Identity, Progressivism, and American Patriotism
by Chris Bowers, Sun Apr 08, 2007 at 07:00:39 PM EDT
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.
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.