Monday, October 17, 2005

Michael Barone's Patriotic Elite

For the life of me, I can't remember whether my jobs in journalism have brought me into contact with Michael Barone, of U.S. News and World Report. If they have, and if Mr. Barone treated me with civility and courtesy, then I will feel some measure of shame and remorse for calling him stupid.

But he is.

At least I'm not calling him evil. Or that most damning of all slurs: un-American.

In his latest column, Barone trots out the fecal chestnut that America's elite are un-American. I wrote yesterday about the fact that even a Republican senator is now championing elitism. This time, though, Barone adopts Samuel Huntington's argument that there's a growing trend among America's elite to reject identifying with America and to view matters from what's termed a "transnational perspective."

Barone's right about the latter, but doesn't understand why; which is why he's wrong about the former.

But let's look at what passes for his argument.

...Most Americans feel a shiver when they hear "The Star-Spangled Banner" played and reflect on the triumphs and tragedies that those serving under that flag have won and suffered over more than 200 years. You're part of something larger than yourself. But not all of us cherish ties to past traditions. "America's business, professional, intellectual, and academic elites," writes Samuel Huntington in his 2004 book Who Are We? have "attitudes and behavior [that] contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification with their country of the American public. . . . They abandon commitment to their nation and their fellow citizens and argue the moral superiority of identifying with humanity at large."...
I've spoken before of Bush's unique style of personnel assessment, which I've branded Cardio-Meritocracy for its reliance on the cardiac qualities of applicants. Now, Barone and Huntington hope to expand the franchise of biologically-based criteria into what once was -- and may some day be again -- the realm of rationality. They're championing a brand of nationalism I'll call Neuro-Reflexive Patriotism. Solidarity by shiver. Specialness by spasm. The thrill that turns gooseflesh into goose steps.

Barone (whom I'll pick on because I'll never read Huntington's no-doubt compelling book) suggests that Neuro-Reflexive Patriotism's power to provoke such (literally) unthinking responses stems from the wealth of thought and knowledge underlying patriotism. Our skin dimples because our brains cherish past traditions. (The weight he ascribes to the past, however, suggests that we should thrill not lyrically at the patriotism stirred by Francis Scott Key's words, but melodically at the drunkenness celebrated by the music itself, which is an older, German drinking song).

But the reality (sorry) is that Neuro-Reflexive Patriotism can be generated by awe-inspiring displays not just of one's own nation, but also by those of other nations, those of rival nations and even by displays lacking any context whatsoever.

Barone unmakes his point even in the process of trying to make it, with a condescending example that pauses briefly for a swipe at people who don't believe in magic: "Even nonbelievers often feel a twinge of awe when they attend Christian or Jewish weddings or funerals and witness liturgies with centuries-old roots."

Wow. Even NONbelievers. And you know what THEY'RE like. Of course nonbelievers feel awe at religious ceremonies. That's a point against you, Michael, not for you. Why? Because it illustrates that awe can be provoked even by expressions of sentiments with which you disagree. Hell, the fact that such displays hold power enough to provoke awe among even the doubtful is precisely why so many religions have them. And it ain't the antiquity of the religion on display that provokes this awe, either. No one's coming out of the Wolfowitz wedding more moved than they were at the Bush wedding simply because Judaism has lapped a few more millennia than Christianity has. So if it ain't age (and that's important to Barone's claim that patriotism is tied to the past) and it ain't ideology, what is it?

I hate to scare anyone, but it's science. In fact, it's not even particularly new science. Newsweek wrote about well-known neural aspects of religious experience years ago. Here's a pertinent selection:

Even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy. Hence the power of ritual. Drumming, dancing, incantations——all rivet attention on a single, intense source of sensory stimulation, including the body’s own movements. They also evoke powerful emotional responses. That combination——focused attention that excludes other sensory stimuli, plus heightened emotion——is key. Together, they seem to send the brain’s arousal system into hyperdrive, much as intense fear does.
So, can we consign the notion that biological reflex indicates intellectual endorsement to the same fate that awaits all biology? Great.

Barone goes on to argue that elites used to be American, but increasingly no longer are:

This gap is something new in our history. Franklin Roosevelt spoke fluent French and German and worked to create the United Nations, but no one doubted that his allegiance was to America above all. Most Harvard professors in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s felt a responsibility to help the United States prevail against its totalitarian enemies. But in the later stages of the Vietnam War--a war begun by elite liberals--elites on campuses began taking an adversary posture toward their own country.
Barone forgets to make the point that most of the rest of the country came to agree with the elites. Which makes the crime of the elites what? Haste?

Furthermore, if he wants us to accept an example from the past as evidence of change, he ought to try the thought experiment of transposing his example into the present. If Franklin Roosevelt were alive, and last week had advocated forcefully for the United Nations in fluent French, does Mr. Barone really think he could claim today with a straight face that "no one doubted his allegiance was to America above all"? This is an important point, that I'll return to. Right now, sorry, but more Barone:

Later, with globalization, a transnational mind-set grew among corporate and professional elites. Legal elites, too: Some Supreme Court justices have taken to citing foreign law as one basis for interpreting the U.S. Constitution. This gap between transnational elites and the patriotic public has reverberations in partisan politics. Americans in military service and those with strong religious beliefs now vote heavily Republican. Americans with strong patriotic feelings are more closely split between the parties, but the growing minority with transnational attitudes vote heavily Democratic. Which doesn't necessarily help the Democratic Party.
(Aside: Why is that? How exactly is that votes don't "necessarily" help a political party?)

