Now that people are actually attacking Barack Obama for saying that he doesn't wear an American flag pin because it isn't all that meaningful, one wonders if this might be an opportunity for us to have a genuine discussion about different varieties of patriotism. This is a pretty clear conservative/progressive split. Conservatives are huge fans of symbolic patriotism -- flag lapel pins, flags on cars, full-throated singing of "God Bless the U.S.A." (aka "Proud to Be an American"), and so on -- public displays, in which one demonstrates to other people that one loves America.

Progressives, on the other hand, tend to favor substantive patriotism, which involves doing things to make one's country better. After all, if progressives really hated America, why would they even want to change it in ways that would make it conform more with their values? That would mean, from their perspective, making it better, something you wouldn't do if you just hated the country. I hate the Yankees, so if I figured out the perfect combination of trades that would lead to them winning the next five World Series, I'd be sure not to tell them.

This is the difference between thinking that patriotism means talking about how super-awesome America is, and that patriotism means doing things to make America great. There's nothing wrong with the former, if that's what moves you (and of course, there's nothing wrong with doing both simultaneously). But in practice, symbolic patriotism is all too often offered as a substitute for action. To take just one example, the conservative avers that we have "the best health care system in the world," even though that's plainly not true, and therefore we don't need to change it, while the progressive attempts to improve the health care system until it actually is the best in the world.

Let's make an analogy. There are two sets of parents, both of whom have a child who's struggling in school. The Smiths decide to set aside extra hours every week to help Billy with his studies, working with him until his grades begin to improve. The Joneses, on the other hand, slap a bumper sticker on their car that says, "My child is an honor student!" and when the school guidance counselor tries to talk to them about what they can all do together to address Jimmy's problems, they consider punching her in the face, but in the end decide to accuse her of hating Jimmy and being out to get him.

No one would argue that the Joneses don't love Jimmy, in their own unique way. But which family is doing more for their kid?

Obviously, I'm a fan of substantive acts of patriotism. But I'd be eager to hear an intellectually serious defense of symbolic patriotism. This is worth discussing. And wouldn't it be nice if we could have that discussion without anyone actually charging that people whose patriotism takes a different form than theirs are not actually patriotic at all?

Ah, who am I kidding.

--Paul Waldman

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