America: Love It or Leave It

For some conservatives, patriotism means simply going to war.


"Sorry," said the well-dressed fortysomething as he elbowed past me with two new books he wanted signed. "You don't get to ask a question, even if you're from REASON magazine."

Book presentations don't usually generate such enthusiastic disregard for decorum, but when the topic is patriotism, America, and what to do about the fact that kids these days don't seem to care about either, conservatives get a little antsy.

That was the scene this Thursday at D.C.'s American Enterprise Institute, where an audience of about 150 clamored to praise Georgetown emeritus professor Walter Berns. His new book, Making Patriots, studies the "paradox" of American patriotism: How can avowed individualists be such fine citizens? It also bemoans the fact that our schools and churches have left such a high virtue "open to attack," and suggests remedies to make everyone love America again.

AEI brought out their big guns for the event. Former Senate Judiciary Committee punching bag Robert "Slouching Toward Gomorrah" Bork moderated a panel that included Lynne "Telling the Truth" Cheney, Francis "The Great Disruption" Fukuyama, and Eliot Cohen, Fukuyama's fellow professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. All lauded Berns for his latest book, in which he argues that American patriotism is different from nationalism. It is not based on a common language, religion, or ethnic background. It is based on the ideals set forth in the Constitution. Those ideals are good. America is good.

Berns said he wrote the book because flag-waving patriotism and the pride behind it has fallen "dangerously" out of fashion. The purpose of the book, he said, "is to persuade [readers] that this country… deserves to be loved."

Fair enough. But both the book and the AEI crowd focused heavily on military service as the best way to show the awesome power of patriotism. A World War II veteran himself–"People of my generation simply went to war," Berns told the admiring crowd–the professor pointed to the French as an example of what could happen if American patriotism slips any further. "I don't think we could rely on the French to field an army," he said. "France couldn't rely on the French to field an army in World War II. Something corrupt happened in that country and I don't think they've recovered from it yet."

Then again, the Nazis who defeated the listless French seem to have been perfectly patriotic fellows who "simply went to war." What went wrong? I asked Berns if the emotion might only be useful insofar as it promotes community, self-preservation, and responsible behavior. But maybe patriotism is not such a good thing in and of itself. Berns replied, "It is good because the country needs patriots and in that respect it is a relative good." A question from a woman later on about the dangers of patriotism becoming militant nationalism in other countries received an equally obtuse reply.

Fukuyama argued that humans are social animals that naturally seek the companionship of their fellow man. So patriotism as a communal bond could be seen as a good, but only when geared towards a good collective cause. "Some are better than others, and the United States is about as good as it gets."

Fukuyama's point jibed with Berns' overall contention that American patriotism is a good thing, but only because America is good. Well sure, but that's like demanding an "A" on every college paper you write because, well, you're an "A" student. There are many causes America pursues collectively–and not all are as good as it gets.

In pursuit of benevolent nationalism, Berns suggested a concerted effort to teach political history–"not social history" he sniffed, "not the history of pots and pans"–in our schools, homes, and churches. "No one is born a patriot," he said, "just as no one is born a citizen. It needs to be inculcated."

Lynne Cheney even suggested a patriotic primer for the kids: "A is for America, B is for…" Perhaps the Second Lady would say "D is for deferment," which her husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, managed to get plenty of during that collective cause known as the Vietnam War.

After the presentation I attempted to ask Berns if the notion of "teaching" patriotism clashed with Fukuyama's notion of humans as naturally social animals who will pursue patriotism and other communal bonds as their own ends. That's when the guy with two books muscled me out of the way. I even tried to buy some influence D.C.-style by dropping $20 for my own copy of Making Patriots so I could ask the question while the author was signing it, but the 39 other people who bought books and got to him before me had tired him out. All I got was a signature.

On the other hand, the book might do me some good. On the back cover, George Will asserts that, "More than forty years ago Walter Berns's book Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment changed, profoundly and for the better, the evolution of American conservatism away from simplistic libertarianism."

I'll admit that I have no desire to "simply go to war" without questioning why, but I am all for being changed profoundly and for the better.