Thursday, June 26, 2008

Differing Concepts of Patriotism in Campaign '08

John McCain Bio Tour

Newhouse News has an interesting piece on how the candidates embody differing concepts of patriotism:

The thunder of this year's Fourth of July fireworks may provide brief respite from the partisan clamor over who is the truer patriot — John McCain or Barack Obama.

The battle lines are familiar. They were drawn during the Vietnam War, when McCain was a prisoner of war, and Obama but a child.

Four decades later, the contrast between two presidential candidates has never been starker.

Here is the grizzled former Navy flier who has vowed "I will never surrender in Iraq." And there, the brash newcomer with the unlined face whose startling success already is the source of so much lump-in-the-throat pride in the genius of America.

A black father, a white mother and a name that couldn't help but confound. But here he is, and here we are.

John McCain is a classical patriot.

On the Fourth, he could deliver Thucydides' "Funeral Oration of Pericles" virtually verbatim, changing only "Athens" to "America."

It would fit, to a T.

Pericles, the Athenian statesman and military commander, delivered the oration — as recorded by the historian Thucydides — in 431 B.C., to honor those killed in the first year of what would be a very long war with Sparta. It is a paean to courage, duty and honor, but also to what Pericles proclaimed to be the uniquely Athenian virtues of democracy, freedom, tolerance and opportunity. And it is an exhortation to fight and die for the glory of an empire determined in its might — and required by its sense of superiority — to lead the world.

As his choice of Independence Day material, Barack Obama might want something a bit more contemporary, like the 1938 poem "Let America Be America Again." Written by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, it is a plaintive call for America to eschew empty patriotism and live up to its founding ideals:

"O, let my land be a land where Liberty

"Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

"But opportunity is real, and life is free,

"Equality is in the air we breathe."

"Yes We Can," cried the Obama campaign, as if in reply to Hughes' lament.

"America can change," declared Obama in his March 18 speech on race in Philadelphia. "That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."

Almost all Americans consider themselves to be very patriotic, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington. But Pew has also found that Democrats and Republicans have discernibly different tendencies in the tenor of the patriotism.

Republicans tend to be far more likely than Democrats to believe "we all should be willing to fight for our country ... right or wrong," and to support the use of pre-emptive military force. They are less likely to care what the rest of the world thinks of us. (According to a recent Pew survey of citizens in 24 countries, the rest of the world prefers Obama to McCain.)

Over time, as Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer write in their book "The True Patriot," those different tendencies have hardened into a caricature that "says the right loves America, and the left looks down on it. It says conservatives are proud to wave the flag and proclaim America to be the best, and liberals, embarrassed by the whole chest-thumping spectacle, complain about America's errors."

It is a caricature that found unfortunate resonance for the Obama campaign in February, when Michelle Obama declared, "For the first time in my adult life I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

Before and since, said Liu, who supports Obama, nearly every assault on the Illinois senator has sought to blemish his patriotism, to pose the question, "Is he American enough?"

"This is going to be the dominant frame of the general election," said Liu, who served as a speechwriter and senior domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, and who believes Obama must do a better job of articulating an unself-conscious "progressive patriotism."

Well, I've offered my own theories as to why Democrats - and especially prominent Obama backers - announce their antipathy to the United States, and frankly to spin it as a postmodern version of patriotism doesn't sound compelling.

I'll let some of my commenters hash it out, but I'm firmly convinced that the GOP's brand of love-of-country's the appropriate tradition of patriotic support.

See also, "Should Revolutionaries Feel Good About Obama?"