Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Amber Waves of Straw Men

I have frequently heard liberals complain that conservatives question their patriotism when there are disagreements over national policy, but I have never heard any nationally serious conservative actually question anyone's patriotism over public policy. To say that my political ideas are better for the country than yours is not to question your patriotism -- you may love the country more than I do -- it is only to question what is the best route to take to better the nation.

Nevertheless, those who have taken nowadays to calling themselves progressives seem defensive about this matter of patriotism, which perhaps explains E.J. Dionne's valiant effort at differentiating himself from straw men in today's Washington Post.

Dionne writes:

But the progressive and the reformer have a problem with what passes for unadulterated patriotism. By nature, the reformer is bound to insist that the country, however glorious, is not a perfect place, that it is capable of doing wrong as well as right.

Note to Dionne: Whatever the definition of "unadulterated patriotism" might be, no one believes your dismissed alternative, that the United States is a perfect place incapable of doing wrong.

Most reformers guard their patriotic credentials by moving quickly to the next logical step: that the true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

Note to Dionne: No one believes that the Almighty has marked the United States as flawless. Perhaps tomorrow he will criticize the religious right for saying that the Almighty has marked us out for judgment.

The Fourth is transformed from an affirmation of continuity into a celebration of change. The republic's founders are praised not because they inaugurated a system designed to stand forever, unaltered, but because they blazed a path toward what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has called "active liberty."

Note to Dionne: No one praises the founders for inaugurating an eternally unalterable republic. However, I will admit that many of us would prefer alteration by legislation and constitutional amendment than by court edict.

Especially in the last two statements quoted above, Dionne errs by insisting on a choice between two concepts that in fact must remain joined. The American capacity for what Dionne calls "self-correction" largely rests upon the notions of self-government that were written into our founding documents. The desire for correction is in itself of limited value without the existence of foundational principles of liberty and freedom, as well as the reach and limitations of government. Further, those expressing patriotic sentiments are not forced to choose between "an affirmation of continuity" and an "unaltered" system. Both fixed principles and ongoing adaptation and change are hallmarks of the American experiment.

None of this is intended to deny Dionne's love of country, of which I have no doubt. However, expressions of love don't have to rest on straw men and a fallacy of an excluded middle.


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