In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:
This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.
As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:
To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.
Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.
This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”
Beyond that, is Klein really prepared to argue that the aim of the institutional strongholds of contemporary liberalism – whether we are talking about the academy or Hollywood or others – is to deepen our love for America and increase our civic devotion and pride? That their efforts will make us a more perfect union? Does Klein believe that during the last several decades liberals rather than conservatives have been more likely to reject cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism? Have liberals rather than conservatives been more vocal in arguing why the United States is better in every way than its totalitarian enemies? Is Ted Kennedy really more patriotic in his “liberal message of national improvement” than Ronald Reagan was in his conservative message of national improvement?
To be sure, patriotism is a complicated matter, as it has many elements to it and tensions within it. It is certainly not the property of any one political party. It is not blind support for America, just as it is not reflexive opposition to America. But what we can say, I think, is that, as Berns points out, part of what it has traditionally meant to be an American is to believe in our most cherished creeds – most especially that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Patriotism also demands that we hold an honest view of our nation — which, in the case of America, means we should acknowledge our injustices (past and present) even as we acknowledge that, in Allan Bloom’s words, “America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.” And of course patriotism requires us to sacrifice for our country, to defend her when she is under assault, and to do what we can to help America live up to her founding ideals.
I would finally add this: Conservatives are not “pessimistic” about the perfectibility of human nature; rather, they are realistic about human nature, which is an admixture of virtues and vices. Conservatism is skeptical about grand programs to remake human nature itself, but it is risible to argue that conservatism is philosophically proscribed from making an argument for national improvement. Many of the greatest conservatives in American history have done just that. One could also argue that those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature tend to embrace the view that we are “citizens of the world” even before we are citizens of America.
Joe Klein has waded into ugly waters. Let’s hope he can make his way out of them before too long.