There are a few things you can assume about those who run for president: They’re megalomaniacs; they have disturbing stores of energy; and at some point in their lives, they were bitten by the love bug called patriotism. Yet every election season, the candidate who dares criticize the country is put to the patriotism test.
And thus Barack Obama found himself in Independence, Missouri, yesterday delivering his patriotism manifesto, “The America We Love,” flag pin tacked safely to lapel. In it, he dwelled on the historic legacy of both patriotic dissent and patriotism’s deployment as a political smear. He went on to personalize his own patriotism, describing it as a “gut instinct,” an “abiding love” rooted in his “earliest memories.”
The speech was, as is Obama’s custom, an eloquent meditation on a value that pervades Americans’ lives and deepens our divisions. But it did not, as Obama’s speech on race did, shock with its candor and ability to articulate a unique moment and opportunity. Instead, we heard familiar professions of what it means to love one’s country.
In fact, we err when thinking patriotism should be founded on love—that irrational emotion that most of us can’t even wrap our heads around in the confined spaces of our personal lives. This kind of claim usually fits easily into the liberals’ camp of the cultural war over patriotism, which Peter Beinart, in his recent cover story for Time, aptly characterized this way:
Liberals are more comfortable thinking about America. . . as a nation that must earn its citizens’ devotion by making good on its ideals. For conservatives, the devotion must come first; politics is secondary.
But removing love from patriotism isn’t to argue that patriotism shouldn’t be unconditional. It’s to say it shouldn’t be irrational. I prefer a seed from Obama’s speech that’s less dramatic than the narrative of love and more demanding: His description of patriotism as a “commitment.” For Americans, patriotism should be the meaningful acceptance of privilege, a sense of obligation not to the amorphous (and dangerous) concept of nation, but to one’s countrymen and -women, and to the world that’s so shaped by our choices and actions.