More on Patriotism

My friend Bill had a thoughtful response to my “Patriotism” post. Thanks, Bill, for taking these matters to a deeper level.

In case you missed Bill’s comment, here it is:

I don’t think most folks’ patriotism is motivated by abstract ideas such as equality.  It is largely based on love of country, home, and family–concretes, not abstractions.  And as to “contempt,” it’s too inflammatory a term: I freely admit that I dislike some people, but not because of abstractions such as race, national origin, or sex.  I dislike some people because of their values or because of the harm they have done to others or which their beliefs will entail.  We are required as Americans to respect the abstract equality of all persons because we are uncertain of our own ability to judge others fairly, but that doesn’t mean we believe equality, rather than goodness, is what we should honor.  I wish I could respect all who disagree with me, but frankly I do not.  I respect an honest person’s disagreement, but I don’t find all persons to be honest.  Some are malign, lazy, or thoughtless.  Indeed I think such qualities are unfortunately quite widespread today.  Such people will not, and should not, have my respect.

Bill puts his finger on the trouble with democracy. Fools and knaves persist, and we can’t honestly pretend we don’t notice. Yet democracy insists, as a matter of first principles, in giving them the same voice as me!

If you had suggested democracy to the royal family of England in the 16th century, this would have been their response: Respect the voice of peasants? Illiterate, dirty, uncultured brutes? Give to such the power of government? You must be crazy!

Similarly all those who have fought against giving the vote to black people. Or to women. Or to non-property holders. They believed–and had some grounds to believe–that such people lacked the understanding to properly govern.

Democracy is and always has been an act of faith, that government by and for the people–all the people–will be to my benefit, even while I know quite well the incapacities and foolishness of those people.

Democracy is therefore more than a set of laws and procedures. It is a faith in people. One can defend its rationality in various ways. (For example, the supposed good faith of the nobility, elite, landowners, males, whites is a fraud and a cover for oppression.) But it does require a certain willing suspension of disbelief.  That is why democracy cannot find its feet in so many societies today: riven by suspicion and prejudice, the various tribes cannot put aside their own loyalties and certainties to trust “the people.”

Bill is certainly right that patriotism is “based on love of country, home, and family–concretes, not abstractions.” It is not only so in America. It is so in Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, and North Korea. But democracy calls us–so Lincoln insisted–to another kind of patriotism. And we can’t do democracy without it.

That’s where contempt comes in. It is a strong word. In marriage counseling, contempt can be identified by one partner rolling his eyes when the other party is speaking. The gesture expresses complete unwillingness to contemplate another’s point of view, or even the possibility that their point of view could have merit. It dismisses the other as worthless for dialogue. Contempt doesn’t even argue. It preempts argument.

Democracy doesn’t require that I like everybody else, respect their virtue or their opinions. Democracy allows for complete disagreement and radical argumentation. But it does insist on respect for the persons making the wrong arguments and lacking the needed virtues–respect for persons as persons, made in God’s image. We respect them by protecting their right to speak, maintaining the highly theoretical mindset that we could be wrong and we could learn something, even from such a person. We respect them by protecting their right to cast a vote. We respect them by sharing with them the ruling of our beautiful country. As Lincoln said, brave men gave their lives for this: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s a faith we must guard. Contempt can undermine and destroy it.


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