Commentary Magazine

A Patriotic Left?

It was not so very long ago that the standard view of America on the Left was of a racist, sexist, and imperialist society with an essentially evil past: in short, to use a favored term of opprobrium from the 1960’s, “Amerika.”

Today, America-bashing has not altogether disappeared on the Left, but it has come to be supplemented, and in some quarters even replaced, by something new, and something very surprising. In fact, one of the more unexpected cultural developments of recent years is the number of prominent leftists who have stopped cursing the United States and have starting praising it—and praising it in unabashedly patriotic terms.

In his new book, Achieving Our Country1 the philosopher Richard Rorty exhorts his fellow leftists and academics to embrace “national pride” and to tell “inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past.” Todd Gitlin, once the president of Students for a Democratic Society and still a leading American “progressive,” sounds a similar note in The Twilight of Common Dreams (1995), where he writes with admiration about the founding fathers and proclaims his hopes for a revival of “democratic Americanism.” The political scientist Benjamin Barber, who has long denounced the undemocratic arrangements of our society, now opines that “to be an American” is “to be enmeshed in a unique story of freedom,” while Alexander Alienikoff, a former top Clinton appointee at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has unfurled the banner of a “progressive American nationalism,” declaring that “the idea of . . . the American nation” is “worth defending.”

This newfound patriotism in precincts where the United States was once routinely portrayed as a cross between Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan is startling, to say the least. What is going on?



At least one thing that is going on, as some of the new patriots frankly admit, is a simple shift of tactics. Having spent years in the political wilderness, they have decided to accommodate what appears to be a permanent disposition in American public life. In the words of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “Appeals to patriotism can be strategically valuable. . . . [W]e frequently have no choice but to mobilize people at this level.” Or as Rorty puts it, “an unpatriotic Left never achieved anything.”

But what is it that the patriotic Left means to achieve? Substantively, the notion at the heart of the new rhetoric is that there is a “true” America to which the Left should pledge its allegiance; but it is not the America of the here and now. Rather, the true America lies somewhere on the horizon. Rorty and others commonly refer to the U.S. as an “unfinished” nation. Gitlin sees the American project as an offshoot of Enlightenment thought and in that sense “an aspiration, an invitation, a commitment . . . to bring about understandings that do not yet exist.” Lawrence Levine, in The Opening of the American Mind (1996), speaks of the country as an example of “dynamic becoming.” Barber cites a couplet by the poet Langston Hughes: “O, let America be America again /The land that never has been yet.”



From this starting point, different writers go off in different directions. Some, harking back to the themes and slogans of the Old Left, suggest that the way to attain the “land that never has been yet” is to emphasize goals like material equality, or the responsibility of society for developing the capacities of every individual. In articulating this position, Rorty, patriotically enough, cites not a hoary European like Karl Marx but authorities out of the American past: specifically, the poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and the philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Both, he contends, “wanted the struggle for social justice”—that is, the redistribution of society’s wealth and benefits—“to be the country’s animating principle,” and both can thus guide us to the America that can and ought to be.

But equality of condition is not really the dominant theme on the Left today. What really brings its factions together, even including the flagging social-democratic remnant, is the idea of a multicultural, or “transnational,” America.

According to the new patriots, America needs more, not less, group-consciousness. American citizenship itself, writes Alexander Alienikoff, is a deal struck among “mutually respecting” ethnic and cultural groups, and should be understood as a “contract under constant renegotiation.” Nor is there any need for immigrants to assimilate to some historically-defined “American Idea.” Their sense of their own ethnicity, far from being, as conservatives fear, a solvent of our larger national identity, will actually strengthen it.

In a similar vein, James Banks of the University of Washington, the author of a leading social-studies textbook, contends that if we are “to create an authentically democratic unum, the pluribus (diverse peoples) must negotiate and share power.” For Benjamin Barber, the reason diversity will prevail in the end is that it alone is “capable of securing an American future in a world that . . . is not going to be exclusively American, white, or male.”



Such talk on the part of academic leftists provides a kind of ideological window-dressing for a movement—multdculturalism—that has already exercised a powerful effect on our nation’s classrooms at every level, and has changed the very vocabulary in which the history and character of America are discussed by our children and their teachers. The National History Standards, a federal guide for state school boards promulgated in 1994, goes so far as to eschew the notion of an American people, preferring instead to speak of the country’s “peoples.” Other authorities, out of respect for the hemisphere’s natives, instruct students that Europeans did not in fact “discover” the Americas, and encourage them to view “historical events and situations in ways that are fair and sensitive to all cultural groups affected.” And so forth.

It may be pertinent to ask in this connection whether, as the new patriots assert, multicultural education does in fact strengthen the sense of national identity. In fact, it does the opposite. In San Diego, for example, over 5,000 students were asked about their view of themselves as they progressed from the ninth to the twelfth grade. At the beginning of the study, in the early 1990’s, 43 percent considered themselves either simple or hyphenated Americans. Four years later, thanks to the ministrations of the multiculturalism, only 30 percent did. As for the number strongly identifying with another nation (like Mexico or the Philippines), it rose from 32 percent in the ninth grade to almost half after four years of high school. The only thing bolstered by the teaching of group-consciousness, in other words, is group-consciousness.

To the leftist intellectuals who speak of the “unfinished” American project, however, that may be all to the good. On the very first page of Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty declares that, though a believer in the need for national pride, he hopes the U.S. “will someday yield up sovereignty to what Tennyson called ‘the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” What this suggests is that, for at least some of the new patriots, the only way America can truly complete its “unfinished” project is to disappear.

In the 30 years that have passed since the late 1960’s, the Left has moved from a dark emphasis on radical American evil to a buoyant emphasis on radical American possibility. There can be no question but that its new rhetoric of reconstruction, under which it seems prepared to march into the next century, is more appealing than its old rhetoric of deconstruction. And it has already proved more successful: behind the friendly face of diversity and multiculturalism, the prospects are bright for imposing the Left’s new vision on whole generations of Americans. Which makes it all the more important to understand that, rhetoric aside, this vision remains as hostile as ever to America as it is, and as it was conceived to be. Today’s new patriotism is hardly a cause for flag-waving.



1 Reviewed by Peter Berkowitz in the June COMMENTARY.


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