Wednesday, March 31, 2021

On being an American patriot

Sandy Levinson

         Steven B. Smith, who teaches political theory at Yale, has just published, with the Yale Press, an interesting book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.  A quite slender book, it does not purport to offer a comprehensive theory of patriotism across vast times or space; instead, it is basically a heartfelt missive to his fellow Americans (and, perhaps, fellow academics) about what can be said about American patriotism at this particular juncture in our history.  He is clearly concerned that a mixture of multiculturalism and post-modernism--the former probably more of a genuine reality than the latter in the present intellectual moment--has eroded any genuine notion of patriotism.  Prominent intellectuals like George Kateb or Martha Nussbaum esssentially deride the notion, the former in the name of Thoreauvian individualism, the latter evoking instead a commitment to a cosmopolitan identity as basically a citizen of the world.  And the most prominent public purveyors of patriotism are often "nationalists" committed to dubious notions of Making America Great Again or America First (or simply shouting out "USA, USA" at the Olympics; it is clear that Smith, altogether properly does not want to be associated with the latter, even as he is critical of the former.  

        I am interested in the book not only because I know Smith personally and respect him as a serious thinker (who, among other things, taught my daughter many years ago at Yale).  It's also the case that I have long been interested in the phenomenon of patriotism as an academic;  perhaps even more to the point, perhaps as a child of the 1960s, I often wonder exactly what that means in my own life.  Many years ago, when Steve Macedo reviewed my first book, Constitutional Faith, in the New Republic, he referred to me as a "patriot" even though (or perhaps because?) I was quite critical of the Madisonian tradition of constitutional  "veneration."  I preferred to cast my lot with Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson as vigorous critics of any such veneration.  What Macedo presumably recognized, though, was that I was indeed concerned with the future (as well as the past) of our country and believed that it was necessary to adopt a more Jeffersonian spirit of critique in order to serve our great national ends enunciated, for example, in the Preamble to the Constitution itself, or in the Declaration of Independence.  Moreover, I concluded that book by writing of my visit to the Bicentennial Exhibit in Philadelphia in 1987, where everyone was given the opportunity to "sign the Constitution" and, presumably, reaffirm one's identity as a loyal American defined by accepting its particular importance in structuring not only American government, but also American identity.

        Longtime readers of Balkinization are well aware that I no long exhibit the "constitutional faith" that was perhaps present in 1987.  My 2006 book, Our Undemocratic Constitution began with a chapter explaining why I did not sign the Constitution when given an opportunity to do during a visit at the opening on July 3, 2003 of the National Constitution Center (for which I had been a member of an academic advisory board). That visit concluded by entering "Signers' Hall," featuring life-size statues of all of the delegates to the 1787 Convention and an invitation to reaffirm one's membership in the American community by joining them, as it were, as signatories.  A 2011 second edition of Constitutional Faith explained at greater length why I had lost any such faith.  The answer is that I came, between 1987 and 2003, to view the "hard-wired" institutions and procedures set up in 1787, and barely amended thereafter, as having become impediments to realizing the aspirations nobly set out in the Preamble.  Since, then, I have come to view them increasingly as a clear-and-present danger to our survival as a constitutional democracy.  I increasingly have little patience for those who offer any kind of unreflective praise of the Constitution.  

        So, frankly, I don't know exactly how I should read Smith's encomia to the Constitution.  He writes, for example, "Our legal code based on the Constitution has been elaborated over the course of our national existence by our most prominent lawyers, judges, and legislators.  Americans can justly take pride that their legal system has survived intact for well over two centuries and today may yet stand as a bulwark against a resurgent populism" (p. 192).  Earlier he writes that "[m]any Americans, if asked will say they take pride in their Constitution and their constitutional tradition.  This pride in a text or a textual tradition forms the core of American patriotism."  To be sure, we can argue about the meaning of the Constitution, "and the argument--our self-questioning character--is a core aspect of American patriotism.  This is what makes ours a uniquely enlightened patriotism.  This is the true meaning of American exceptionalism" (p. 149).  

        I confess that I don't see myself within this universe of American patriots and would encourage others to leave such a universe.  I most certainly do not believe that our "legal system has survived intact for well over two centuries."  Like Bruce Ackerman, Smith's colleague at Yale, I think this is a dangerous misreading of the actualities of our constitutional history, which has the ideological function--and often the purpose--of blinding Americans to the all-important history of significant change, some of its produced by "populist" movements like Abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement.  As I argued in Framed:  America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, I am increasingly less interested in the kinds of debates about constitutional "meaning" that obsess the legal academy and more interested--or even obsessed--by the (un)wisdom of a variety of aspects of the Constitution that present no real challenges of "interpretation," including, for starters, the allocation of equal voting power in the Senate or the sheer difficulty of amending the Constitution through Article V (and I assure you they are only starters).  

