Happy Fourth of July!
I remember growing up in a culture of patriotism. Community events would feature patriotic speeches. Politicians of all parties would wax eloquent about the greatness of America. In school we actually had classes on “Americanism” in which we learned about American heroes, studied the principles of democracy, analyzed the virtues of free market capitalism, and lauded the distinct American ideology of liberty, equality, and individualism. We also learned all about flag etiquette.
I now see that much of that was a reaction to the Cold War and to the ideological conflict with Communism. (This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) I also see quite a bit of idolatrous civil religion. Still, there is a virtue in loving one’s country, and I remember the thrill I experienced upon first seeing the monuments and historic buildings of Washington, D.C.
Does any of that kind of patriotism still exist any more?
Of course then came the Viet Nam war. The nation was split generationally and culturally more than politically, at least at first. (The president who presided over that war was arguably the most liberal of them all, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and most Democrats, such as those in my hometown–we had never met a Republican–were all for him.) But, by the time I was in college, my peers mostly opposed the war and grew cynical about America, to the point of out-and-out anti-Americanism.
The other side with its patriotism turned kind of nasty too, with its “America, Love It or Leave It” bumper stickers and its “My Country, Right or Wrong” loyalties.
Then came further disillusionment with Nixon, then Carter’s “malaise.” But Ronald Reagan made it possible to “feel good about America again.” The end of the Cold War with the decisive victory of American ideals over those of Communism made us giddy with patriotism.
Today, though, I don’t see much of that. The left is still cynical about America, but now that can increasingly be said also of the right. The anti-government fervor is so strong that it sometimes bleeds over to complaints about our institutions, our history, and our culture.
When some of these folks do praise America, they do so because they say it gives them freedom. But that’s a love of freedom, rather than a love of country per se, with America treated as an instrumental good, rather than as something good in itself.
Does any of the old-style patriotism still exist? Should it exist, or is its passing a good thing? Is nationalism too atavistic, too potentially war-like, to be encouraged too much? Or is there a love of country that needs to be preserved and possibly even taught in schools?