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America the Abstracted

Two recent studies offer up what appear to be contradictory results: one, by the Pew Research Center, indicates that young Americans are less patriotic than their forebears [1]. On the other hand, a recent MTV survey purports to have found that young Americans far and away surpass past generations’ patriotism [2].

One explanation for the disparate findings is that both surveys approach patriotism in a different manner. For MTV’s purposes, patriotism implies zealous adherence to and belief in “American ideals.” For the Pew Research Center, patriotism and exceptionalism are neatly conflated. (For example, one question the Pew survey uses to determine “patriotism” is whether the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world.”)

Daniel Larison recently looked [3] at the disparity between “old” and “new” exceptionalism. He writes that “believing that the U.S. is exceptional in certain respects because of its political traditions and institutions doesn’t require one to endorse the idea that the U.S. ‘stands above’ all other countries.” Conversely, a commitment—no matter how zealous—to an America of universal platitudes does not mean that you are patriotic.

But it is precisely this zealous commitment to universalist moralism that MTV emphasized in its own survey. As Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post put it [4]:

Rather than trying to boil patriotism down to whether millennials think we are number one, MTV took a look at what young people think constitute American values and how much faith they have that the country can live up to them.

Are you proud of America? Are you inspired by America? The use of emotional, idealistic vocabulary led to paradoxical results. From the MTV press release:

· Nearly 90 percent of young people feel it is “American” to advocate for equality and fairness, yet nearly 7 in 10 believe the country only embraces college-educated, well-off people.

· Over 80 percent of Millennials say America remains the land of opportunity, however 56 percent also feel the American system has let them down.


· Nearly 7 in 10 Millennials believe “America is the best country in the world,” yet 8 in 10 young people agree that some actions of the American government make it hard to be proud.

As Richard Gamble explained in a 2012 cover article for [5]TAC [5], contemporary American exceptionalism and its belief that American values are universal values results in an aggressively global perspective; it presumes America “to be a beacon to the world and a liberator on a mission of universal redemption.”

But abstract principle comprises only part of American identity. The Declaration of Independence, while universalist in its rhetoric, was not intended to be an absolute expression of human emancipation.

Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review makes an excellent point [6] when he says that the Founders “sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were ‘entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.'”

Cooke writes that, “[w]ith its attestation that all men are created equal, the Declaration of Independence represented a glorious break with all that had gone before.” But the Founders did not seek to march forward into global progress. He continues: “…it is a reflective, rather than a subversive document — one that is predicated upon ancient principle and marinated in a wisdom that had taken centuries to accrue.”

Young Americans are emphatically committed to the principles upon which America was founded, but will sometimes reject the country itself as well as the wisdom and history embodied in its establishment. It is fealty to an idea, not loyalty to a nation, that they profess.

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#1 Comment By HeartRight On July 8, 2014 @ 9:25 am

Well spoken, mam!


Mrs Thatcher said (in effect) that Norman had shown that the Bomb was necessary for the defence of our values. Powell: ‘No, we do not fight for values. I would fight for this country even if it had a communist government.’

People whose loyalty is contingent upon Ideals are not patriots, but simply rotters.

#2 Comment By Francis On July 8, 2014 @ 11:11 am

People whose loyalty is contingent upon Ideals are not patriots, but simply rotters.

You have that backwards, not only from the point of reason but from a historical context, i.e., Jefferson.

#3 Comment By Michael Sheridan On July 8, 2014 @ 12:34 pm


Re: this

People whose loyalty is contingent upon Ideals are not patriots, but simply rotters.

I somewhat doubt you actually hold the belief that loyalty and patriotism are completely synonymous in all cases.

In 1816, US naval officer Stephen Decatur offered up this toast:

“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but always successful, right or wrong.”

Decatur was an undoubted hero and demonstrated high principle throughout his life, but although this toast of his was long remembered, it is a later misquote he never uttered that was and is more famous:

Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country.

This was an advance over the original, unless you believe it is patriotic to wish your country to prosper in all its endeavors no matter what your country is doing (were Germans who resisted the Nazis after they took control unpatriotic rotters?).

However, it was Carl Schurz, US Army general in the Civil War and later US Senator and Secretary of the Interior who developed the thought further and gave what I believe is the best definition of patriotism:

“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

The ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights would not be so embodied if the US Founding Fathers had not decided that England no longer merited unquestioning loyalty and must therefore be resisted. I don’t think most of them were rotters either.

#4 Comment By HeartRight On July 8, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

Mr Sheridan: you are conflating Government and Country.
(were Germans who resisted the Nazis after they took control unpatriotic rotters?).
That is of course, exactly the conflation I am referring to.

My Government is more in the wrong than in the right under most circumstances.
My country is my country in all circumstances.
I don’t think Patriotism has anything to do with prosperity of a country – but it has everything to do with self-sacrifice for Native Soil.

I am afraid that I do not think that General Schurz or Captain Decatur have captured it as neatly as the poet Cecil Spring-Rice.

All I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar, the dearest and the best
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Love is what you give and not what you think or believe.
Which makes it plain as a pikestaff that Ideals have nothing to do with Love, and therefore nothing to do with Patriotism.