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Reclaiming Patriotism

Patriotism (n): devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country.

Who would have thought that this trait of celebrating one’s country could become so complicated? Recently, though, there seems to be a battle between nationalism and multiculturalism. It can be challenging to find the balance between celebrating the United States while still acknowledging the beauty of other countries and cultures.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Steven Smith to discuss what healthy patriotism looks like.

Dr. Smith begins by explaining that patriotism is not an inherently dangerous idea. He shares, There are threats to democracy, but for the most part most people aren’t.  We may disagree with each other, but, fundamentally, most people aren’t threats to democracy.” He goes on to explain that in America, “Our patriotism is in many ways uniquely a patriotism of ideas. . . [which] gives our patriotism this different and . . . unique status among the various patriotisms that exist in the world.” He refers to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and other writings and explains that the profound ideas outlined in these documents are the basis for our patriotism.

After discussing patriotism as it relates to Abraham Lincoln, Bruce Springsteen, and Chuck Norris, Dr. Smith ends by encouraging listeners to maintain hope for the future. “Democracies require hope.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Smith discuss the importance of (healthy) patriotism.

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Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Reclaiming Patriotism

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters.  It’s no secret that Americans are experiencing a period of intense polarization.  Even the term “patriot” and our American flag have become contentious to some people.  Our guest today argues that we need a, “patriotism that is broad enough to balance differing loyalties and capable of bringing the country together.” 

Well, Steven Smith is a professor of both political science and philosophy at Yale University.  He’s authored numerous books including, “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.”  Dr. Steven Smith, welcome to Family Policy Matters. 

STEVEN SMITH: My pleasure to be here with you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Tell us why you believe that true patriotism is broad enough to balance all of what seem to be competing goals and views of what our country should be?

STEVEN SMITH: Frankly, there are threats to democracy, but for the most part most people aren’t. We may disagree with each other, but, fundamentally, most people aren’t threats to democracy.  Probably very few people that we would encounter in our everyday life would be threats to democracy.  So I think rather than assuming or rather than starting with the extremes on either side, why don’t we start with what we can agree upon or what we can agree to talk about without just ascribing the worst possible intentions or motives to our neighbors.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Okay.  Well, let’s talk about patriotism because that seems to be a key word that you’re grappling with here, specifically American patriotism.  Equally important, what is it, and what is it not?

STEVEN SMITH: One of the things I do in the book is I try to distinguish patriotism from — the book is called, “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes” — I try to distinguish it from what are the extremes for one thing, and I would say it stands on a continuum between multi-culturalist politics to the left wing of patriotism and nationalism on the right wing of patriotism. And patriotism is different from both of those.  We can talk about that.  But what is patriotism, and what, specifically, is American patriotism?  One of the points that I make in the book is that our patriotism is in many ways uniquely a patriotism of ideas.  Our patriotism is grounded in our fundamental texts, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence.  It goes back to the declaration’s as it were first principle that all men created equal, endowed with rights, and so on.  Our patriotism for this reason has an aspirational quality to it.

I want to distinguish American patriotism often from the kind of dark history of patriotism that has existed here to some degree but also existed elsewhere that tries to ground patriotism in a particular religious group, in ethnic identity, and some kind of tribal loyalty and the longevity with which you or your family have been a resident or a citizen of a place.  Those are quite different from the kind of patriotism that I defend in the book because I think, once again, we go back to our founding ideas and principles, which are aspirational.  And it gives our patriotism this different and, I think, unique status among the various patriotisms that exist in the world.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  The same thing with the two terms that you chose for the extremes, right?  I mean multi-culturalism, nationalism, they aren’t necessarily bad things, but they have become a representative of those extremes. 

STEVEN SMITH: That’s exactly right. I mean neither is in itself bad.  I mean nationalism has had a noble lineage.  I mean if you go back to the 19th Century all of the great political leaders from Lincoln to Gladstone to — you know they were all nationalists, too.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It was in relatively recent times that nationalism took kind of a dark and dangerous turn.  I talk about that in the book, and in a certain way multi-culturalism.  It grew up in the early part of the 20th Century.  It didn’t go by that name, but it was a recognition that people bring different identities, backgrounds, ethnicities to the table.  This can all be part of the American family.  Nothing wrong with that at all, except that in recent times it has been used as a way of dividing people and creating divisions and sort of denying what people have in common for the sake of pitting one group against another.  So these have both morphed into sort of extremist positions, both of which I find in opposition or in tension with patriotism as I look at it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  You talk about the concept of having a lovable country, and when I think about that, I think about a big teddy bear.  But, of course, I’m sure that’s not what you mean.  So how does having a lovable country relate to patriotism?

