self-rule flow from a discrete, unified cultural group. In fact, America was founded on exactly the opposite principles: no national religion, no national language, no national media, no national ethnic identity, welcoming borders, and freedom from being forced to cohere with larger cultural norms. We even fought a civil war over this idea, and pluralism won out. (Can the civil war be accurately described as a fight for the cultural distinctness and superiority of, and resulting need of independent sovereignty for, nineteenth century southern white culture from the rest of America? I think it can.) American patriotism is thus the opposite of patriotism in many other countries, and thus in no way causes a self-identification contradiction for progressives. Theocons and anti-immigration cultural supremacists will of course disagree, which is why they regularly argue for things like America being a Christian nation, for keeping brown people out of the country, for mandating prayer in public schools, or making English the official national language. They believe in, and want everyone to cohere with, a discrete and distinct cultural identity for America. Quite frankly, I can hardly think of anything less American and, within an American context, less patriotic than all of that.

So yeah, I'm patriotic, and I don't think American progressives should have any difficulty self-identifying as such. The values that serve as the underpinnings of the foundation of, and justification for, our country are progressive values. As a nation, we have never fully lived up to those ideals, but isn't part of the point that we are always trying to live up to those ideals, and that we all have to work to help us live up to those ideals? I think it is, and it certainly reminds me of a famous poem by Langston Hughes that I have often heard progressives quote. A willingness to engage the fight to help America live up to its ideals is, to me, both true American progressivism and true American patriotism.

And yeah, I know this post is weird, because it is Easter instead of the Fourth of July, but as a blogger sometimes you just have to write about the topic that is on your mind or the spark behind the story is lost forever.

Tags: Culture, identity, Ideology, progressive movement (all tags)



American Patriotism

Amen.  And it's time that the Democrats put some effort into laying claiming to being the 'patriotic' party.  Until now, the GOP has had a lock on that institution.

BTW, are you attending Daily Kos this year?   I'm wondering if the notion of progressive fundraising/infrastructure-building is going to be an agenda item?

by global yokel 2007-04-08 03:49PM | 0 recs
Re: American Patriotism

I'm sure Bowers has 'attended' Daily Kos multiple times in one day this year, even. Perhaps you mean Yearly Kos? :)

by PsiFighter37 2007-04-08 08:59PM | 0 recs

   Right-wingers equate patriotism with militarism. It permeates their language -- supporting the Iraq war is, to them, the "patriotic" thing to do, even as the adventure becomes more and more of a trainwreck every passing week.

  True patriotism, of course, goes well beyond the shallow sloganeering and mindless flag-waving of the right. True patriotism involves working in the best interests of one's country, making one's country the best place it could possibly be -- and that includes (actually, it requires) setting one's country back on a proper path when it starts to veer off course. And by advocating that the United States get out of the Iraq civil war, I am acting in the best interests of my country -- the Iraq war has morally and financially bankrupted us.

 If Germans had been a little less "patriotic" in the 1930's (using the right-wing interpretation of the word), they would have spared their country a horrible fate. Germans who did truly love their country rejected Hitler and all he stood for.

  If I didn't love America, I would just let Bush keep on running our country into the ground without comment or action. If I didn't love America, I would not have gotten involved in my local Democratic Party, where I am now a Central Committee member. If I didn't love America, I wouldn't be pestering my elected representatives on various issues.

  Right-wingers are as wrong on the concept of patriotism as they are on everything else.


by Master Jack 2007-04-08 04:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Patriotism

It may be of interest here to mention the case of Carl Schmitt.  Carl Schmitt was perhaps the ultimate "patriot" in the right-wing sense of the word (to him the political was just this: friends and enemies, and your enemy is someone you might go to war (real, existential war) with), well into the 30s, he wanted Hindenburg to be more authoritarian and really crack down on the Nazis and Communists and other opponents of the Weimar constitution, in order to preserve the Weimar Republic and Germany.  Whether that would have worked, we'll never know, but we know that his counselled course of action was not heeded, and the Nazis did come to power.  It's very well possible that, were there more "patriots" like Schmitt, the Nazis would never have come to power.