        So do I count as a "patriot" in Smith's universe?  Perhaps yes, inasmuch as both of us identify in profound ways as "Americans" and not really as a deracinated "citizen of the world," with equal "concern and respect" for anyone and everyone living anywhere and everywhere.  But no, if one is to take truly seriously commitment to the United States Constitution, either in its 1787 form or even as amended--though not enough--in 2021, as a necessary condition of patriotism.  

        So one problem I have with Smith's argument--much praised by David Brooks in a column in the New York Times--is what I find an insufficiently elaborated notion of what exactly he means by the Constitution and, therefore, the importance of being committed to it.  But I have yet another important reservation:  The central exemplar of enlightened American patriotism, for Smith, is Abraham Lincoln.  "No one," we are told, "has captured the meaning of enlightened patriotism more beautifully than Abraham Lincoln, who gave American constitutional democracy its highest and most articulate expression.  In his speeches and writings, Lincoln put forward a vision of American identity that brings out the principal basis of patriotism" (p. 150).  

        Here, too, I can be said to share Smith's focus, perhaps even obsession, with Lincoln.  This year I will teach "reading courses" at the University of Texas and Harvard Law Schools on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  (Last year, I taught such a course at Harvard on Lincoln alone.)  I certainly agree that no one professing to understand America can avoid grappling with our 16th President.  But, frankly, I discern a far more complex, more troublesome Abraham Lincoln than Smith appears to find, at least in this volume. Mario Cuomo famously said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.  It is not a coincidence that most evocations of Lincoln's greatness involve what might be described as his "poetic" efforts, including, for example, the Gettysburg Address and, even more certainly, the Second Inaugural Address.  It is specialists who tend to concentrate instead of his actual decisions as a practicing politician, whether candidate for higher office or as President of the United States. 

         So consider in this context Frederick Douglass's great speech delivered on "the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln" on April 14, 1876, the eleventh anniversary of his assassination. As one would expect, Douglass offered praise of Lincoln.  But then we read the following:

        It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we                 have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the world, either our         man or our model.  In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his                         prejudices, he was a white man.  He was preeminently the white man's president, entirely devoted            to the welfare of white men.  

Another Yale colleague of Smith's, David Blight, begins his great biography of Douglass by quoting and discussing this speech.  

        Was Douglass correct?  And if he was, does this cast light, for example, on the increasingly bitter controversy over the "1619 Project" and the attempts to answer it not only by Donald Trump's "1776 Report," which similarly valorizes Lincoln (and even selected aspects of Douglass), but also by far more temperate historians like Princeton's Sean Wilentz?  Is it true that any American patriot must recognize the extent to which white supremacy infects almost every aspect of our national history, including the thoughts and actions of even our greatest figures within what is accurately called "American civil religion"?  To be sure, not every "white supremacist" supports the Ku Klux Klan, and Douglass recognizes Lincoln's sincere hatred of slavery and his willingness to refer to Douglass in public as his "friend."  That is surely important.  Lincoln could have been far worse, perhaps someone like the man he chose to be Vice President, Andrew Johnson in the belief that this Unionist Democrat would aid his re-election chances in 1864.  But it was also Abraham Lincoln who convened a group of Washington leaders of the Black community and lectured them on the basic unlikelihood, if not impossibility, that Blacks and white could really live together amicably in one community; this was the basis of Lincoln's warm support of colonization as the "answer" to this quintessential American problem,  At that meeting he particularly encouraged them to move to Panama, though, no doubt, he would also have been happy with emigration to Mexico, Haiti, Canada, or Liberia.  

        One need not support the removal of the monument that Douglass so eloquently dedicated in order to recognize that Abraham Lincoln, like the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, or each and every one of our national heroes, is radically imperfect, and not only because "to err is human."  Theirs was what might be called a "structured imperfection," inasmuch as success within American politics has always required presentation, whether overt or tacit, of being "the white man's president."  Today, perhaps except for Donald Trump, few would describe them as devoted "entirely" to the interests of whites.  But let us not kid ourselves.  Barack Obama, for whatever complex set of reasons, certainly did very little to teach his fellow Americans about the actual history of white supremacy and the concomitant duty to adopt political programs to try to alleviate it.  Quite likely, he would have been perceived as "an angry Black man" and denied the office to which he aspired.  And, of course, as with Lincoln, one can easily point to many good things he did as President.  But to stop there, to take refuge that no one is perfect (including the author of this post or anyone reading it) is ultimately to dodge the kinds of conversations we must have--and actions following from those conversations--if we are, I am tempted to say, "genuine patriots" committed to the vision of an egalitarian America that Smith, to his credit, embraces.  


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