The Meaning of Patriotism

Last fall, I began reading Hillbilly Elegy. I wanted to see how the author, J.D. Vance, would deal with the question of class. I was particularly interested to see if his experiences at Yale Law School were anything like mine. They were in one respect – we were both introduced to sparkling water at large law firms and couldn’t understand why anyone would drink the stuff.
I finished reading the book after the election. Vance’s memoir is more an effort to deal with his dysfunctional upbringing than an explanation of the white working class’s electoral preferences. There are no more than a half dozen political comments in the volume. Before the election, I quickly glossed over them. After the election, the asides, however brief, rankled. The one to which I kept returning was his declaration that his people were “patriotic.” Yet, he gave the idea of patriotism no content. It made me reflect on my own upbringing.
My working class family certainly thought of itself as patriotic. My father had fought in World War II and he identified strongly with that service. When we moved out to the suburbs, he bought a flagpole and mounted it in the center of our front yard, flying the flag every day the weather permitted.
Beyond the flag, however, my parents’ patriotism had content that they frequently repeated. Most of the litany was “this is a great country because” and the most important because was that the country embraced us. All four of my grandparents had come from Italy around the turn of the twentieth century. My parents kept telling us as children that we would be “American.” For my brother and me, with our blue eyes, blond hair, and inability to speak any language other than English, this was a source of amusement. But we also understood that our parents meant that we were to embrace American values.
The first of those values was the importance of education. Two of my four grandparents had been illiterate. My parents had been the first in their families to complete high school and they felt deprived of the opportunity to go further. They spent our childhood telling us that education was the American secret to success and that we must be prepared to seize the opportunities America offered.
In Catholic school, the nuns also taught us about what it meant to be American. They prepared us to do battle with our perceived enemies – the Protestants, who we were told would challenge our faith. But we were also taught that we could be loyal Americans and good Catholics because of the separation of church and state. The need to separate private devotion from public leadership was central to our understanding of citizenship. We saw tolerance as the great American virtue, and learned that it was something we owed others if we were to demand it for ourselves.
Next in my parents’ litany of “this is a great country” was their belief that the United States was strong and prosperous because, unlike Italy, it got things done. As a child, I read Mark Twain’s, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which captured the idea of the United States as a nation of tinkerers open to innovation. My father, who was a carpenter, liked the idea. He was proud that he had voted for every winning presidential candidate from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter – irrespective of party. His winning streak ended with Ronald Reagan. He didn’t vote for Reagan for the same reason he didn’t vote for George McGovern: he saw both as radicals who put commitment to ideology over pragmatism, that is, ahead of doing what the nation needed at the time.
These notions of patriotism informed my family’s definition of effective leadership. My first cousin became the Republican Majority Leader of the New York State Senate when Mario Cuomo was the Democratic governor. He liked to say that he respected Cuomo and Cuomo respected him. The two of them had come from similar backgrounds and while they often differed politically, respect meant thinking of each other as intelligent, competent and willing, when the necessary time came, to cut the deals necessary to get the state’s business done.
These clear distinctions between public leadership and private commitments informed my own sense of professionalism. I remember my surprise in the eighties when I sat down with a new faculty member. She began the conversation by announcing, “I am a feminist.” I thought to myself: “If you were to look at the sum total of my beliefs, you could say I am a feminist, too. But what does it mean to tell somewhat that in your first extended discussion? Does it mean that you have made up your mind before you hear the facts? That you put loyalty to the cause ahead of loyalty to the institution that just hired you?”
My cousin the majority leader, who was substantially older than I, died a while ago. In 2005, I stopped by to see his widow who was dying of cancer. When I walked in the door, in the only political conversation we ever had, the first thing she said to me was, “Does anyone still support George W. Bush? We had his number in 2000. We can’t believe anyone still supports him.” My cousins, lifelong Republicans, felt betrayed by the direction their party had taken.
Is there anything left of the notions of patriotism that my working class family once held dear? It’s hard to find them in today’s politics. But the academy is changing. When I moved from California to the Midwest ten years ago, I was pleased to find a less ideologically divided faculty despite a range of political views. My new colleagues told me that the faculty had been more factionalized a few years earlier. But the most polarizing of the professors had left, and those who remained were determined not to rekindle the conflicts. They had recreated a leadership ideal that made commitment to the whole more important that uncompromising purity or partisan loyalties. Let us hope that there is a way to do so for the country as a whole.

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1 Response

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