Muted Patriotism Comes Out of the Closet

by Thomas Griffith

Though much has been made of the flag-waving unity brought on by Iran, another change strikes me as more remarkable if harder to prove. This is the amount of patriotic feeling that the Ayatollah has aroused among congenital non-flag-wavers, those Americans who do not usually think of themselves as patriotic, and might not admit to it if Dr. Gallup asked them. Khomeini’s wild fulminations against us have proven to be the final step in bringing some closet patriots out of the closet, and I suspect that this will be of more lasting importance than the ardor of the flag-wavers.

Some closet patriots have been estranged from their country’s dominant spirit for a long time; others are simply not the kind to wear a love of country on their sleeves or flaunt it from a flagpole.

Once, if I remember my childhood aright, people put out flags on the Fourth of July as naturally as they put a jagged-toothed pumpkin on the porch in October, or a wreath on the door at Christmas. In World War II a household flew the flag with more pride if it had someone in the service, or as a kind of memorial if it had a Gold Star Mother, but no rude comparisons were intended. It took the domestic division over Vietnam to turn the display of the American flag into a gesture that seemed to say, “I’m patriotic—and you’re not,” much as the bumper sticker I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS irritatingly implies AND YOU PROBABLY DON’T. I have friends who generally supported the war and their country, but hesitated in that atmosphere to put out a flag for fear of indicating sympathy with hardhat intolerance.

A muted kind of patriotism had been with us a long time. It did not mean that one lacked pride, or at least satisfaction, in being American. Muted patriotism was a combination of many feelings, most of which I shared. The simplest could have been a distaste for chauvinistic display and the swaggering bragging that went with it. Or it could have been a deep distrust of politicians, advertisers, profiteers, and scoundrels who wrapped themselves in the flag with other ends in mind. But most fundamental was the conviction that too often the flag was waved to further the most bellicose, adventuresome, and ill-advised of policies. “My country, right or wrong” too easily became “America may be wrong, but what of it?” Perhaps in our muted patriotism we were smug; we thought we needed no instruction from the more militant in how to behave loyally; we sternly expected the United States to act in such a way that we could always be proud of it.

It may be hard to remember a blinding innocence and idealism about those days. We thought, in the future other nations would become more like us, and be the better for it. A quarrelsome Europe would learn to live in peace with its neighbors as we did; the colonially repressed nations of Asia and Africa would get their freedom and become as democratic as we were; the poor and unhealthy, with our help, would become healthier and wealthier in all those nations not yet called the Third World because there was only One World a-comin’. A cultural cosmopolitanism was part of the mood; we had wealth and ideals to spread, but we had things to learn, too. The English and the Scandinavians could instruct us in civic decency, the French could teach us how to cook, and the Italians, how to live. To belong to a “Western” civilization, to which each contributed its peculiar strengths, seemed a worthier destiny than narrow nationalism.

The Cold War destroyed that innocence and dashed those dreams, but it took the sixties to darken our mood about ourselves. That’s when it became possible to wear the American flag contemptuously on the seat of the jeans; became possible not only to disagree with a secretary of state but to think he should be put on trial as a war criminal; became possible to argue that the leaders in Hanoi were morally superior not only to Saigon but to Washington. In such a time of self-hatred, it was not enough to deplore the present; it became a fashion to trash the American past. By a process of historical revisionism, our Founding Fathers became not enlightened philosophers but hypocritical racists; the conquest of the American West ceased to be the courageous story of pioneers triumphing over adversity and became a ruthless war of genocide against the Indians. We were an evil presence in the world. Of course, not many Americans felt this way, but the rhetoric of those who did entered our bloodstream. Some Americans might find us a poor helpless giant, but to others we were an arrogant, overbearing menace.

Long before the Ayatollah came along, this picture of ourselves in the world began to look distorted, even to those who accepted its thesis in some uncritical back part of their minds. For one thing, it got wrong the relationship of the rest of the world to us.

