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Action-Based Patriotism

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Yesterday, E. J. Dionne wrote about patriotism in general and specifically focused on how Barack Obama can move the debate to matters more important than flag pins. Dionne argues Obama should embrace an action-based rather than symbolic patriotism and looks to some recent liberal writing on the matter to make his point:

The reaction of too many progressives to patriotism is “automatic, allergic recoil,” say two young Seattle writers, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, in their important book “The True Patriot.”

Instead of recoil, they offer rigorous standards for what patriotism should be. “True patriots,” they write, “believe that freedom from responsibility is selfishness, freedom from sacrifice is cowardice, freedom from tolerance is prejudice, freedom from stewardship is exploitation, and freedom from compassion is cruelty.”

Some liberals recoil from patriotism because they see displays of patriotic fervor as dangerously similar to blind nationalism. But patriotism is a much more sophisticated passion than is nationalism. The left’s aversion to draping their causes in the flag has done little more than allow the right to claim powerful American symbols as their own. Dionne and the writers he quotes seem to understand that fact. But are their ideas worthwhile?

Well, I very much believe being a patriot is about more than simply singing the Star Spangled Banner. It’s about believing in the innate goodness of our nation, believing that our nation can achieve great and noble things and being willing to give of yourself to help keep this nation on a forward track. Of course, even if we were all committed to the continued betterment of this great nation, we wouldn’t and aren’t able to agree what “betterment” means. That’s fine. Debate is essential to freedom. That’s why it’s a good thing the above framework is based on qualities of character and not specific beliefs.

The ideas Dionne pushes are a blend of Bull Moose self-determinalism (responsibility, sacrifice, stewardship) and basic can’t-we-all-just-get-along liberalism (tolerance and compassion). I’m not sure tolerance and compassion are really essential aspects of a patriot but they are pretty useful qualities to exhibit in such a diverse nation, so long as those qualities don’t overwhelm our abilities to distinguish right from wrong.

Responsibility, sacrifice and stewardship are, I think, essential aspects of a patriot because they cut straight to how we should approach our relationship with our nation and with our fellow Americans. Liberals tend to ask those things from the government but don’t often ask of them from the citizens. Obama seems more willing to speak to personal responsibilities and, as such, could probably use the above concepts to advance ideas of patriotism. Then again, John McCain (being a bit of a Bull Moose), advances many of the same concepts and is not one to shy away from discussion of our “duties” as citizens.

At best, Obama can only even the patriotic playing field. But at least that’s better than enduring puerile accusations that he’s “not a patriot” because he doesn’t always wear a flag on his lapel. Yes, the symbols are important but the actions are what ultimately matter. I, for one, wouldn’t mind if this election talked a bit more about what duty to country means in the modern era.