February 1, 2007

Of Patriots, Pole Stars and Polemics

Marc Comtois

It was clear to me that in his piece on "Civic Conservatism" that Fonte was emphasizing civic conservatism (or American Patriotism or American Nationalism) as a "glue" that both holds the various types of conservatism together and can serve as an appealing ideological template with which to sway many independent or (ironically) non-ideological voters. As my post demonstrated, I agreed with this formulation for what it was. (His response to my post--which I didn't see until Justin posted it--concerning how there should be an emphasis on American culture over that of the "other" is fine because I assumed that prioritization, even if I didn't spell it out).

Justin's critique of Fonte and his subsequent clarification can stand on its own. Now, to be honest, I initially took Justin's use of the word "nationalism" to mean that of the European variety, but concluded that my initial reaction was due to my recent experience as a MA History student (in which one is continually exposed to the history and historiography of the what's, how's and why's of the European brand of nationalism). Eventually, knowing Justin, I figured out that he was talking about the sort of American Nationalism that Fonte later described and equated with American Patriotism in his emailed response to Justin.

It never ceases to amaze me how one word and the assumptions made on how it is being used can lead to so much confusion among those who would otherwise agree. Thus, I can see how Fonte apparently made the same assumption about Justin's use of "nationalism" as I initially did. But an argument over "nationalism" and "patriotism" wasn't really Justin's main point, anyway, as Justin has since explained. (But it is something I'd like to focus on for a bit. See the extended entry--below--for my digression).

Back to the point. Patriotism is fundamentally an emotional response, which is why it "stir[s] the blood." Ultimately, Justin agreed with this (though he called it nationalism), but wanted to stress that the real "oomph" behind the conservative movement needs to be more than a reliance on emotion-based patriotism. A patriot also must understand why he feels the way he does when he sees the flag and hears the National Anthem. Conservatives understand that we aren't patriotic "just because..." Rather, we are patriotic because we have learned and are continually reminded of the particular American philosophy, culture, and history that comprise and enable our shared American ideals. Indeed, behind the emotion is a whole lot of reason.

As Fonte wrote:

In terms of contemporary policy, civic conservatism emphasizes the following principles: the equality of American citizenship; the learning of America’s history and values, properly understood; the imperative of assimilating immigrants patriotically into the American way of life (what we proudly used to call Americanization); and the indivisibility of American sovereignty.
I agree that those general principles would be palatable to a variety of Americans. Yet, "civic conservatism" is really only the skin of the body conservative. The meat and bones are the conservative philosophy and the conservative interpretation of American culture and history.

Many Americans agree viscerally with the tenets of Fonte's "civic conservatism," but they can't explain why. Most American's are good people who don't want to hurt or "impose their values" on others. Because of this, self-doubt about why they hold the values they do can creep in if they are confronted with unfounded and unpleasant charges of racism or bigotry. And such charges would surely be hurled their way if they say they support "Americanization" and "the equality of American citizenship." Unable to defend their position, they will revert to their inherent "niceness" and go along to get along.

Average folks need to know that what the believe to be true and good really is. They need to know the "why." Otherwise they'll be shamed into abandoning the ideals and mores that they feel in their bones to be true. That is why it is incumbent on conservatives to explain that philosophy and history have shown that "Americanization" and "the equality of American citizenship" are beneficial to society and are meant to help all of its people. Simply saying "just because" isn't enough.

In the end, while I recognize the value of Fonte's "civic conservatism," I agree with Justin that conservatives shouldn't rely too much on it's appeal for it's own sake. Weightier essays in support of the agreed upon bullet points need to be at the ready so that a firmer traction can be established in the uphill battle against philosophical, cultural and historical naivete.

Here's my digressive dissertation on nationalism and patriotism.

I don't think that Justin intended to imply that the "blood and soil" nationalism was the sort that Fonte was talking about in his original piece. But more importantly, he didn't even come close to trying to make the delineation between American Nationalism and American Patriotism that Fonte seems to think he was implying.

Thus, Fonte's assertion that "Those who attempt to distinguish between American "patriotism" and American "nationalism" (which has never been blood and soil based, but philosophical, cultural, and historical)---play the game of an anti-patriotic impulse" strikes me as unjustified and hyperbolic. If anything, Justin was clearly equating the two, just like Fonte.

In fact, I'm the one who has a problem with Fonte's formulation. Why would an "attempt" at such a distinction--like, say, a good-faith, scholarly one--betray "an anti-patriotic impulse"?

I think there have been some rather clear-cut cases of European-style nationalism--or at least similarities--in American history. Know-Nothings especially, and portions of the America Firsters platform come to mind and I know there are others. (In fact, I'd wager that quite a few paleo-cons could be considered Nationalistic in the European sense, which Fonte finds so distasteful). I don't think that if I were to attempt to distinguish between these types of American Nationalists and American Patriots (rightly understood) that I'd be "play[ing] the game of an anti-patriotic impulse," do you? In fact, wouldn't it be patriotic of me to point out the difference?

Frankly, I don't think I've really ever heard a purposefully positive equating of American Nationalism and American Patriotism. Thus, I don't agree with Fonte's point that "American nationalism has traditionally meant support for the heritage of Washington and the Founding Fathers, of Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan." In fact, even if Fonte's definition is correct, usually people are trying to show there is a difference. For instance (sub. req'd), in this piece that tried to equate the two, the author begins by observing that:

Nationalism is a dirty word in the United States, viewed with disdain and associated with Old World parochialism and imagined supremacy. Yet those who discount the idea of American nationalism may readily admit that Americans, as a whole, are extremely patriotic. When pushed to explain the difference between patriotism and nationalism, those same skeptics might concede, reluctantly, that there is a distinction, but no real difference. Political scientists have labored to prove such a difference, equating patriotism with allegiance to one’s country and defining nationalism as sentiments of ethno-national superiority. In reality, however, the psychological and behavioral manifestations of nationalism and patriotism are indistinguishable, as is the impact of such sentiments on policy.
Now, perhaps my time spent in the ivy halls of academia have skewed my perception, but I really think that Americans don't like being called nationalists and prefer to be considered Patriots (especially in New England).