Civic Virtue

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Regrettably, our conversation got waylaid yesterday by politics in a debate over the meaning "is." That's my fault. I was away closing out a print piece, and left something open when I knew I shouldn't have. Generally, anything over 400 comments--with 200 of them revolving around the same small point--means that wisdom has left the room. Again, this takes about to Toni Morrison and disabusement (more on that later.) When the powers in a state brag that a new law will help their candidate win, and admit that the law is being passed in response to a phantom crime, debating that law becomes uninteresting. It's just more disabusement. Again that's my fault as a moderator, though. I'm sorry about that.


But this question of civic virtue (since "republican virtue" makes everyone think of Rush Limbaugh)  is very interesting to me, mostly because we as liberals are still uncomfortable with it. If we can rescue some of this thread from yesterday, I think it's worth looking at this portion offered by AbsurdBeats this one from WM Rine, and this other one offered by IPMasked (You guys and your names. Yes, I know. I am one to talk.)

As expressed in those comments, a lot of the problem on the left is deep skepticism of patriotism. We see flags and we think of militarism, exclusion and nationalism. But if you're going to involve yourself in the politics of your country you had better see more in its symbols and rituals than all its historical failings. 

This is more than a cynical or utilitarian point. It's also about the core mission of intellectual life--to see things as they are. I'm pretty sure I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address when I was in high school, and I'm pretty sure I dismissed as more hypocritical talk about American freedom:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Except that Lincoln really was kinda telling the truth. At the onset of the Civil War, unfreedom was the norm for much of the world, and the notion of "government by the people" was hotly contested theory:

By 1855, more than half a century after French and American revolutionaries created self-governing republics, democratic governments were still few and feeble on both sides of the Atlantic, and the enemies of democracy--monarchs, aristocrats, and their conservative defenders--still clung tightly to the reins of power in almost every state. Clandestine networks of agitators like Mazzini tried to revive popular revolution in Europe after 1815, but most members of these groups were forced to live in exile, and in their new homes they still often aroused suspicion for their radical views. 

Even when French revolutionaries succeeded in overturning another monarch in 1830, the French electorate grew only to around 200,000 men--a number representing less than 1 percent of the whole population.12 Elsewhere, universal suffrage remained as controversial as the idea of immediate emancipation in the United States. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary reformers modified the composition of the electorate with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. But by 1848, despite a massive decade-long Chartist movement calling for universal manhood suffrage, the number of Englishmen who could vote still hovered consistently at just under 20 percent of all adult males in England. Another broadening of the franchise would not occur until a second Reform Bill in 1867, whose merits Garrison heard being debated in the House of Commons before he lunched with Mill.



In the United States, by contrast, universal white manhood suffrage was the law in most states by 1855, making the country an unusual experiment in political democracy. Just as many European and American writers turned to the British West Indies or Haiti to observe the effects of slave emancipation, scores of European travelogues, essays, and books about American democracy appeared in the decades when abolitionists were most active. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840, was only the most famous. As Mill noted in the first of his two reviews of that book, the United States was "usually cited by the two great parties which divide Europe as an argument for or against democracy. Democrats have sought to prove by it that we ought to be democrats; aristocrats, that we should cleave to aristocracy, and withstand the democratic spirit."

That's from W. Caleb McDaniel's new book The Problem of Democracy in The Age of Slavery. Perhaps we have our next number for the book club. This is all very hard for the liberal mind to take. The moralist in us agrees with Douglass and sees great hypocrisy, but the historian sees something more complicated--a halting, and by no means irreversible, advance toward democracy.

My point here is that when we hail ourselves as the "Land of the Free" it is not rooted in ether. It's an actual thing. We worry about that kind of symbolism being employed by racist, militarists and demagogues. One way to ensure that outcome is to flee the field, to cede patriotism to people who talk of the "real Virginia."

But that just strikes me as escapism. Aren't all nations problems? Aren't all families? Aren't all people?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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