Progressives’ Peculiar Sense of Patriotism
The best thing Obama can seem to say about the country is that it elected him into office.
By Jonah Goldberg
Dear Reader (Unless you’re that lucky lady with Joe Biden standing pressed-up behind you as he pretends to search for your car keys while whispering the contents of this “news”letter to you),
So the question of the moment is whether Rudy Giuliani should be flayed or simply drawn-and-quartered for saying that Obama doesn’t love America. Naturally, this has led to Giuliani being called a racist, because the best working definition of racism in America today is any criticism of Obama that stings.
Kevin Williamson runs through the highlights of what is, by now, a pretty old argument. My own view isn’t so much that Giuliani is right, but that he’s not exactly wrong either.
Look, it was like a week ago that we were talking about Obama’s inability to criticize the Islamic State without first going out of his way to flagellate the West and America over the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and Jim Crow. Is it really so crazy to think a guy who feels compelled to warn his own countrymen not to get on their “high horse” about child rapists and slavers (who are also beheading and/or immolating and/or burying alive Americans, Christians, Yazidis, and fellow Muslims) might subscribe to an, um, unconventional form of patriotism?
(Personally, I think looking down your nose at men who do such things doesn’t require a high horse, or even a pygmy horse, or even any horse at all. A syphilitic kleptomaniacal dwarf with a penchant for peeing the lyrics of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on your grandmother’s antique bedspread, living at the bottom of a deep well in Death Valley, could still judgmentally look down on such savages without apology and from a great height.)
OBAMA, THE VISITOR
More than any other president, Obama was raised with a detachedly critical view of America. He grew up abroad and in Hawaii, which is as close as you can get to growing-up abroad and still be in the United States. (Sorry, I love Hawaii, but it’s true.) At school he hung out mostly with the foreign-exchange students from Pakistan. “For years when Barack was around them, he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective,” David Maraniss writes in his biography of Obama. “He was one of them, in that sense.”
Byron York writes in his piece on the Maraniss book:
But Obama was ambitious. Appalled by the “dirty deeds” of “Reagan and his minions” (as he wrote in “Dreams from My Father”), Obama became increasingly interested in, as Maraniss writes, “gaining power in order to change things.” He couldn’t do that as an international guy hanging around with his Pakistani friends; he needed to become an American.
So he did. One of those Pakistani friends, Beenu Mahmood, saw a major change in Obama. Mahmood calls Obama “the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity,” according to Maraniss. The time after college, Mahmood says, “was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
Mahmood, Maraniss writes, “could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself as a necessary step in establishing his political identity as an American.”
His early political years involved similar strategic positioning, from joining Jeremiah Wright’s Church to (according to David Axelrod) lying about his opposition to gay marriage. And it paid off. And when he finally burst on the national scene, he could use his detachment to his advantage. Indeed, his whole approach to politics has been, “People of Earth, stop your bickering. I’m Barack Obama and I’m here to help.” The slogan “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” implies the building-up of a seething desire to make this country different than it is and throw off the dead weight of the past. Whenever he talks unapologetically about patriotism, it is invariably in the context of trying to get the country to rally around some new government endeavor (and, more importantly, himself).
But that’s nothing new. Patriotism for progressives has always been deeply bound up in the role of government and the cause of reform. That’s fine, to a certain extent. But underlying it is the assumption that America as it exists is a problem that needs to be fixed, if not “fundamentally transformed.” And, let’s be honest about it, there were times when progressives had the better part of the argument. But, culturally and psychologically, what endures is the pious progressive conviction that the government is better than the people it serves, at least when the right people are running it — and that the job of progressives is to bring the bitter clingers up to the government’s ideals, as best they can. The Left and the cultural elite of a hundred years ago were fairly honest about this point of view. From The Tyranny of Clichés:
The Nation ran a whole series of articles under the heading “In These United States” purporting to reveal that Manhattan was an island of sophistication in a vast wasteland of American backwardness. This was the era when it became an article of faith that the artist must hate the society in which he lives, that he must be “a public enemy” in the words of H. L. Mencken, and that the “vox populi is, to him, the bray of an ass.” The writers for the Nationridiculed what is today called “fly-over country”—which back then was really “train-through country” or perhaps “cruise around country”—with relentless condescension. Chronicling his impressions of Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis lamented that the “Scandinavians Americanize only too quickly!” Perhaps not surprisingly, the South was an object of particular scorn. One writer believed that Mississippi could only be saved by an invasion of civilizing, cultured, missionaries from the North. Another scratched his head to ask what, if anything, Alabama had ever contributed to humanity . . .
All in all, the cultural elite of the 1920s had firmly convinced itself that they were, in Christopher Lasch’s words, “a civilized minority in a nation of Babbitts, Rotarians, and rednecks.”
