Patriotism is a species of loyalty and a form of love. In “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes,” Smith, a Yale philosopher, argues that many on the right profess to love the United States but misunderstand — or, worse, reject — the essence of what makes this creedal nation distinctive. And, Smith says, the patriotism that many on the left profess — on those occasions when they warily, gingerly embrace the idea — is a cold, watery affection for an abstraction. It is loyalty to a hypothetical United States that might be worthy of their love-as-loyalty.
Some on the right mistake their compound of grievances and resentments for patriotism. This mentality — separating “real” or “true” Americans from the rest — is akin to the ethno-nationalism that festers in Europe. It also is a sibling of the left’s identity politics of group memberships: In the right’s identity politics, the nation is the only group that matters. Patriotism understood as ethnic or racial solidarity disappears into truculent nationalism. “Like any virtue,” Smith writes, “loyalty has its pathologies.” Of which, ethno-nationalism is one.
If patriotism is loyalty and a form of love, then a so-called patriotism that is not an expression of happiness — if it is not professed cheerfully — is a faux patriotism. Today, for many on the right, patriotism is a grim tabulation of regrets about things lost, and animosity toward those who supposedly caused the losses. What some on the left call patriotism is often an agenda-cum-indictment, a determination to make the United States less awful than they say it has been, and is.
“For progressives,” Smith writes, “patriotism is not so much loyalty to an already established nation, but an aspiration to a country still to be accomplished.” And: “Progressivism has become less concerned with improving on the past than with erasing it.” Smith is being delicate.
Because applause is often the echo of a platitude, people are forever applauding the notion that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” partly because they think Thomas Jefferson said it, although there is no evidence he did. Of course, dissent can be patriotic. But a constant curdled dissent, in the form of disdain for the nation’s past that produced its present, is incompatible with patriotism.
Those who believe that the nation’s real founding was the arrival of slaves in 1619, that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, that the nation remains saturated with “systemic racism,” that the economic system has always been fundamentally exploitive, that the social order is rotten with injustice and that even the nation’s most revered historical figures are unworthy of respect — those who think like this can be credited with moral earnestness, but not with patriotism: They cannot love what they will not praise.
Smith wonders why those he calls “new age progressives” call themselves progressives “when their theory of history is often anything but.” It is not an optimistic narrative of the nation’s upward trajectory; it is a counternarrative of “victimization and irredeemability.”
Smith says that new age progressives who prefer cosmopolitanism to patriotism “lack a core value of patriotism, a sense of loyalty to a particular tradition and way of life.” Cosmopolitanism “lacks passion and intensity. It is a joyless disposition.” And “even at its best, cosmopolitanism is indifferent to the actual ties of loyalty and affection that bind people to home and country.”
Patriotism, too, is a disposition — a “peculiarly conservative” one. It is “akin to gratitude” and “rooted in a rudimentary, even primordial love of one’s own: the customs, habits, manners, and traditions that make us who and what we are.” Patriotism suggests “an extended family,” which we love because it has “nurtured and sustained us through good times and bad.”
“Patriotism,” Smith argues, “is a learned disposition. It is not indoctrination into an ideology, but a component of an educated mind.” Hence it is bad citizenship to teach American history as a litany of indictments. Although he thinks patriotism “must be taught,” he also says “it is an ethos, a shared habit,” something “felt,” what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.” Smith’s book will help prevent patriotism from fading to something only dimly remembered.