Posts

Why Patriotism Won’t Heal a Divided America

Conservative columnist David Brooks, lamenting the “weakening of the social fabric” in modern society, has called for a renewed appreciation of our interconnectedness, telling readers that Americans should work on “widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides.”

Admirable goals, to be sure, and Brooks gushes as he expands on the idea. He envisions America as a country of brotherhood and sisterhood where relationships throughout society, across the gamut of demographic sectors, are redefined for the purpose of “strengthening social solidarity.”

“The social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants,” Brooks writes. This idea of “covenants” is key, he explains, as it reflects a newfound connection causing otherwise disparate peoples to “understand they are part of one another.”

Such high-minded rhetoric isn’t particularly controversial—few would question the noble goal of building a greater sense of togetherness between people—but it also should be properly understood as an expression of ideals, not real solutions. In fact, though liberals are often criticized as being unrealistic dreamers, the label aptly fits the conservative Brooks here, as he neglects to provide even a remotely plausible strategy for attaining the solidarity that he describes.

Closer consideration reveals the true incongruity of Brooks’s grand vision. As large masses of individuals struggle to exist on poverty wages, for example, are they expected to somehow feel a “circle of attachment” with the middle and upper management of the multinational corporation for which the toil? And shame of the young woman who feels resentment, rather than amicable kinship, toward the judgmental religious fundamentalists who obstruct her access to reproductive care. Ditto for the African-American convict who doesn’t feel affinity toward police and others who steered him toward a prison-industrial complex that demoralizes him. And that gay couple that doesn’t embrace the politicians who insist on bestowing second-class citizenship on them? Hey folks, you’ve got covenants, did you forget?

Brooks is unable to explain how any broad sense of togetherness might be attained within a society as deeply divided as ours, but when he tries to do so he gravitates to conservative assumptions that reveal the bankruptcy of his vision. One prescription he suggests, for example, is to “revive patriotism” and “offer an updated love of America” in order to bring us closer as a society.

The conclusion that patriotism can save America is perhaps predictable coming from a conservative, but is nevertheless incredibly naïve. Considering that large segments of the population—not just of this country, but of the world—feel that American patriotism has reached irrational and dangerous levels, there’s little chance that this will be the common ground that unites us.

Brooks, being a level-headed New York Times columnist, would no doubt insist that his definition of “reviving patriotism” is benevolent, not necessarily nationalistic and militaristic—none of those unseemly “greatest-nation-in-the-history-of-the-world” mantras here, but instead a healthy, enriching patriotism to bring out the best in everyone. In an effort to make just such an argument, Brooks even quotes a liberal, Senator Corey Booker, who defines patriotism in grandiose terms as “love of country, which necessitates love of each other, that we have to be a nation that aspires for love, which recognizes that you have worth and dignity and I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.”

Again, this is beautiful and elegant language, but it’s an ideal and not a reality. Asked to define patriotism, relatively few Americans would choose such inclusive language. Look no further than contemporary political events, where notions of patriotism are of course prominent, and one frequently sees exclusion as a defining characteristic, with people of color and religious minorities targeted for mistreatment.

If  we are to utilize patriotism to “widen our circle of attachment” as Brooks suggests, then it would seem that, at a minimum, the language of patriotism should be as inclusive as possible. Instead, however, America since the 1950s has chosen to utilize highly religious language to define patriotism, especially for children. Each day students from coast to coast perform a flag-salute exercise that tells them the nation is “under God,” words added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Around the same time, the term “In God We Trust” was made the national motto. In recent years, thanks to religious conservatives who are relentless in promoting their beliefs in the public arena, we now see “In God We Trust” wording being erected on public buildings and pasted onto police cruisers all over the country.

Suffice it to say that this is hardly the path to harmonious social relations in our diverse land.

Like Brooks, progressives are capable of having optimistic visions of a better, more unified country. But our vision is accompanied by the knowledge that such togetherness cannot be attained via hopeful rhetoric that amounts to little more than saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” Even optimists must concede that this country is currently bitterly divided, that it’s due to numerous factors—anti-intellectualism, economic insecurity, racism, sexism, and many others—and that significant change will not come easily.

Real healing will require the assertion of humanistic values that actually exalt our common humanity and encourage a society that works cooperatively and fairly. And it certainly won’t come, as Brooks suggests, through happy talk.

Subscribe to my newsletter.

Latest book: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

Foll0w on Twitter: @ahadave

Photo by Elvert Barnes