The Intellectuals and the Flag

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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After the 9/11 terror attacks, the academic and writer Todd Gitlin bought an American flag and hung it from his terrace.

Oh you say: So did you? So did millions of people? Yes they did. But Gitlin is a well-known left-wing writer and academic, whose record of fierce protest dates back beyond Vietnam. The idea of him flying the flag was so startling that the New York Times ran a story about it on September 19, 2001. After which story, Gitlin reports,

a lot of friendly mail came my way, and some not so friendly: some tut-tuts, some insults.

Gitlin appreciates that this latter reaction might seem startling to most (virtually all) his fellow-Americans. So he set about to understand and explain,

Why this fervent debate? Why did left-wingers of my generation get into arguments with their children, who wanted to fly flags from their windows? Why should many intellectuals have seen the flag as a betrayal? What was it betraying?

This explanation he hoped would lead him to a justification – a new liberal patriotism, a patriotism that could stir the hearts of the “intellectuals” to whom this book is addressed.

Patriotism is an important background theme in this election year. The Democrats are likely to nominate a presidential candidate whose pastor has called on God to damn America and whose wife confesses that she has never in her life till now felt proud of her country. The candidate himself belittles flags and other symbols of nationhood as false and meaningless. Obama’s supporters of course bitterly resent any questions about the patriotism issue. But they could also use some answers.

The Intellectuals and the Flag seems as good a place as any to look for such answers. And the most interesting thing about the book is how signally it fails to provide them.

Like the unknown political genius who coached Obama supporters to chant “USA! USA!” at their early political rallies, Gitlin wants to believe in the possibility of a patriotic left. Yet when it comes time to sketch what such a patriotic left would look like … he cannot do it. The result is a botch of a book, a book that barely even addresses the title topic. The Intellectuals and the Flag is not a completed work. It is a collection of six essays, the first four of which are only very remotely relevant to the project at hand. The last title essay is an ill-organized, disconnected, and dissatisfying mess … reflecting perhaps its origin as a series of disconnected blogposts in the first days after 9/11.

Yet I was not just being polite when I called this failure “interesting.” Gitlin’s failure is not Gitlin’s alone. The consultants who hoped to identify Barack Obama with a new left-wing patriotism also failed, undone first by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and then by their candidate’s feeble and unconvincing response to the Rev. Wright. Barack Obama’s patriotism strategy ended by highlighting his patriotism problem. Perhaps Gitlin’s unsuccessful attempt to solve the left’s patriotism problem can help us understand Obama’s more consequential failure too.

Gitlin, it seems to me, fails for three principal reasons:

First, Gitlin does not take his own project seriously enough. Left-wing anti-Americanism irks him as bad politics. In the first weeks after 9/11, left-wing anti-Americanism offended him as disrespectful to the dead. But otherwise, Gitlin brings scant moral energy to his subject. There is a curt nod of disapproval in the direction of Noam Chomsky. Otherwise, Gitlin seems neither shocked nor scandalized by the anti-Americanism of the left. When he writes about left-wing anti-Americanism he does so in a wan, attenuated, periphrastic way:

To put it mildly, my generation of the New Left – a generation that swelled as the [Vietnam] war ground on – relinquished any title to patriotism without much sense of loss because it felt to us that the perpetrators of unjust war had run off with the patrium [sic].

Yes, that does put it mildly.

Gitlin never gets around to acknowleding in plain direct language that the New Left was wrong. Indeed, the only energy you find in his writing comes when he lists the causes and motives that drove his sect away from patriotism. When he writes about that, suddenly enthusiasm grips him. If we were wrong, he wants to say, we were wrong for good cause, wrong for admirable motives, wrong because we were in some deeper sense right. In his telling, anti-Americanism may be a fault, yes, but only the sort of fault to which over-eager applicants confess in job interviews. “My faults? I just care too darn much!”

Like Obama, who could never muster any shock or indignation until Rev. Wright ceased denouncing America and started criticizing him, Gitlin’s patriotism excuses, condones, and still inwardly sympathizes with anti-patriotism.

Gitlin’s book fails, second, because the patriotism he advocates is a patriotism without content and without qualities. In this again, he reminds me of Obama. The senator, remember, condemned the flag lapel pin as a substitute for “true patriotism.” Not an indefensible point of view, in my opinion – provided that you actually mean something by the phrase “true patriotism.” It becomes uncomfortably clear over Gitlin’s few pages that his concept of a left-wing patriotism does not mean anything.

Gitlin’s version of patriotism urges Americans to develop broader and more generous social programs to aid their fellow-citizens and to equalize their condition. But why call this “patriotism”? Why not “welfarism” or “collectivism” or “socialism”?

If it is “true patriotism” to enact universal health insurance, improve pre-K education, or advance other social goals, one has to wonder why we need the concept of patriotism at all – or indeed whether the person advancing these goals attaches any real meaning to this redundant concept. He may invoke the word “patriotism” to soothe acceptance of political goals that have nothing to do with patriotism, as George Lakoff urged Democrats to adapt the language of “freedom” to lull Americans into accepting a very different program of economic egalitarianism. Seems rather Orwellian to me.

Here’s a third problem. Like Obama in his Philadelphia race speech, Gitlin tries to distinguish between the fearfully flawed United States as it is – and the reformed country into which the United States might evolve. It is the latter, hypothetical, country that deserves patriotic affection. But there is this one problem: that hypothetical country does not as yet exist. This is not patriotism – it is a wish fantasy.

And it is this wish fantasy, this shrinking from realities, this attempt to let phrases do the work of real ideas, that is the ultimate failure not just of a single book, but of the whole new approach to patriotism that this book and the Obama campaign attempts to sell a rightly skeptical America.

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