Contingency, Irony, Patriotism

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As a July 5 observation on patriotism, it's become increasingly common to think that there's a liberal form of patriotism and a conservative form, and that the liberal form has something to do with a self-critical spirit whereas conservatives take on a more of a "my country right or wrong" attitude. You can see Peter Beinart for some well-done thoughts along these lines.

Increasingly, though, I think this is wrong and would instead describe the liberal attitude toward patriotism as a special case of the kind of thing Richard Rorty deals with in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Up on a terrace yesterday with a bunch of somewhat buzzed people watching fireworks and shouting taunts against England and Canada and extolling the virtues of America as seen in explosions, loud noises, old TV theme songs, and grilled meats it seemed to me that the liberal experience of patriotism is really just the same as the conservative one.

And that's as it should be. American liberals and American conservatives are both Americans so our American patriotism is very similar. We just have different ideas about politics. Specifically, I would say that liberals do a better job of recognizing that much as we may love America there's something arbitrary about it -- we're just so happen to be Americans whereas other people are Canadians or Mexicans or French or Russian or what have you. The conservative view is more like those Bill Simmons columns where not only is he extolling the virtues of this or that Boston sports team or moment, but he seems to genuinely not understand why other people don't see it that way. But of course Simmons is from Boston and others of us aren't.

All of which is to say the liberal doesn't, as a political matter, confuse the emotions of patriotism with a description of objective reality or anticipate that the citizens of Iraq or Russia or China or wherever will drop their own patriotisms and come to see things our way. Patriotism is a sentiment about your particular country but it's also a sentiment that's much more widespread than any particular country, and if you can't understand the full implications of that then you're going to go badly wrong.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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