Democrats Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck, both Clinton administration veterans, point out in a recent paper that two thirds of liberals, the dominant force in the party at least in 2004, reject pre-emptive use of military force and want to cut the defense budget, while only one third of the electorate agrees. "While social issues and defense dominate today's political terrain," they conclude, "it is in these areas that liberals espouse views diverging not only from those of other Democrats but from Americans as a whole. To the extent that liberals now constitute both the largest bloc within the Democratic coalition and the public face of the party, Democratic candidates for national office will be running uphill."
While I don't blame Barone for latching onto Democratic self-defeatism, the argument fails for two reasons. For one, liberals are still (last time I checked) part of "Americans as a whole." For another, the same argument could be directed more easily at the Bush wing of the Republican party. Most Americans don't agree with his views, but no one describes him as "diverging...from Americans as a whole." More on this (really!) in a minute.

"A nation's morale and strength derive from a sense of the past," argues historian Wilfred McClay. Ties to those who came before--whether in the military, in religion, in general patriotism--provide a sense of purpose rooted in history and tested over time. Secular transnational elites are on their own, without a useful tradition, in constructing a morality to help them perform their duties. Most Americans sense they need such ties to the past, to judge from the millions buying books about Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers. We Americans are lucky to live in a country with a history full of noble ideas, great leaders, and awe-inspiring accomplishments. Sadly, many of our elites want no part of it.
Now we're in deep in the heart of Bullshit Country. Some quick exit routes:

  • Ask Barone and his historian friend what national past gave the America of 1776 its morale and strength.
  • Ask Barone whether he really thinks the elites don't make up the most solid bloc of those "millions" buying books about America's noble ideas and great leaders.
  • Ask Barone whether the cadre of revolutionaries he cites really, truly wanted us to ground our nation in the past, or whether their very lives provided evidence that greatness comes from challenging oneself and one's nation to do better than one's forbears did.
Now, I promised I'd explain why Barone's misunderstanding of the alleged move toward transnationalism led him to conclude that America's "elites" are rejecting America. I also said I'd explain why the Roosevelt example is so important; as well as why Barone can claim that the presumably liberal elite is "diverging" from America, while President Bush, freed by a compliant Congress to do his will, is finding fewer Americans support his policies the more they see of them and the more time those policies have to yield their results. The key to understanding all these things lies in a mistake Barone's intellectual, ideological and theological predecessors made:

Observing an object far, far away, they mistakenly concluded that the object was moving and that they were stationary. The reverse was true then and is true now. The sun was not moving, its observers were.

Liberal elites are not moving away from America or patriotism. Those things are being dragged away from us. It's not merely that the government has adopted principles that are inherently anti-American: It's that the government has done so openly, and millions of Americans have embraced it. Neuro-Reflexive Patriotism may explain why they've done so, but that doesn't make their embrace less real.

At some point -- surely even Barone would agree -- patriots have to decide whether their country is acting in the right or in the wrong. At some point, patriots have to ask whether a country, and a people, that embrace wrong over right can cease to become a country worth patriotism.

When the fundamental, historically-based principles of American patriotism become inoperative -- when questioning authority, demanding higher standards from our leaders than from our foes, seeking accountability for all, promoting social equality for the targets of racial or religious bias, defending the future of the country against those who would bleed it dry now and praising the virtues of adversarial journalism and politics are all portrayed as un- rather than quintessentially American -- to what are the liberal elites, the French-speaking U.N. defenders, supposed to turn as the standards for determining what is right? We've turned -- as Barone rightly observes, but from which he mistakenly extrapolates -- to other sources and exemplars of the virtues that we once proudly called American. To the extent we've become "transnational," it's because Barone and Bush and their ilk have dragged America itself away from its American character, the very roots Barone so hypocritically exalts.

America was founded not because the land upon which it was built merited sanctification, not because the name "America" possessed special powers. America was founded as a political and social mechanism to promote specific, reason-based virtues and enable Americans to live better, enriched, enlightened lives as a result of those virtues. Patriotism ultimately should be, must be (if the rational are to defend it), an allegiance first to the virtues our nation historically espoused and embodied. And if that requires standing in opposition to those who have, however temporarily, highjacked this nation away from its intended pursuit of those virtues, then rejecting Barone's version of patriotism becomes the very definition of the word.

3 comments:

snarlymon said...

Just wanted to thank you for your astute analysis. Conservatives have been able to use glittering generalities and false dilemas to claim the mantle "protectors of freedom" for too long. Our country was founded on a set of ideals that would still be considered liberal or even radical in many areas of the globe, and we have not always been able to live up to those ideals. But as our country is dragged toward theocracy, our freedoms are sacrificed for "security", and our economy and resources are squandered for short term political advantage, a true patriot must speak out. considering republicans falling poll numbers, perhaps now there are more Americans who are willing to listen.

iWzthnkin said...

It is hard to think that people can be so oblivious to our deepest, innate traditional belonging, that of the human race.

'Course, I am not sure these 'mystical morons' qualify for that membership, either.

Steven L. said...

You claim that transnational attitudes are somehow the fault of Bush's policies.

Yet in my own personal experience, liberals' transnationalism was very much in evidence during the Clinton Administration as well.

Going back to the 1990's, while Clinton was President and Bush was still governor of Texas maybe, did you feel a greater sense of patriotism toward America and a lesser sense of transnationalism than you do now?

Newer Post Older Post Home