The attitude has evolved since then. Today’s progressives aren’t adherents to the Social Gospel for the most part, and they certainly aren’t eugenicists — but they’re also a lot less honest than their predecessors. Occasionally, someone will let it slip that they don’t believe in, say, the “private ownership of children” or will claim that the only reason liberal politicians don’t do better is because the voters are racists and sexists. Sometimes, they feel free to barf up theircondescending bigotry for the South and paint it on the wall. Even the president of the United States has hinted that he favors increased immigration for its deleterious effects on his political opponents. And, once in a blue moon, you get the Democratic Senate majority leader explaining how displeasing he finds the musk of the little people. But for the most part, liberals have to lie about how much they believe they’re better than the country they serve.
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO, GOT TO DO, WITH IT?
Simply put, there’s a tension between the desire to change something and loving something for what it is. As I’ve said many times, if you desire something solely for your ability to have your way with it, that is not love; it’s lust.
And for generations, American reformers have argued that there’s nothing wrong with America that being more like Europe wouldn’t fix. Countless leading liberals hate — and I mean hate — the suggestion that America is the best country in the world. Just two weeks ago, I think, I linked to this progressive mind-porn from the opening scene of HBO’s The Newsroom. Stephen Colbert’s whole shtick for the last nine years has been to mock people who love this country too much. Indeed, for eight years under Bush we heard that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” — a profoundly stupid and self-serving bumper sticker of a notion. It’s a very strange understanding of love — and that’s all patriotism is; love of country — that its greatest expression is biting criticism, regardless of said criticism’s merit. For eight years, every calumny and slander imaginable was hurled at Bush and the United States, and whenever anyone pushed back on it, we were told that it was patriotic. We just love our country! Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!
How would that work in a marriage?
Wife: How do you like my new blouse?
Husband: It makes you look like a fat filthy whore.
Wife: Now I know you love me!
Husband: Shut up, tramp. You tipped off the Jews about 9/11. You were in on it.
Since president Obama became president, dissent is no longer the highest form of patriotism at all. It’s often simply racist now. Indeed, dissent from Obama and his agenda has arguably become the thing that liberals hate most about America these days. I should also note that since Obama was elected president he’s shown a fondness for apologizing for America and citing himself as proof that America is on the mend. This, too, doesn’t strike me as an obvious display of uncomplicated love. “I’m sorry for my wife, she was raised by carnies. But, you have to admit, it speaks well of her that I saw fit to marry her.”
NONE DARE CALL IT ISLAMIC
I know everyone — including me — is a little exhausted with the whole debate over whether to talk about Islam or not. In my column today, I argue that there’s actually an upside to Obama’s ridiculous obsession:
And that brings us to the silver lining on Obama’s stubborn refusal to speak plainly about the plainly obvious. As I said at the outset, when you deny a given truth, you force people to explain why the truth is a given. Nearly everyone agrees the earth is round, but if you meet someone who says it’s flat, you’re forced to explain — with facts and logic — why it’s not flat.
Obama’s flat-eartherism on radical Islam is clearly an embarrassing failure in deterring Islamists, but it is forcing serious people to think more deeply about the challenges we face. It’s not the debate Obama wants, but it’s valuable nonetheless.
But I want to add a quick point or two.
Look, only a fool would argue that there’s no truth to the claim that corruption, sexism, poverty, joblessness, the legacy of imperialism, alienation etc. feed into the causes of Islamic terrorism. But the root-causes chorus often misses the incredibly complicated issue of causation. Longtime readers will remember one of my favorite lines from Orwell, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, but then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” The problems besetting much of the Muslim world have a lot to do with material and political hardships, but at least some of said hardships are created or made worse by aspects of Islamic culture or, more accurately, Islamism. Saudi Arabia is rich and medieval. Mohammed Atta was affluent and educated — and an Islamic madman.
In his op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama spoke of the “legitimate grievances” fueling movements like the Islamic State. Yes, it was couched in caveats and clichés that weakened the punch, but ultimately, this is a profound category error. The Islamic State has no legitimate grievances measured against the standards of our civilization. None. Zero. More to the point, their grievances are irrelevant. If you steal my parking spot, I’m justified in flipping you the bird. But if you steal my parking spot and in response I set you on fire, my grievance is irrelevant (save perhaps at my sentencing hearing).
This is something that Obama, Kerry, & Co. get right, but for the wrong reasons. John Kerry wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that, “violent extremism can’t be justified by resorting to religion.” But then he goes on to write, “No legitimate religious interpretation teaches adherents to commit unspeakable atrocities.” And that’s just an ignorant lie, unless the Grand Mufti of Foggy Bottom defines “legitimate” as “religious interpretations I like.” If so, that’s not an argument; it’s a tautology.
