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.

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3 replies
  1. Eric Marsh
    Eric Marsh says:

    Good points.

    We are indoctrinated to believe that patriotism is a good thing from childhood. As I’ve grown up I learned to think for myself and the conclusion that I’ve reached is that it’s really about making us fit into in the machine.

    The mindful individual will ask “why” a proposition is true and if it is not true will reject it. To simply follow the crowd is to be a sheep, which is great for crowd control but very poor for individual rights.

    Consequently I’ve rejected the proposition of patriotism. The conclusion that I’ve arrived at is that the greater good is that which benefits all of humanity, not just a few at the top of the heap of a particular social order. I refuse to be a sheep.

  2. T. Grant
    T. Grant says:

    I disagree.

    Progressives, more than anyone, need to open themselves up to a diversity of ideas and lifestyles (including our ideological opposites). Probably the biggest complaint against liberals is the perceived hypocrisy of our claim to be inclusive, even as others feel themselves constantly demeaned as “rednecks,” “trailer trash,” “stupid” and so on. And while some say, “well its different if its true” I would argue that all bigots have said that at one time or another (about racism, sexism, and so on).

    There is a saying, “That which is rejected …. rebels!” By rejecting certain segments of society, we actually drive the verocity of the pushback. There are a lot of people hurting in our country.

    THE WAY to break down stereotypes and barriers is to actually spend time with human beings of that group. (And no, your drunk uncle doesn’t count as a representative of your political counterpart.) When religious people are exposed to real life LGBT people (not just their media created characatures) they become less prejudiced. When people of different ethnic groups hang out, we are less afraid of our differences. When GQ interviewed Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, there may have not been much agreement on political issues, but there was respect for the daily quality of family interactions – and for emotive experience of outdoor living. From GQ:

    “Whatever you think of Phil’s beliefs, it’s hard not to gaze upon his cultivations and wonder if you’ve gotten life all wrong. This is life as summer camp. It’s gorgeous, in a way that alters you on an elemental level. I feel it when I breathe the air. I feel it when I survey the enormity of the space around me. I shouldn’t be sitting around the house and bitching because the new iOS 7 touchscreen icons don’t have any fucking drop shadow. I should be out here, dammit!”

    To act as though we have nothing to learn from our fellow countrymen is a mistake. Other people should not have to “match OUR images” before a conversation can begin.

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