Commentary: Patriotism is not only emotional, it's rational

My brother Dan and I always loved the Fourth of July bike parade at Mariners Park.

After we won a prize ribbon one year, it became our annual goal to have the most over-the-top bike-powered float. The pinnacle of our success came the year we presented the Boston Tea Party, complete with my brother tossing shoe boxes marked "TEA" over the side of a ship made from a discarded voting booth, my Schwinn Stingray straining to pull it all.

It was the late 1970s – the days of stagflation, gas lines and the bitter aftertaste of a long ambiguous war. But there was also the memory of the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence — and a sense that under the peeling paint, the country's bones were still good.

"America," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "is the only country founded on a creed." Rather than resting on a common cultural or ethnic heritage, the United States was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. There's not visibly much else to hold us together.

I offered something resembling that point to a law professor once. She smiled the patented bemused smile of the academic elite, and answered that while it's all very pretty to think so, the true foundation of America was really slavery, conquest and oppression. Evidently her view is more common than I'd preferred to believe.

It's considered bad form to question someone's patriotism. But the question presents itself: How could an honorable person who believes this about the country — not just in its moments of imperfection, but at its heart — want to be a patriot of the country? It's one thing to sing "May God thy gold refine" to work to make your country a better place. To write it off as rotten to the core is something else.

American history lessons, to the extent that American schools still teach history, typically include warts and all. Sometimes "warts and all" seems to drift into "all warts."

No history of America is complete without addressing the original sin of slavery, or the false dealings with Indian tribes, or our country's other faults. But neither is the full story told in the pseudo history that portrays these things in isolation, presented as uniquely American evils and not the fruit of humanity's universally flawed nature.

Slavery, for instance, existed before recorded history. All the best classical philosophers defended it as the natural order of things, arguing that nothing could be more obvious than that people are not equal in their capacity to govern themselves. Yet from the moment a man who owned slaves penned the words "All men are created equal ... endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," slavery was doomed.

Until just a generation or two ago, wars of conquest were the rule of geopolitics: If you like your neighbor's land, conquer and take it. It takes some historical perspective to understand just how unprecedented is the world that the World War II generation won for us.

Part of patriotism is simply an extension of our love for our families and friends and the part of humanity we're given to live among. I can find myself moved by foreigners' love of their own countries, because that love is an emotion common to all of us, even though it has a different focus.

In America's case, patriotism is also the proper regard this country and its creed are due, as a basic matter of reason and justice.

Going back to Chesterton: "That creed is set forth ... in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just."

That is the ideal America is dedicated to. That is what Americans, with all our flaws, are striving for. And that is why America is worthy of her people's love.

THOMAS EASTMOND lives in Newport Beach.

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