Where they are accidentally right is that religion can’t justify violence, but not because religions can’t compel violence among their adherents but because in our High Horse civilization, we do not recognize religion as an excuse for violence. In our world, if you rape a bunch of little girls, saying God told you to is no defense, even if you can claim it’s written down somewhere. Maybe some people think that’s a problem theologically, but I don’t. I think it’s one of the great things about our culture, and it’s why, again, I’m happy to sit on my high horse. What amazes me is how unwilling or embarrassed so many liberals are to do likewise.
Maybe if Obama follows through on his promise and gives jobs to all the potential Islamic State–recruits, liberals will finally get on board with the new global war against “workplace violence.”
THE NEW NR.COM
So by now you’ve probably noticed that National Review Online is now at the 1701-D phase of its evolution. (If you don’t get the reference, good for you). I am of mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, when I started out as the founding editor of NRO, I vowed that it would become the Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga of the World Wide Web. I know what you’re thinking, but cut me some slack: People used to use the phrase “World Wide Web” a lot more back in those days.
(Oh, I’m sorry you were looking at me funny about that other thing. In case you didn’t know, the literal translation of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga is quite (Bill) Clintonian: “The cock who goes from hen to hen knowing no fatigue.” But the title is more figurative and open to interpretation. According to most sources, it means: “the all-powerful warrior [or rooster] who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”)
Where was I? Oh right. I took a vow that we would do whatever it takes to make this thing as good as it could be. I’m still dedicated to that. NRO needed an upgrade, and this is quite an upgrade. You should have seen the guys in the jumpsuits lowering the new warp drive into place. It was a scene. They kept yelling at Williamson to stop throwing cigarette butts into the dilithium-crystal chamber. “You’ll blow up the eastern seaboard!” Kevin just laughed.
When I started out, everything was coin-operated, including the web lackey’s dialysis machine (nothing got the G-File posted faster than holding back a few quarters).
It’s been a long time since I was the editor of this thing, as evidenced by its ever-increasing quality. But I am more than a little nostalgic for the end of an era. This isn’t National Review Online anymore, but merely NationalReview.Com. It may seem like a small distinction, but it’s not. When I started NRO, the idea was that it would be a sister publication to the magazine — though more like a daughter in that the magazine was really the mothership. But that’s not the way the industry, or perceptions, went.
For those wondering why I stopped being “editor-at-large of National Review Online” and became simply a senior editor of National Review, this is why. Going forward, the magazine and the website will be more like one vessel. I’m excited about where it’s heading, but I will always be nostalgic for our away mission.
And yes, this extended Star Trek reference was for Kathryn’s benefit.
VARIOUS & SUNDRY
Zoë Update: Where to begin? Well, as you may know, I contributed to a fun book called The Seven Deadly Virtues, edited by Jonathan Last and published by Templeton Press. The book did quite well, and the folks at Templeton wanted to get the band back together to do another book. This one will be on fatherhood and — surprise! — it should be out around Father’s Day. Jonathan asked me to write about fatherhood and dog-ownership. I agreed. I was not supposed to write about being the father of a dog, but about being a father and having dogs. I ended up writing a full-throated philosophical and moral case for why parents should have dogs in their family.
But this week I started to rethink that position. On Sunday, Zoë ran across a major road after some deer. On Tuesday, when the city was shut down by snow, my wife (who looks lovely and honorable in any blouse, lest there be confusion about the above hypotheticals) came back from the dog park without the dingo. Zoë saw no need to return home as she felt the park, with all of the snow, and sledders, and dogs, and snow, and squirrels, and snow, and snowy dogs, had more to offer her. Eventually, the Fair Jessica grew fed up. She didn’t have her cell phone with her. So she left the dingo at the park, drove back to the house, and told me I had to come back with her and get the $%#&ing dog. Or words to that effect. So I went back to the park and we eventually successfully extracted the dingo. Then, yesterday, on a romp through the woods, we discovered that the record cold in D.C. has varmints dying from exposure, which can only mean one thing: All You Can Eat Chipmunk Buffet for the Dingo!
But none of that is really why I’m rethinking my pro-dog chauvinism. You see, one morning this week, as I was getting up in the pre-dawn darkness to take my dog on another morning adventure in the arctic cold, I saw her out of the corner of my eye running out of my bedroom with something in her mouth. I assumed it was the cardboard collar stay from the dry cleaners, which she likes to chew up. Fine, it’ll keep her busy as I make coffee, I thought to myself. Well, when I got back from the park, I looked at what I thought was a chewed up piece of cardboard and realized my mistake.
