Saturday, February 21, 2015

How to describe President Obama's patriotism?

"It's complicated," says Will Wilkinson:

[F]or many conservatives, to love America is to insist on the sanitisation of historical fact. We see this attitude at work in the Oklahoma state legislator's recent proposal to nix Advanced Placement American history courses on the grounds that such courses, by teaching some actual history, tend to cast the country's past in a rather unflattering light. But plenty of facts about America just aren't very flattering. A few miles from my house one can find battlefields where men killed and died for the right to keep other men as slaves, as well as the place where many thousands of dispossessed captive Cherokee were forced to begin a genocidal march to Oklahoma. And that's just Chattanooga!

Now, Mr Obama's political worldview is pretty much what one would expect from a moderately left-leaning African-American law professor. This means that the president is indeed keenly aware of, among other blots on the national record, America's exceptionally savage history of slavery and white supremacy, and its ongoing legacy. This sort of awareness inevitably—and justifiably—complicates a relationship to one's country. Many of us have been ill-treated or abused in one way or another by our parents. We love them anyway, because they are ours, but we don't forget the abuse, and it tempers the quality of our devotion. Love of country is not so different.

The ardent and unclouded quality of love that [Rudy] Giuliani and [Kevin] Williamson find missing in Mr Obama is largely the privilege of those oblivious of and immune to America's history of injustice and abuse. Those least aware of historical oppression, those furthest from its living reality, will find it easiest to express their love of country in a hearty and uncomplicated way. The demand that American presidents emanate this sort of blithe nationalism therefore does have a racist and probably sexist upshot, even if there is no bigotry behind it.

Mr Obama's politically compulsory declarations of America's exceptionalism have always struck me as rote, a little less than heartfelt, even a bit grudging. Mr Giuliani, I think, has come away with a similar impression, as have many millions of conservatives. The difference is that where Mr Giuliani sees a half-hearted allegiance to the fatherland, some of us see instead evidence of education, intelligence, emotional complexity and a basic moral decency—evidence of a man not actually in the grip of myths about his country. A politician capable of projecting an earnest, simple, unstinting love of a spotless and superior America is either a treacherous rabble-rouser or so out of touch that he is not qualified to govern. So Barack Obama doesn't love America like a conservative. So what? His realism and restraint are among his greatest strengths.


CatherineM said...

John - don't you think this evaluation is a bit self serving? It's the same, sure conservatives feel this way, because let's face it, they are dumb and wear rose colored glasses. Liberals, hey, we are honest about this country. They are not jerks, they are just honest. People who are proud of this country are oblivious. Don't you see how insulting that is?

It's the focus on the negative and moral relativism. It's the "For the first time I am proud of my country," remarks. It's the way he acts on the world stage as though he's ashamed of us (and he is so superior). I don't see Angela Merkel behaving that way on foreign visits and Germans have quite the spotty past too.

I have a lot of embarrassing relatives I am not proud of, but the rest of my family shouldn't have to be ashamed of themselves or denied pride in their accomplishments because of the low and sometimes criminal character of those relatives.

You can be honest about the past in this country (which I believe most conservatives are), while realizing the gains that have been made, and most importantly being a leader that focuses on improving on those gains. Obama does not do that.

John Althouse Cohen said...

It's the focus on the negative and moral relativism.

I'm not sure where you're seeing moral relativism here. In fact, I'd argue that there's a certain moral relativism in unabashed patriotism. Conversely, if you consider morality to be a matter of objective right and wrong, that can get in the way of patriotism.

I do take your point that it's possible to balance patriotism and well-founded criticism of your own country, but that seems to be what Obama is going for.

CatherineM said...

What moral relativism in unabashed patriotism (what are you assuming?) are you speaking of? Please be specific. If I am proud of being American and that doesn't mean America is pure as a newborn baby.

Again, I don't see Cameron or Merkel showing embarrassment for their countries past as Obama likes to share.

I am also not seeing the balance you are seeing he is going towards. Please be specific. Seriously, I would like to know what I may be missing if there is nuance.

My family in particular did not come here until the late 20s on one side, and the 30s on the other. Should I be guilty of what came before? Should I hate the English or the Soviets for what they did to my family? Subjugation into poverty? I think you miss that a lot of what ordinary American families feel, "I came here with nothing and struggled, I was discriminated against for one reason or another (or not, but it's hard to start) , and 70 years later my grandchildren (or less - a lot of Polish in my lot who suffered under communism an ww2 came here in the 70s or later) need to feel guilty over something that happened before I got here?"

That's what a lot of people are thinking when they hear the so called balance Obama you believe is trying to achieve. I am not a part of the slave culture any more than my German neighbors are Nazis because their parents or grandparents were Nazis (even though It is creepy to see their grandparent's picture in an SS uniform on a table because it's the only picture they have of him as they cut my hair, they are not guilty of his crimes).

John Althouse Cohen said...

Isn't there some middle ground between unconditional love of a country and blaming all residents of the country for things they didn't do?

We can take a good hard look at the evil that the US or Germany has done without indicting everyone who lives there. Of course I've never had slaves — but I have indirectly, unfairly benefitted from people in the past having slaves, and black Americans today have unfairly suffered as an indirect result of slavery and other forms of racism.

What moral relativism in unabashed patriotism (what are you assuming?) are you speaking of?

Well, to turn the tables, what objective moral rightness do you see in patriotism? Patriotism seems relativistic because it's a moral feeling that's dependent on an arbitrary fact about the community you belong to.

CatherineM said...

John - I think we agree more than not (if at all). Perhaps I shouldn't have fired up the laptop at 2am Sunday morning! I may have been a bit, ehem, cloudy ...I actually don't disagree with your first response.

To answer your last response, my problem with the writer for the Economist is imagining those that say they love the US see it as spotless. I don't agree with his assessment. Of course there is a middle ground. That is where I am. I think most people are.

I don't see being proud to call yourself American as "morally right," or that Obama has to have proud feelings for this country. That's not a prerequisite to being a citizen or President. I would, however, prefer them in my President if they are to represent me to the world. I think there is a distinction there that I am trying to get across.

Obama, through his own words, seems to not think very much of the people he represents (perhaps you can say the same for Mitt Romney after his 47% remark). President Obama reminds me of a lot of the professors I had in school who assumed the worst of the average American. President Obama comes across as though he would be very comfortable in that faculty lounge. I may be wrong, but President Clinton, for example, never comes across to me that way.

As to the moral relativism, the most recent example was his whole prayer breakfast speech, but there are many others. Why not talk about the Salem witch trials? I can't call out human rights abuses in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia because of Salem? Again, reminds me so much of my former professors. Then I think he's a politician, and he's trolling a reaction. Gotcha!

Thanks for the chat. I promise not to answer at 2am again unless I am clear headed. : )