Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Obama and the Transfiguration of America

Barack Obama has been called many things: Messiah, Redeemer, a Lightworker (?!), Jedi Knight, the New Testament to JFK’s Old Testament, a "quantum leap in America’s consciousness," and so on. But Jonah Goldberg in trying to understand (and NOT, I’d add, question) Obama’s patriotism, makes the case that Obama’s patriotism is trans-figurative. In other words, Obama argues that his patriotism can be seen in his views about "what will make America great." [emphasis mine] Jonah, like a Jewish mother, asks "What? It’s not great now?" Why does Obama think it needs to be "made" great? And how does this square with his speech yesterday at Independence, MO where he stated that, "Throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given." If she needs to be "made great" why is your love for her a given?

Contrast Obama’s sentiment for America--his "given" love for a thing that still needs to be "made great"--with Abraham Lincoln’s expression of admiration for Henry Clay:

He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
In other words, Henry Clay’s love of country was also (though only in part) a given. We all love the things that are our own--sometimes even when they don’t deserve our affection. If this is the sense in which Barack Obama means patriotism, he is right to argue that it is no great testament to a man. It is inhuman not to love oneself and one’s own. But the real test of love--the kind of love that deserves the highest admiration and respect--is whether that love has ever asked and given a good accounting for the "why?" of itself. What is worthy of our love in this country we call our own? Not "do" we love her, but "why" do we love her? It is only in answering this question that we can aspire to be worthy of her and call ourselves Americans in the best sense (and not the mere factual sense) of the term.

It seems to me that Barack Obama has got it all wrong. America does not need to be "made great"--she was great from the beginning when, on that first of Independence Days, we declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The problem now, as it always has been, is that Americans need to continue to make themselves worthy of her. It goes without saying (or, perhaps, not) that any number of Americans have failed to live up to Americas ideals over the centuries. We continue to see examples of that today and (God willing and the nation endures) we will always see these examples. But our failures to be good Americans do not mean that America is a failure as a force for good in the world. If Obama were merely saying that we can do better by making ourselves worthy of our own founding principles, that would be one thing. And then we could have a conversation about how we might go about doing that and, of course, we could have legitimate disagreements about the best way to proceed. But he is not saying that. He’s saying that we need "make America great" and he is dismissing patriotism as a "given" because he sees it as something ordinary. He argues that his ideals can transfigure America. In truth, what we really need is to look to a deeper understanding of patriotism and then to transfigure ourselves accordingly. What we really need is to learn to "love [our] country partly because it is [our] own country, but mostly because it is a free country" and we need to "[burn] with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because [we see] in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature."

UPDATE: I note in passing that it is interesting to see that in his speech yesterday, Obama noted Lincoln’s arguments in favor of suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War as a questionable use of patriotism . . .

Discussions - 7 Comments

Julie. Good post. You remind me of John Quincy Adams' reaction to Decatur's "My country, right or wrong."

"I cannot ask of heaven success, even for my country, in a cause where she should be in the wrong. Fiat justitia, paareat ceolum. My toast would be, may our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise always right. I disclaim as unsound all patriotism incompatible with the principles of eternal justice."

And in his July 4th address in 1821, he added:

"The sympathies of men begin with the relations of domestic life. They are rooted in the natural relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of brother and sister; thence they spread through the social and moral propinquities of neighbor and friend, to the broader and more complicated relations of countrymen and fellow-citizen; terminating only with the circumference of the globe which we inhabit, in the co-extensive charities incident to the common nature of man. . . . The tie which binds us to our country is not more holy in the sight of God, but it is more deeply seated in our nature, more tender and endearing, than our common link which merely connects us with our fellow-mortal, man." (JQA, July 4, 1821)

In truth, what we really need is to look to a deeper understanding of patriotism and then to transfigure ourselves accordingly.

This whole post, but especially this line, smells of ideological totalitarianism. This weird characterization of "America" as some "just"-thing floating around as we mere "Americans" try to grab at it is silly. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's famous saying: "It is not Man that lives on the earth, but men." Or something like that. I am not going to "transfigure" myself for some abstract notion of "America". Of course, I don't buy the notion that the "founding principles" were the apex of all human political thought either. This post seems to suggest this abstract-nationalist-exceptionalism and the undying love and complete commitment to the founding era go hand in hand. I'm convinced.

People like Obama love what they think America can become, not what it is or has been. That's a very large difference.

Obama belittles America, turning its words against her. He is a character out of the Gorgias. Compare Clinton's First Inaugural about "forcing the spring" and Garry Wills' view of America.

Julie, I agree with your very wise discussion above. Still, Jonah and other should remember the slogan of the 1980 Reagan campaign: "Let's make America great again!" I still have a poster hanging in a prominent place in my home which carries that slogan. Would that we had a presidential candidate today who understands what Reagan was talking about not so long ago.

There are those who say that BO has something of Reagan in his campaign. This slogan is an example one could cite.

Yes, Dennis, but the emphasis for Reagan would have been on the again. His idea was that we somehow lost our way. BO's idea seems to be that we need a new map.

David Frisk said: "People like Obama love what they think America can become, not what it is or has been."

Obama and his fellow leftists are, rather, in love with what THEY, their grand projet of progressivism, can make America into.

Their patriotism, in other words, is solipsistic.

They find the actual US (and pride in it as a nation) distasteful, flawed, brutish, stupid. They are in love with the idea of America ONLY as it would be if their shared posthistorical, postnational, global project could be carried out. Never mind that part of that project is to cut the US down to size, reduce its "specialness", not least by opening its borders, and subsume it to global bodies like the UN.

Obama & Co. are a bit like Pygmalion, who shunned real women and could fall in love only with a fake one he carved out of ivory.

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