But, I think what illustrates the capriciousness of right-wing "patriotism" as a bulwark against oppression, evil and other lameness, is this: When the Nazis did come to power, Schmitt became their biggest cheerleader and powerhouse intellectual apologist.  So it's a fickle philosophy, which is often at best only accidentally on the right side.

(The following sentence, though, I take issue with:
If I didn't love America, I would just let Bush keep on running our country into the ground without comment or action.
I'm not sure I believe this, and I think you're selling yourself short.  Bush is running the world into the ground, it doesn't require a love of country to care about the people his policies are damaging.  I expect you might be less passionate, but you don't strike me as someone who would be apathetic were it not for his patriotism.)

by notapipe 2007-04-08 05:01PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

I always thought that Al Franken summed it up nicely in his "Lies..." book.  He basically said that a conservative loves his country the way a 4 year old loves 'Mommy.'  Mommy is good, eveything Mommy does is good, and if you talk bad about Mommy, then you must be bad.  Whereas a Liberal loves their country the way adults love each other.  If your friend/loved one does something really bad you call them on it, but you offer to help correct it.

by Derzocrat 2007-04-08 04:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

by heyAnita 2007-04-09 04:12AM | 0 recs
Though it may chafe some...

...this is a very important post, Chris...

Thanks for writing it. Independence Day or not.

by Vermonter 2007-04-08 04:19PM | 0 recs
quick edit

in the spirit of collective editing -- i think you mean, in first paragraph, potential that remains UNfulfilled!

by alw 2007-04-08 04:22PM | 0 recs
Re: quick edit
by Chris Bowers 2007-04-08 04:35PM | 0 recs
I am Feeling Patriotic Too
and I refuse to let the right-wing nutcases or anyone else deny me that feeling. I love America enough to know that we have a lot of work to do to fulfil her promise and that its not going to be easy. The easy things are usually not worth fighting for and I believe that the American is definitely worth fighting for.
by Bloggernista 2007-04-08 04:25PM | 0 recs
A fixed (plural/fluid) identity

I'm not entirely convinced you're not endorsing a certain level of fixedness in cultural identity, or at least, staying based in one.  Specifically, I'm not convinced you're not committed to a fixed culture of liberal pluralism.  It's not, all in all, a terribly bad culture to identify with, and, compared to most monolithic cultures, far more reasonable, fair and unimposing.  But it has a certain form of hegemony.  I think one of the best examples is the one you gave: the civil war.  In defense of a universalist constitution and government, as well as (for many northerners) individual rights, our government intervened, at the point of a gun, to prevent self-rule by a deviant, militant cultural identity.  We would not allow parents to bind the feet of their daughters, no matter how important some group may claim it is to their cultural identity.  And we have good reasons to do so, not least of which is the recognition of the humanity of children, or blacks, or women, or queers, or any other oppressed group.

And all of this is good, very good.  But it is also a fixed cultural identity, one which I expect you would refuse to give up.  (And if so, I'm right there with you.)

(Of course, I think there's a great many things to be said for the superiority, morally, of a pluralistic liberal identity over a monolithic identity, not least of which is that it is inclined towards more pacifism, acceptance and tolerance than monolithic identities (though I think Schmitt correctly identified the flip side of this: it can lead some to see their enemies as inhuman opponents of liberty who must be eliminated, e.g. neo-conservatism).  I just think it's not entirely neutral.)

by notapipe 2007-04-08 04:40PM | 0 recs
This is a very important post

I expect it to be blog-linked to death, and will indeed help the process.  A masterpiece in its humanity, its fire and yes its patriotism.

by Bruce Godfrey 2007-04-08 05:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti
Chris, I am glad you feel this way.
I am torn.  I love reading the history and feel some connection to this country.  but, my mom is from France and I have family there so, I also feel something for there as well.  I don't know if that is wrong but, it this strange personal feeling to France that goes deep inside.
So, I feel somewhat half and half.  I do love the countryside, the history and the politics.  But, sometimes I just feel pulled.
by vwcat 2007-04-08 06:38PM | 0 recs
Patriotism vs. Nationalism

