Is there Any Place for Patriotism on the Left? Michael Kazin and Rafia Zakaria DebateHistorians in the News
tags: patriotism, nationalism, radical history
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University, emeritus coeditor of Dissent, and the author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015), Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017), and Against White Feminism (W.W. Norton, 2021).
There are two good reasons why every American progressive should be a patriot. One is emotional, the other practical—and they reinforce one another.
I love my country. I love our passionate and endlessly inventive culture of music, sports, literature, and film, which has thrilled and influenced people all over the world. I cherish our civic ideals of social equality, individual freedom, and populist democracy—as well as the unending struggle to put their laudable, if often contradictory, claims into practice.
But you need not share my emotion to recognize a political reality: One cannot engage effectively in the democratic process without being part of a community of feeling. And for most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is a community they are willing to defend.
Iconic figures on the left have always understood this. They have demonstrated that American patriotism could serve tolerant, egalitarian ends as well as racist, authoritarian, and imperialist ones. Tom Paine praised his adopted homeland as an “asylum for mankind,” which gave him a forum to denounce regressive taxes and landed aristocracies. Frederick Douglass based his hopes for the abolition of slavery on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions” as well as an interracial movement for freedom. Eugene Debs described socialism, in the American idiom, as “the equal rights of all to manage and control” society; while Mother Jones, the great labor organizer, accused coal mine operators of crushing the self-respect of their workers. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed during the Montgomery bus boycott that “if we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong” and “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
This past January, an Indian family died during their attempt to illegally cross into the US from Canada. Canadian police found their frozen bodies in a field—father, mother, and two children—just 12 yards from the border. They may have thought that the blizzard and poor visibility would work in their favor, keeping them hidden from the eyes of the US Border Patrol.
I recount this story because it depicts the hypocrisy of liberal patriotism. Belief in the equality of human beings and a commitment to the welfare of less fortunate others, this example shows, are readily abandoned when it comes to the rights of those who are deemed “others” by accidents of inheritance and geography. A country with a border regime that has made instant detention normal even for asylum seekers is not one that values dignity for all humans. Commentators like British author George Monbiot have likened patriotism to racism. In his essay “The New Chauvinism,” Monbiot points out that patriotism produces a proclivity to attack other countries and that national allegiance does nothing to reduce human suffering. The United States and its “patriotic” wars are examples of this phenomenon. Monbiot asks rhetorically, “If patriotism were not such a powerful force in the US, could Bush have invaded Iraq?”
As right-wing populism gains strength, some have called for the US left to embrace patriotic sentiments and not leave “love of the flag” to white supremacists. This is misguided, because the result would be to eviscerate the left’s already limited commitments to supranational humanitarianism and ending the catastrophes caused by the United States’ patriotic wars. One example is the relative silence of liberals in the face of President Biden’s decision to seize Afghan currency reserves and distribute half the funds to the victims of 9/11. The terms of this plan demonstrate that compensating Americans for an attack that occurred over 20 years ago (and in which no Afghan was directly involved) is valued more than helping the millions of people in Afghanistan on the brink of starvation. Biden’s plan invokes patriotism to cover up the administration’s outrageous cruelty and indifference to mass death. The American invasion, the botched withdrawal, and the theft of Afghan money have left Afghanistan with a famine that could kill hundreds of thousands—but those who carry out diktats in the name of patriotism seem entirely comfortable with this.