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Misidentifying The 'Patriotism Gap'

The night of the Iowa caucuses, during Barack Obama’s speech, the assembled crowd began shouting, “USA! USA!” TNR’s Frank Foer noted, “I do

The night of the Iowa caucuses, during Barack Obama’s speech, the assembled crowd began shouting, “USA! USA!” TNR’s Frank Foer noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a crowd of Democratic primary voters erupt in a spontaneous display like this…. Liberals who credibly bathe themselves in patriotism greatly increase their chances — and, in this case, prepare themselves well for running against John McCain.”

I’ve noticed that much of Obama’s message touches on explicitly patriotic themes, and has for several years. But today, Jonah Goldberg explains that it’s unsatisfactory, because Obama doesn’t specifically use the word “patriotism” enough.

“Unity is the great need of the hour.... Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. I’m not talking about a budget deficit.... I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

So quoth Barack Obama in Atlanta on Jan. 20, but it might as well have been last week, so central is unity to his presidential campaign.... What is fascinating here is not the sentiment, but what’s missing from it. The P-word.

To invoke patriotism seriously is to brand yourself either an old fogy or a right-wing bully. If Obama spoke about patriotism with the sort of passion he expends on unity, many would take him for some sort of demagogue.

It’s possible I’m insufficiently patriotic to fully understand the argument — I think I love my country, but I’m not sure if I meet the right’s standards. Goldberg seems to be arguing that the left’s problem isn’t that we're unpatriotic, but rather, that we don’t talk about patriotism enough. Presumably, if the left used the “P-word” more often, conservatives would have more confidence in our loyalties.

Or something. With Goldberg, it's sometimes hard to follow the argument.

He added that, in this post-Vietnam era, the left “amputated itself from full-throated patriotic sentiment.” He added, “One cannot credibly talk of love of country while simultaneously dodging the word and concept of patriotism.... [O]ne cannot sufficiently love one’s country if you are afraid to say so out loud.”

It’s rather bewildering. The column isn’t about patriotism, or honoring the nation’s highest ideals, or acting in such a way as to protect the nation’s values, traditions, and institutions; it’s about rhetoric.

In this sense, a politico can give a rah-rah speech, and wrap himself in the flag, while opposing American civil liberties, stifling dissent, and supporting policies like torture and the elimination of habeas corpus. But so long as this person uses the “P-word” and wears the stars and stripes are on his lapel, there’s a “patriotism gap.”

It’s good to know. Patriotic beliefs are nice, but talking about patriotic beliefs is vital.

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