I Got Yer Patriotism Right Here


Oh, goody. Seems that John McCain's National Greatness Conservatives aren't the only ones who think what the world needs now is more Teddy Roosevelt. In a column that starts off with a discussion of Barack Obama's flag pins and then gets even sillier, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne is proud to bring you the news that for lefties, T.R. is still hot, sexy, and dead.

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."

Their new progressive patriotism bears some resemblance to the old progressive patriotism of Theodore Roosevelt. "We cannot meet the future," Roosevelt said in a 1916 Memorial Day speech, "either by mere gross materialism or by mere silly sentimentalism; above all, we cannot meet it if we attempt to balance gross materialism in action by silly sentimentalism in words."

For good measure, the trust-buster also declared that "the big business man" must "recognize the fact that his business activities, while beneficial to himself and his associates, must also justify themselves by being beneficial to the men who work for him and to the public which he serves."

And what of the would-be progressive-in-chief?

Obama already has the template for moving the debate in this direction. In December, he gave one of his best, and least noticed, speeches: a call to national service. The policies he proposed include a doubling of the Peace Corps and an expansion of the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 slots. […]

Pinch-hitting for Ted Kennedy as the commencement speaker at Wesleyan University on Sunday, Obama revisited the themes of his December speech and explicitly renewed JFK's call, promising that "service to a greater good" would be "a cause of my presidency."

A competition between Obama and McCain over who can issue the most compelling summons to service would serve the country far better than an empty rhetorical skirmish over which of these candidates is the true patriot.

Lord, how I despise every inch of this conversation. There is something juvenile yet creepy?not unlike watching Uncle Todd wave his penis?with the spectacle of people who wake up in the morning dreaming up new ways to draw the precise boundaries around what it means to be sufficiently patriotic. Especially when the definition of patriotism is in opposition to enumerated freedoms.

And there's something both authoritarian and myopic with the bizarre notion, mouthed constantly by politicians, that the most authentic manifestations of patriotism are military service, government employment, and "community organizing" … as opposed to say, hitchhiking around the Americas, or getting (maybe even creating!) a damned job doing something you love.

As for pining for presidential candidates to wow the nation with calls to sacrifice that you yourself will never make … I'm sure there's a word for that, but it sure the fuck ain't "patriotic."

In the May issue, Paul Thornton called National Service by its proper name ? generational warfare.