STEVEN SMITH: The passage you’re mentioning references a quote from Edmund Burke, a famous conservative philosopher who said, “For us to love our country, our country must be lovable,” and it is sort of an enigmatic statement. What did Burke mean by that?  I use that to argue that we need to be able to take pride in our accomplishments to establish a kind of useable narrative that helps us take pride in our country. And what I mean by that it’s not just some kind of Pollyannaish view of American history.  No, one that certainly takes account of our failings and our missteps and misdeeds, but one that is overall, I think, kind of hopeful and progressive story of accomplishment and achievement, and the last chapter of the book sets out a number of topics or a number of themes that I think constitute this narrative of hopefulness that I say that makes a country lovable, not just wallowing in our sins and wallowing in our misdeeds.  No, I mean we can recognize these, but nevertheless see them as learning to accomplish and achieve a goal that we hope to aspire to and not forget our aspirational qualities.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  All right.  So you mentioned, also, Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve done quite a bit of reading about Abraham Lincoln.  And I don’t think most people, if you haven’t read a lot, would understand kind of how unique his presidency was and the leaders that he chose and that kind of thing.  So talk about why you think he is, “the ideal patriot,” and you even give three specific reasons for that.  If you can talk us through that, I would really appreciate it. 

STEVEN SMITH: Lincoln has been for a long time I would say a hero of mine. He’s clearly the hero of my book.  This This semester I’m teaching a course on Lincoln here at Yale, so if any of your listeners want to know what kind of things get taught at Yale, I can tell you there’s a course on Lincoln that’s being taught.  So one of the things I try to bring out and much in my book is the way I understand patriotism is sort of seen through the way I’ve come to understand Lincoln.  The three things you mentioned:  Lincoln’s patriotism always gave centrality to the Declaration of Independence.  His most famous speech begins, “Four score and seven years ago.”  That was 1776, and the Declaration for Lincoln meant the principle of equality.  And equality meant for Lincoln the dignity of all people, that people deserve and merit a kind of moral dignity for each.  So that’s — equality of dignity is one thing that’s very important.

Another thing that Lincoln emphasized and I’ve mentioned before is the inclusive character of American patriotism.  It is open to anyone who — in principle is open to anyone who is willing to endorse these principles of equality, dignity, and rights to other people.  It doesn’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, race, again, longevity.  Lincoln was very clear that our patriotism is a kind of open and inclusive one.  And the third feature that I attribute to Lincoln is that our notion of equality is kind of progressive.  What do I mean by that?  It means that we are a continual work in progress, that our ideals have not been accomplished.  We have not — and, of course, Lincoln was living at a time when slavery was still a dominant feature, so, obviously, we had fallen far short of the principles of equality and dignity of labor and the like, that we are a work in progress and we have to understand that we are and probably never will be exactly what we aspire to be.  And he probably thought in some ways that that is a good thing because otherwise, what would happen?  We would simply become complacent.  And he always thought patriotism in America was a kind of work in progress.

So these features of equality, dignity, inclusiveness, and a kind of small “p” progressive idea of aspiration I think are central to the Lincolnian view of America.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  You always use, I’ve noticed, more contemporary examples when making your case for a broader patriotism, and I bet your students really enjoy that.  You quote Bruce Springsteen’s song.  You mention a book written by Chuck Norris, so I’m assuming you feel like there are glimmers of hope that this kind of patriotism exists or at least the roots of it in our culture right now.

STEVEN SMITH: Yeah. The book ends with a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s I think amazing anthem, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Everybody — probably many of your readers or listeners rather will know this song.  If they don’t, I recommend you listen to it.  It’s a great song and a very patriotic anthem, and I was glad to be able to quote the “Boss” as he’s called up in New Jersey in this book.  I do mention the Chuck Norris book, which when I began looking at other books on patriotism — What were people saying about patriotism?  What was it”. What was the discussion people were having? — and I couldn’t help but notice there was a book by Chuck Norris on the question.  It was called “Black Belt Patriotism,” and it gave me the kind of image of kind of like we’re going to beat patriotism into people somehow, karate them into it.  And I should admit, too, maybe kind of a guilty pleasure I’m actually a Chuck Norris fan, so I was interested in what he would say about this.  I would say it’s not a deep dive into the topic by any means, but I did like the book.  It just shows that many different kinds of people, as you put it, in contemporary culture from Bruce Springsteen to Chuck Norris can endorse patriotism in a way, and I find lots of examples of that in our contemporary cultural thing.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  You are striking some hopeful tones.  I know you are quite aware of it being on a college campus that the suicide rate, especially among young people, is just so high and I’m sure there are a lot of factors, but some of them may be just almost a hopelessness about the direction our country is heading. But you don’t seem to feel that hopelessness. 

STEVEN SMITH: I talk about hope at the end, and hope is kind — is a democratic virtue, I think, kind of an under-appreciated virtue. Hopefulness — democracies require hope.  Maybe every polity, every society requires hope, but I think we especially, and I like to give our students and I hope your listeners and through my book, some reasons to be hopeful about our country.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  We’re just about out of time this week.  Before we go, Dr. Steven Smith, where can our listeners go to follow your work and learn more about your book, reclaiming patriotism in an age of extremes? 

STEVEN SMITH: Buy the book on Amazon. If you’re interested in hearing some of my other ideas, go to Yale courses online.  I teach a course on the introduction to political philosophy, kind of a great books course, everything from Plato to Tocqueville many stops along the way, and I get listeners from all over the world.  There’s no charge for it.  You can go to it, and people all over the world listen to it.  And I think it will along with the patriotism book be something that many of your listeners might find of interest.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  All right.  Sounds good.  Dr. Steven Smith, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters. 

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