There are at least three ideas that determine our place in the world. One is power, where we have declined both absolutely and relatively—with the ending of our nuclear monopoly, with the economic recovery of Western Europe and Japan from World War II, and with the financial gouging we are being subjected to by the oil nations. The second is the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” urged on us in the Declaration of Independence. The third — different from the second, though often confused with it—is how seriously we must take those “opinions of mankind” as voiced by governments, rulers, or mass chants of street demonstrators. On this point we are getting more clear-headed.

We judge our friends the Western Europeans to be with us in any final showdown, but they do not feel that at all other points along the way their national interests and ours must coincide. We no longer greet the French with “Lafayette, we are here!”, expecting to be kissed on both cheeks. About the Russians we are wary and disapproving but not jittery. Compared to us, however, they cannot make their economic system work and they dare not allow their people any real freedom. Their own disregard of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” can be seen in Afghanistan and in Cambodia. Carter’s response to Afghanistan was not jingoistic, nor is it likely to be denounced as such by our muted patriots. This is a rellection of the new change. As for poor Cambodia, its people are either starved or slaughtered while Russia and China ruthlessly contend by proxy on its soil. Consider their disreputable proxies: for China, the doctrinaire fanatics once led by Pol Pot; for the Russians, those alien invaders from Hanoi who gave the world the Vietnamese boat people. Either side in this struggle makes the Diem, Thieu, and Ky regimes we once hesitated to support seem like benign and amateur despotisms. Who condemns Russia’s, or China’s, behavior in Cambodia?

For that matter, who besides the Europeans ever has a good word to say about us in the United Nations? Our diplomats there can sometimes soften a condemnation of us, or persuade a nation to abstain rather than to vote against us; they hear private assurances that diplomats don’t really mean all of the ritual rant they employ against us. But most UN debates are simple contests between the have-nots, who are many and resentful, and the haves. Until the blatancy of Afghanistan, Russia could pass itself off as defender of have-nots everywhere; but we are inescapably the leading “have” nation—and nothing can cleanse us of that original sin.

Being a self-examining people, we have decided of late that we don’t want to get too cozy with tyrants anymore, and don’t want our secret services corrupting other nations, or intriguing in assassinations. A “decent respect” for our own ideals prompts these changes, whether or not we stand condemned by the “opinions of mankind.” What is not tolerable is for the United States to be castigated as evil by those who in their own nations brook no opposition, imprison without fair trial, rule without justice. Patrick Moynihan felt that way: his thesis was correct, but it kept him from winning any popularity contests at the UN. There, where the vote of tiny Mauritius counts as much as Canada’s, the truly democratic nations are a small, huddled lot. Almost all Latin America is in the grip of military dictators; newly independent African states are ruled by one-party strongmen, some of them gently paternal, others irrational butchers. In no Middle Eastern nation except Israel is there true parliamentary democracy. Add to this collection the Soviet Union and those “people’s democracies” loyal to it only because of the presence of Soviet troops. The UN is sometimes useful for defusing crises, and for making the powerful explain their actions. But it is always uphill work, for the UN is a poor forum in which to take a vote on matters of truth and justice.

We have always half known what such skewed expressions of the “opinions of mankind” are worth. But it has required the Ayatollah to light up for us how judgments are collectively formed in some dark corners of the world. In Iran as in Cambodia we have much to answer for, and we must be ready to face that fact. But facts, and moral judgments on them, are not to be trusted from a nation where fanatic propaganda distorts all the news its people hear; where mobs are easily assembled to cry death to whatever enemy-of-the-day their leaders have designated; where the leaders themselves are a weirdo combination of hysteria, misinformation, cunning, and ineptitude. In such an atmosphere it is ridiculous to speak of a public opinion informed by reason, or a government committed to justice, sitting in judgment on us. This has become clear even to that considerable body of Americans who are normally ready to believe any evil ascribed to us abroad. When in a climate like this the American flag is burned before television cameras, and mobs chant death to the President of the United States, breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said, This wrongs me and every American? If this be patriotism, it is a gift we owe to the Ayatollah. □