The modern notion of patriotism has its origins in Renaissance republicanism.  While kingdoms and principalities were much more extensive, and commanded much in the way of raw power, the republics had extraordinarily high levels of civic participation--including military service--because their citizens had a direct stake in their government, even more: something closely akin to a family relationship.  Patriotism was what they felt, and it was a commonplace that only citzens of a republic could feel such an emotion.  (Pluralism was inherent in republics, which operated by a division of political power among the various strata and factions of the city.  The republic was loved patriotically precisely because it united them while respecting and preserving their diversity.)

Remember, military service elewhere was predominately an upper-class or professional matter, and most people had little contact with any form of government beyond the purely local.  This did not change until the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The 19th Century was the century of nationalism, the century in which nationalism as an ideology first became so deeply rooted that large numbers of ordinary people would fight and die for it. And in WWI, they did precsiely that--millions and millions of them.

For continental Europe, democracy came after nationalism.  When one considers how narrow the franchise was in America, the same can be said for us as well, though in a somewhat different sense.  Nonetheless, they are clearly distinct from the republican model of patriotism, which springs directly from the fact that citizens have a say, as well as a stake in their government.

Thus, while it is commonplace to use the term "patriotism" when one is talkikng about nationalism, the two are not equivalent at all.  The patriot loves their homeland because it is something they make and are made by, something they are directly responsible for, and engaged in.    The relationship of the patriot to their homeland is modeled by George Lakoff's Nurturant Parent family, as opposed to the Strict Parent model, which applies to nationalism, in which the individual is clearly subservient to the state, which defines the parameters of good and evil that the individual then has to live by.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-08 06:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Patriotism vs. Nationalism

the idea of union, at least in some sense - while at the same time preserving diversity is a precise model for the internet and its effect

My love of the net and its effect on nation states is what drives me. I love how one can.. drink deep... from that spring of knowledge.

I guess you could say I'm a netriot.

by heyAnita 2007-04-09 04:19AM | 0 recs
Patriotism v. Nationalism

What you're reaching for,IMO, is that conservatives confuse patriotism with nationalism. See also George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism."

by maha 2007-04-08 07:19PM | 0 recs
Re: Patriotism v. Nationalism

Rev. Forrest Church of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC wrote on a similar theme four years ago, during the run-up to King George's War... 84.shtml

American arrogance can only fan the flames American policy is designed to extinguish. One sets a backfire to control a burning forest only when the winds are favorable. Otherwise the backfire spreads the very flames that it was intended to quench.

Iraq aside, not only does the impulse of American nationalism isolate the United States and turn others against us, it rescinds our nation's greatest gift. As the world's leaders struggle to act together--whether to slow global warming, ban land mines, combat racism, or create an International Criminal Court--the president of the United States is conspicuously absent. We have isolated ourselves from the very councils we are charged, by both power and principle, to lead. At a time when E pluribus unum--however idealistic, however difficult to accomplish--is becoming the world's motto, the United States, whose founders gave this vision as a gift to the world, increasingly stands alone.

What a lost opportunity this represents. Recognizing their own tears in American eyes, people throughout the world expressed unprecedented sympathy for our nation in the wake of 9/11. President Jacques Chirac of France proclaimed, "We are all Americans now." Today even America is divided against itself. To have squandered both the world's affection and the united spirit of our citizenry in little more than a year represents a tragic triumph of American nationalism over American patriotism. We need a few more patriots.

