Friday, July 04, 2008

Deconstructing Jonah Goldberg's Views on Patriotism

I rarely have the patience to read anything that Jonah Goldberg writes -- most of it seems little more than ultra-conservative rants against anything he sees as "liberal." I guess it works for him -- he's very popular among those who agree with him (and that's no small number).

His recent article blasting Obama's "patriotism problem" has generated at least one good critique. It seems I also felt a need to respond, since, by extension, I am not a good patriot (which I will readily admit to -- nationalism is a load of crap as far as I am concerned).

His definition of patriotism in America fails to recognize that this country is a mess:
Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.

It's the "good as it is" part that has vexed many on the left since at least the Progressive era. Marxists and other revolutionaries obviously don't believe entrepreneurial and religious America is good as it is. But even more mainstream figures have a problem distinguishing patriotic reform from reformation. Many progressives in the 1920s considered the American hinterlands a vast sea of yokels and boobs, incapable of grasping how much they needed what the activists were selling.

I'm going to ignore that bit about "devotion to American texts," which smells an awful lot like patriotism as religion. And I'm going to resist the urge to suggest that "abiding belief" really means "blind devotion." Oh wait, maybe I won't.

He thinks liberals want "to 'remake' America from scratch", which is what it might look like to someone who believes this nation is "good as it is." America is good, but it can be great -- and that's what liberals, and a lot of conservatives, want for this country.

Goldberg seems to think we are already a great nation. But has he ever lived in poverty, barely getting by with enough to eat while making minimum wage? Has he ever been a minority struggling with intolerance? Has ever been a woman whose right to determine the fate of her own body is continually threatened and reduced? Has he ever been arrested for "driving while black"? Has ever had to join the military to have any hope of paying for college and then be sent to fight a war entered into through lies and manipulations of the American public? Has he ever had to worry there won't be any Social Security when he retires? I could go, but I'm sure you get the idea.

This is not how a "great" nation treats its citizens. We can do better. We can be a great nation. But not if we think we are fine the way we are. Complacency does not solve real problems.

This sense that America is in need of fixing in order to be a great country points to Obama's real patriotism problem. And it's not Obama's alone.

We do need to fix this country. We have more problems than any president can reasonably address.

Eduction? Needs to be fixed. Health Care? Needs to be fixed. Immigration? Needs to be fixed. The two-party system? Needs to be fixed. Foreign policy? Needs to be fixed. Social Security? Needs to be fixed. Medicare and Medicaid? Needs to be fixed. Infrastructure? Needs to be fixed. Oil dependency? Needs to be fixed. Pollution and environmental protection? Needs to be fixed.

Only someone living with his head in the sand would suggest we are now a nation that does NOT need to be fixed. I wonder how Goldberg breathes down there?


JMP said...

goldberg's writing usually makes me want to retch, so we seem to have similar takes. but i do read the corner regularly and once in a while he comes up with some post that, goshdarnit, is incredibly insightful and true. go figure. his take on patriotism isn't in that category.

Anonymous said...


That you associate patriotism and nationalism so closely in a post about your dislike of Goldberg is ironic in the sense that one of his themes over the last five years is how patriotism and nationalism are different. For example, see this column:

Take care,

Anonymous said...

there's nothing wrong with liking "America the way it is."

then again, the only constant thing is change. the left and the right shift depending on the cultural/political zeitgeist. e.g. the left in America is the right in some European countries.

my main issue with Goldberg is that his view on America is too focused looking from within. i think he's leaving out the global perception *on* America, which is very unfavorable right now thanks to the Bush administration. that's why i groove more with Fareed Zakaria's thesis and overall vision. Zakaria point's out the issues in order to restore America's good-standing in the world. i prefer that flavor of nationalism.

and let's face it, Obama and McCain both promise to "fix" things because America (as great as it is) could use more fixing with the way it is *right now.*

my two cents.


Anonymous said...

P.S. here's a link to add to this discussion.

Eric Alterman - Liberals and Patriotism