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The Far-Right's Patriotism Problem

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Jonah Goldberg continues to demonstrate how the right-wing is manipulating public discourse in order to confuse and conflate patriotism with rabid nationalism. Make no mistake, this is a coordinated effort to deliberately replace substance with its symbol, meaning with an emblem, and essentially strip language down to nothing but trinkets.

This is not a new phenomenon of course. We have seen such careful linguistic choreography before, when past authoritarian ideologues have distorted language in order to stifle individualism and dissenting views.

For a people to be controlled, they must first be robbed of honest discourse and open debate. Distorting language and stripping it of real and honest meaning is the first tool and the best mechanism for transforming a democracy into an authoritarian state. An informed populace is a dangerous populace.

Symbols, however, and false-definitions can provide the appearance of information without the truth of it. Ideas, substance and meaning -- all things for which a symbol is simply a representation and a word simply a type of symbol -- are far more difficult to control. There is nuance in individual ideas. There are shades of agreement and disagreement and a whole spectrum of understanding and believing. Such a complex system cannot be controlled, and therefore, must be reduced to only its symbol and then distorted.

Symbols and words-as-slogans can be mass produced, mass delivered, and altered from their original meaning, until the symbol becomes its own thing and the substance on which it is based is entirely lost.

A word's usage too can be tweaked through false definitions and repetition, until it too becomes entirely the opposite of its actual meaning.

Patriotism is the word that authoritarians most like to distort and Goldberg demonstrates -- once again -- just how this distortion is created.

Obama's Patriotism Problem:

Here is what Goldberg writes today about the term patriotism and how Barack Obama, according to Goldberg, is not really a patriot at all:

"Barack Obama has a patriotism problem that even Monday's flag-waving trip to Independence, Mo., can't squelch. And it doesn't have anything to do with his lapel pin.

--- snip---

In part because liberal commentators have such a hard time grasping why patriotism should be an issue at all, and the GOP is so clumsy explaining why it's important, the debate often gets boiled down to symbols. Like so much else about Obama, his position on the lapel flag changes with the needs of the moment. After 9/11, he wore it. During the debates over the Iraq war, he stopped because he saw the flag as a sign of support for President Bush. (He started wearing it again in May.) "I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest," he added in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

Read that line again: "What I believe will make this country great."

Not to sound too much like a Jewish mother, but some might respond, "What? It's not great now?"

This sense that America is in need of fixing in order to be a great country points to Obama's real patriotism problem. And it's not Obama's alone."

Actually no one of rational thought has a problem with patriotism being an issue. In fact, patriotism should be THE issue. The problem is that Goldberg and those like him have no concept of patriotism actually means. More disturbingly too, they confuse patriotism with nationalism.

Miriam-Webster defines patriotism as "love for or devotion to one's country." Every other dictionary I have consulted provides a similar if not exact definition.

Nowhere does the term or the idea of patriotism in general require one to believe one's country is "great." Nowhere does the term or the idea of patriotism in general require a ban on dissenting views, on criticism of one's government, indeed even of one's nation.

An Example
Let us try a different approach to illustrate just exactly what is wrong with people like Goldberg and their ideas on patriotism.

A mother of a heroin addict, for example, is critical of her child's drug abuse and wants it to stop. The mother wants only the best for her child. Does the mother's criticism of the child's actions in any way illustrate that she does not love her child? On the contrary, it is because the mother loves her child and is devoted to her child that she wants her child to be better, greater than he/she is.

When someone is critical of their country and especially when their country strays from its course, it does not mean the person is not patriotic. It means that the person loves their country enough to want only the best for it. They want it to be greater than what it already is or they want it to be as great as it once was. But criticism of a country is not akin to being un-patriotic. Only a rabid nationalist would make such an argument and only Goldberg manages to continue to do it this badly. After all, this is the same man who authored "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" and in all seriousness.

Nationalists, rabid right-wing advocates of symbol worship, on the other hand are entirely what Goldberg and his ilk define as patriots. It may entirely be possible that some of these boot-marching androids are simply ignorant and accept whatever canned-pro-America products they are sold. They are in essence, the perfect vessel for an authoritarian regime. But others, like Goldberg, who have spent their lives devoting themselves to the art of conflation, distortion, and revisionism, know exactly what they are doing.

Believe this or else

Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism ~ George Washington

Goldberg proves my point entirely when he goes on to define patriotism and actually ends up defining nationalism (while claiming to be differentiating the two):

"Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is."

In other words, your government can do no wrong. You must never doubt your government or question its ways. So when my America began to openly torture people and publicly denounced the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," I should have been waving my little Chinese made American flag while admiring the inherent goodness of my government. According to Goldberg, it is not the defense of the Constitution or the liberty it guarantees or even a simple love of country that makes us patriots. No, for Goldberg and his kind, the "true patriot" must surrender their reason and their conscience, and simply know (without knowing in any meaningful way) that their government can do no wrong.

I am not a patriot by this perverted definition. What of my own conscience? Should I fully support that which is entirely abhorrent to me being done in my name by my own government? What if my own government is even ashamed of what it is doing - in my name - so much so that it publicly denies its actions and publicly denounces those governments who engage in the same types of actions? At what point do I have a right to say no Mr. Goldberg? At what point does the ugly truth become more important than the pretty lie?

No, Jonah, that is not the definition of patriotism. That is exactly what Il Duce demanded from his citizens; a total abandonment of self, conscience, and all things individual and human to the mechanism of the state, for the state could do no wrong.

That is what the Soviets demanded. That is what the Nazis demanded. That is what Franco demanded. That is what Pinochet demanded. But never for a moment is this type of perverted understanding of patriotism something that any of our forefathers demanded. Indeed, our entire country was based on the principle that the governed have a right, even a duty, to hold their government accountable. How then, can we hold our government accountable, Mr. Goldberg, if we believe that our government is inherently good? And if our government, representing and governing the country we live in, is inherently good, then why do we have a system of checks and balances?

No Mr. Goldberg, what you describe is not patriotism and what you criticize Senator Obama for is not the lack of patriotism. What you describe and what you demand is rabid nationalism.