Several of my students recently participated in a writing competition where they answered a version of the prompt, “Should patriotism be taught as part of a liberal arts curriculum?” It came as no surprise to me when they all answered, “Yes, but….”
(Actually, I guess that did surprise me some. I expected at least one of them to say no.)
Anyway, patriotism has been on my mind recently and I picked up If You Can Keep It as an interesting foil to the essays. The students all struggled the most with defining patriotism. “Love of country, but not nationalism or jingoism” came up a lot. One person described healthy patriotism as falling between “hot dogs and baseball” on the positive end and “Civil War Reenactment” on the negative. Other students referenced reciting the pledge of allegiance or gathering around the flag.
They all definitely sensed that some love of country must be passed down, but that historically the United States has veered too far into the love and not far enough into self-criticism.
Although he takes an opposite view of America’s current way of teaching patriotism (too much criticism, not enough love), Eric Metaxas’s definition of patriotism surprisingly resembled my students’. I think I’d loosely define his interpretation as “love of country and the values she stands for, but not to the point of nationalism or jingoism.
“The addition of “values” is where he manages to hit on something my students missed and so struggled with in their definitions of patriotism. How do you love your country and not become a nationalist? What do you focus on? Baseball and hot dogs might represent “America” to some, but at the end of the day, a love of baseball and hot dogs really means a love of a specific sport and a specific food, not a country. And even if you could somehow prove the three things infallibly interlinked, what do you do when someone claims to love America and yet prefers soccer and kimchi? Do you write off their patriotism because they do not share your preferences? It should also strike us as absurd because things might be inextricably American and still not the sole summary of our culture. Such a box presents too narrow a definition of patriotism.
Even the most stereotypical of red, white, and blue hot dog lovers recognize that many cultures fed the American melting pot. America is as much kimchi and tacos at hot dogs. Or to be more specific, America strives to tolerate kimchi, tacos, and hot dogs equally. You might love hot dogs and despise kimchi, or vice versa, but the fact that you can express your preference and then act on it, that is what it means to be American. Because by toleration I do not mean the false sense that you must accept my preference without question. I mean toleration as a virtue that allows people to vehemently disagree about their preferences and yet still live together.
This interpretation of patriotism also answers the opposite side of the spectrum: the one that praises multiculturalism so insistently that it ceases to truly praise anything. I mean the view that hot dogs and kimchi and tacos and really all food everywhere define America. And also, just about every other country. If patriotism means embracing all cultures, peoples, and food groups equally without any defining lines or common virtues, then what boundaries exist? Why should I love the United States when it is no different from any other country? Perhaps it is even worse than other countries, because it allowed white slave-owners to design its system of government. It permitted slavery. It only gave women the vote 100 years ago. Should the fact that I was born here really make that much of a difference? America did horrendous things; America perhaps did a few good things. In this it is no better or worse than any other country. I can feel the same emotions towards the place of my birth that I do towards China, or Chad, or Chile. And I can easily love those countries more because I do not live there and so do not have to deal with any of their flaws.
So, patriotism becomes more subjective. Love what your country does well, but hem it in on all sides with critique and complaints so that you never love your country too well. But by taking patriotism outside of its box altogether, any common interpretation of “love of country” becomes groundless and probably pointless. It is a matter of personal preference whether you love it or not. And if I don’t love it, who are you to say that I should?
But if the focus of patriotism shifts to the values that created this country, a slightly different pictures emerges. We can love America not for hot dogs but for toleration. Apple pie has nothing on freedom of religion. Free speech means I can criticize baseball as much as I desire and not fear the government telling me otherwise, even a government inextricably linked to the sport.
Of course, you might the problem simply shifts to defining values. What does liberty or equality or freedom even mean? But those debates take depth and discourse. They begin to push us outside of the gut reaction of “that’s different and I do not like it.” It also pushes the debate outside of “does America always do the right thing?” Because the answer of course is no, and we need to acknowledge that America frequently messes up. But that shouldn’t prevent us from still loving America as a place that strives for toleration or equality or freedom because though it often fails, it also often succeeds.
The consequence of this view, so Eric Metaxas presents, is not nationalism, but a love of virtue. We praise the virtues that define our country. We can praise those same virtues in another country. But we at least have a foundation for our praise and a commonality that goes beyond personal preference.
It is a much more nuanced and affirming view of patriotism than we typically hear. Eric Metaxas spends a great deal of the book looking at how to nurture patriotism. He praises patriotic statutes, heroic stories, and sacred ceremonies. And I think to an extent he rightly does so. “How do you pass patriotism along” is a vital question.
But it jumps to the “how” a little too fast for my taste. I really didn’t grasp his definition of “patriotism” till the end, and so any discussion of how fell flat for me while I remained stuck on the what.
The what needs more fleshing out. It is fine to point to Judeo-Christian values as a foundation, particularly since he aims this book at Christians. And I guess I can even see the merits of not “listing” the exact values that unite Americans (toleration, equality, rule of law, etc). A detailed list arguably falls outside the scope of this work. But I was still left hanging with a big question about what values specifically defined America.
At the end of the day, this is a popular text and not a political treatise. Nor is Metaxas strictly a political philosopher. This book really shines at its best when it falls squarely in the author’s wheelhouse: namely, biographies of various figures in the American Revolution. It becomes merely okay, but still interesting, when describing Metaxas’s own experience with patriotism. And finally, it becomes the least tangible when analyzing patriotism. But the view still stands surprisingly strong and made this a book I definitely recommend picking up.