Zoë, the creature I rescued from certain death at great expense; the dingo I’ve made into a minor canine celebrity; the animal I walk every morning rain or shine; and the beast I likened to a family member whose species I defended on both moral and metaphysical grounds in my essay for this new book . . . had eaten the check from Templeton.
With both fists clenched, I yelled heavenward: “Dinnnngggggoooooo!!!”
Anyway, I’m running long and this G-File didn’t go so well, so let’s just get to the weird stuff.
Look, I was already grateful to the men and women who serve — past or present — in the armed forces, including of course those who fought in Vietnam. But if I had known our guys had to deal with these, I would have been even more grateful.
The headline is: 30 things made out of bacon that shouldn’t be. But I can make the case for the bacon thermal lance and the bacon rifle. But the bacon Hitler wig and mustache? Not so much.
Zoe hides it well: Dogs can tell happy human faces from sad ones.
Only Big Bird follows Snuffleupagus on Twitter.
What did the YMCA think about the Village People song?
His secretary of defense says, “The world is exploding all over.” His attorney general says that the threat of terror “keeps me up at night.” The world bears them out. On Tuesday, American hostage Kayla Mueller is confirmed dead. On Wednesday, the U.S. evacuates its embassy in Yemen, a country cited by President Obama last September as an American success in fighting terrorism.
Yet Obama’s reaction to, shall we say, turmoil abroad has been one of alarming lassitude and passivity.
Not to worry, says his national security adviser: This is not World War II. As if one should be reassured because the current chaos has yet to achieve the level of the most devastating conflict in human history. Indeed, insists the president, the real source of our metastasizing anxiety is . . . the news media.
And America watches. Obama calls the policy “strategic patience.” That’s a synonym for “inaction,” made to sound profoundly “strategic.”
Take Russia. The only news out of Obama’s one-hour news conference with Angela Merkel this week was that he still can’t make up his mind whether to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons. The Russians have sent in T-80 tanks and Grad rocket launchers. We’ve sent in humanitarian aid that includes blankets, MREs and psychological counselors.
How complementary: The counselors do grief therapy for those on the receiving end of the T-80 tank fire. “I think the Ukrainian people can feel confident that we have stood by them,” said Obama at the news conference.
Indeed. And don’t forget the blankets. America was once the arsenal of democracy, notes Elliott Abrams. We are now its linen closet.
Why no antitank and other defensive weapons? Because we are afraid that arming the victim of aggression will anger the aggressor.
Such on-the-ground appeasement goes well with the linguistic appeasement whereby Obama dares not call radical Islam by name. And whereby both the White House and State Department spend much of a day insisting that the attack on the kosher grocery in Paris had nothing to do with Jews. It was just, as the president said, someone “randomly shoot[ing] a bunch of folks in a deli.” (By the end of the day, the administration backed off this idiocy. By tweet.)
This passivity — strategic, syntactical, ideological — is more than just a reaction to the perceived overreach of the Bush years. Or a fear of failure. Or bowing to the domestic left. It is, above all, rooted in Obama’s deep belief that we — America, Christians, the West — lack the moral authority to engage, to project, i.e., to lead.
Before we condemn the atrocities of others, intoned Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, we shouldn’t “get on our high horse.” We should acknowledge having authored the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, etc. “in the name of Christ.”
In a rare rhetorical feat, Obama managed to combine the banal and the repulsive. After all, is it really a revelation that all religions have transgressed, that man is fallen? To the adolescent Columbia undergrad, that’s a profundity. To a roomful of faith leaders, that’s an insult to one’s intelligence.
And in deeply bad taste. A coalition POW is burned alive and the reaction of the alliance leader barely 48 hours later is essentially: “Hey, but what about Joan of Arc?”
The conclusion to this patronizing little riff — a gratuitous and bizarre attack on India as an example of religious intolerance — received less attention than it merited. India? Our largest and most strategically promising democratic ally — and the most successful multiethnic, multilingual, multiconfessional country on the planet? (Compare India to, oh, its colonial twin, Pakistan.)
There is, however, nothing really new in Obama’s selective condemnation of America and its democratic allies. It is just a reprise of the theme of his post-inauguration 2009 confessional world tour. From Strasbourg to Cairo and the U.N. General Assembly, he indicted his own country, as I chronicled at the time, “for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness (toward Europe), for maltreatment of natives, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantánamo, for unilateralism, and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world.”
The purpose and the effect of such an indictment is to undermine any moral claim to American world leadership. The line between the Washington prayer breakfast and the Ukrainian grief counselors is direct and causal. Once you’ve discounted your own moral authority, once you’ve undermined your own country’s moral self-confidence, you cannot lead.
All that’s left is to call it strategic patience.
Visit USADebtClock.com to learn more!