by KTinOhio 2007-04-08 08:48PM | 0 recs
Great Post Chris
It's fair to say conservatives have been effective in co-opting the symbols of American democracy but liberals have acquiesced in this appropriation due to their unwillingness to openly express their patriotism--commitment to (or should I say their ownership of) the ideas and principles behind our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Call it patriotism. I attribute this to cynicism or some other social malady. And yes I said that. It seems to me our country is in trouble right now because the ideals behind our democracy are no longer a visceral part of our political thought as a nation--particularly on the left where they really matter. Watching the Constitution suffer a brutal attack from within by the right-wing has made me very much aware of my patriotic feelings for this country. This is why I am attracted to the progressive movement. I see a lot of patriotism in the political activists of today. The beautiful ideas that actually support pluralism are difficult to maintain even in the best of times. They must be kept alive.
by anothergreenbus 2007-04-08 07:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

Progressives are patriots because they love their country not for what it is today, but for what it will be in the future. And we very much identify with the forward-looking vision of Jefferson and Paine who foresaw the grab for power that came to pass with Nixon and George II. For conservatives, especially ones who are wealthy, they have no vision of a better future because to question the current state of affairs is to question their own patriotism, from what I can gather.

by joesaho 2007-04-08 08:00PM | 0 recs
Interesting approach

Not feeling patriotic enough?  Simply redefine it!  Wow, simple...

by DetCord 2007-04-08 08:05PM | 0 recs
Chesterton on the American Ideal

G. K. Chesterton's book "What I saw in America" is well-worth reading, and adds much to this thread. Here's a couple of excerpts:

America is the only nation
in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed
is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity
in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only
piece of practical politics that is also theoretical
politics and also great literature. It enunciates that
all men are equal in their claim to justice, that govern-
ments exist to give them that justice, and that their
authority is for that reason just.

*  *  *

But there are some things about
America that a man ought to see even with his eyes
shut. One is that a state that came into existence
solely through its repudiation and abhorrence of the
British Crown is not likely to be a respectful copy
of the British Constitution. Another is that the chief
mark of the Declaration of Independence is something
that is not only absent from the British Constitution,
but something which all our constitutionalists have
invariably thanked God, with the jolliest boasting and
bragging, that they had kept out of the British Consti-
tution. It is the thing called abstraction or academic
logic. It is the thing which such jolly people call
theory ; and which those who can practise it call
thought. And the theory or thought is the very last
to which English people are accustomed, either by
their social structure or their traditional teaching. It
is the theory of equality. It is the pure classic con-
ception that no man must aspire to be anything more
than a citizen, and that no man should endure to be
anything less. It is by no means especially intelligible
to an Englishman, who tends at his best to the virtues
of the gentleman and at his worst to the vices of the
snob. The idealism of England, or if you will the
romance of England, has not been primarily the
romance of the citizen. But the idealism of America,
we may safely say, still revolves entirely round the
citizen and his romance. The realities are quite
another matter, and we shall consider in its place the
question of whether the ideal will be able to shape
the realities or will merely be beaten shapeless by them.
The ideal is besieged by inequalities of the most
towering and insane description in the industrial and
economic field. It may be devoured by modern
capitalism, perhaps the worst inequality that ever
existed among men. Of all that we shall speak later.
But citizenship is still the American ideal ; there is
an army of actualities opposed to that ideal ; but there
is no ideal opposed to that ideal.

by TomL 2007-04-08 08:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

   I feel a lot more patriotic when I'm abroad.  Mostly because when I'm abroad I see how good we Americans have it.  Foreigners are super-cynical about government compared to Americans.  They don't feel the need to participate, criticize, or even pay attention.  We at least have a semblance of all three.

by cilerder86 2007-04-08 08:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

Most Americans are idealistic at a very fundamental level, and feel discomfort when their country doesn't live up to its own ideals.  I'm not saying others don't have similar feelings about their own countries, but their countries weren't founded on the idea that the people have ultimate power.

by KTinOhio 2007-04-08 08:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Identity, Progressivism, and American Patrioti

Brother, you've got to keep it up with this. These think pieces of yours are fantastic. Keep asking for money as you need it. This needs to be written, disseminated, distilled, remixed, and more.

