In the Arena

The Last Refuge

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You know, the more I think about it, the stupider my “patriotism” argument with Pete Wehner et al appears. I responded to his post out of anger–and anger, more than any other passion, gets me into trouble–especially in this medium, which is as close as I come to thinking aloud…too quickly, sometimes, for my own good.

I’m angry at Wehner, whom I once considered a good friend, because I believe he drank the koolaid, abandoned positions he had long held and supported–no, promoted–an administration I consider to be thoughtless and dreadful. (Pete once wrote a wonderful op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he said that Jesus never once mentioned homosexuality but He talked nonstop about poverty–the difficulty, for famous example, of a rich man getting into heaven.)

I was also angry at the cynicism that has dominated conservative discourse, and especially campaign tactics, over the past twenty years, from Bush to Bush. Cynicism, by definition, is assuming the worst about people–racism, greed, disdain for the poor, fear of the stranger–and it has been a primary tool for Republican campaign consultants from Atwater to Rove. It is fascinating that as proof of my irrational “anger” Wehner produces a column I wrote irate about the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth…who questioned John Kerry’s military service and patriotism, and were scurrilously wrong on almost every count.

And so, out of anger, I chose to poke a finger in the eye of conservatives who have lived thirty years, self-righteous and profoundly in error, believing that they were somehow more patriotic than liberals. And in penance, too, because more than once I have criticized liberals for being either too bleak or too forgiving of unacceptable behavior–like crime, before Bill Clinton brought the party to its senses–or too quick to judge any use of military force overseas immoral (Add: the first Gulf War, for example). I still believe my assessment of such behavior was accurate, but it was incomplete. It was too often unaccompanied by the leavening explanation: liberal bleakness was caused by a belief that things could be better, fairer, that society was improvable. I have always shared that impulse.

Wehner is not entirely wrong when he writes:

Conservatives are not “pessimistic” about the perfectibility of human nature; rather, they are realistic about human nature, which is an admixture of virtues and vices. Conservatism is skeptical about grand programs to remake human nature itself, but it is risible to argue that conservatism is philosophically proscribed from making an argument for national improvement.

Ideally, that is true. But in these last, raggedy days of the rightward pendulum swing, with Republicans clogging the jails and Bushian foolishness having demoralized the nation, it is risible for conservatives to even pretend to care about “national improvement.” In our lives, we have seen conservatives use racism as a political tool, war as a witless quest for domination, patriotism as a scourge, government as an instrument of greed, religion and “morality” as camouflage for spreading fear, ignorance and bigotry. So, I was wrong to use patriotism as they do–as a weapon, even marginally so. Sorry for that. The rest of the argument stands.