I only humbly ask that when I finally get my shit together you wont be pissed when I rip you off and turn posts like these into grist for video segments. ;)

by Josh Koenig 2007-04-08 08:48PM | 0 recs
Chris, Your Sunday Night Extended Entry Pieces

are wonderful. I enjoy them and identify with them every time. Each time I feel I can read tombs of epistemology and post-structural methodology woven through the pattern of the thoughts conveyed. I can invest in this.
I'm glad you've given "resolution to this seeming contradiction" for me -- I cry when I read Whitney v. California, the Ghettysburg Address and the letters from the fallen in this month's Newsweek, but I can rarely express patriotism without going out of my way to avoid sounding jingoistic, and the final product loses much of its humanity.

I could write volumes on a similar point -- Religion; how progressive engagement is the best way I, and many other progressive-culture-ites know to follow the example of Christ. I guess I should find a way to take the Christianist feeling out of expressions (not just sentiments) of Progressive Christianity, just as you took the Jingoistic feeling out of expressions Progressive Patriotism.

Thanks for the ideas.

by msnook 2007-04-09 01:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Chris, Your Sunday Night Extended Entry Pieces

I think christianity is a good example of why the qualifiers aren't really needed. The insight Chris is expressing here, is that he has found in himself, simple patriotism.

The very nature of that patriotism calls out, at times,  for its own redefinition. Those who would curiously attend to qualification of their christianity as 'progressive' - to me, at least, are simply defining the same thing twice.

Progress is a nice concept but if patriotism cannot in its definition encapsulate action and progress - how can it be patriotism? How does one love, without giving of oneself?

by heyAnita 2007-04-09 04:34AM | 0 recs

I would like to think I'm quite patriotic. It's one of the reasons I signed up for the Armed Services in the first place after all. And I've been hurt deeply by this administration, especially when we passed the MCA act, because it is fundamentally UNAMERICAN.

Here's to getting our country back.

by LnGrrrR 2007-04-09 10:03AM | 0 recs
i'm sure i'll be hated for saying this

but i'm no longer a patriot, or nationalist. simply, the concept of a nation is just an idea, and i don't invest myself in many ideologies anymore.

i was so sickened by the majority response to 911, and later the invasion of iraq. people's minds shut off, and emotion and sentiment drove them. and look at the mess we're in today as a result. it's great to love your neighbors, and your community, and i suppose your nation, but in end i'm not looking for more mindless emotions driving policy. indeed, i'm looking for much less of that.

why am i in politics? because if i'm not, my life will be even more miserable than it already is as a gay black progressive woman living in a country in which Imus is a very popular radio host. it's completely selfish, and i don't deny it. but with that same rationality i approach the actions of my government and fellow citizens, and i believe that allows me to make better decisions and take more effective action.

by chicago dyke 2007-04-09 10:27AM | 0 recs
Patriotism is no resort

Since at least the early nineteenth century, the concept of patriotism had been intimately connected to the idea of nationhood, which in a modern concept has largely been interchangeable with the idea that sovereignty and self-rule should being granted to, and delineated along the lines of, discrete, unique and identifiable cultural groups. Many national unification and post-colonial movements were largely based on this idea, whether we are discussing the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860's (Italians and Germans should not be separated into multiple state governments), the struggle for independence in countries like Ireland and India in the 19th and 20th centuries[.]

This demonstrates a very poor understanding of the Indian freedom struggle, which was not based around any idea of cultural identification and grouping on that basis.

The appropriate response to rhetoric of patriotism is not to adopt it, or attempt to clarify it, but to offer more powerful, more meaningful (and therefore more unifying) notions to overcome it. The Indian struggle was (to a significant extent) such a movement, albeit entirely defeated by the 60s.

by ravi 2007-04-10 08:06AM | 0 recs
"Patriotism" -- A Hot Word
Your thoughts sure did spark some controversy. It is amazing how expressing your opinion about how you feel about one word that most of us share can draw such anger, criticism and support, not just here, but here: 04/the_lefts_idea_of_patriotism.php?comm ents=show#comment-32672
by Jennifer In MO 2007-04-10 10:17AM | 0 recs


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