If America follows Athens and Rome down the memory hole of history — and no nation is immune to the march of time — it won’t be by conquest, famine, flood or earthquake, but by the inevitable consequences of ignorance. It’s sometimes difficult to think we’re not already on the way.
We’ve always had the ignorant among us, consuming wicked ideological nostrums, feel-good potions and noise and bluster posing as learning and food for thought good only for the unthinking masses. But now there’s a carefully cultivated tolerance for the intolerant, and anyone clever enough to come up with a mindless slogan for the simple-minded can market anything.
And not just the simple-minded. The intellectual class, so called, is particularly vulnerable to the self-righteous piety of slogans. “Black is beautiful,” which was often accurate in an earlier and more innocent era, has given way now to “Black Lives Matter,” which is redundant, because lives of all colors matter. But anyone saying so will bring down the anger and ire of the radical left, parroted by the mainstream media, as Bernie Sanders learned to his pain and sorrow. With a craven apology for saying everyone matters he made his exit with his tail between his legs, to return to the campaign only after his tender attention to his bruised feelings.
The feminists, posing as intensive-care nurses for the fair half of the human race, came up with the slogan “Me, too,” and invited so many women who had ever been whistled at, winked at or subjected to coarse woo, that lawyers looking for someone to sue will never run out of clients.
The latest crime of the century, for which there is no defense and the evildoers are entitled to nothing more than public punishment at the end of a sea grass rope, is something called “nationalism.”
Donald Trump is blamed for injecting this strain of poison into the nation’s politics, asserting without apology, as he did this week in his State of the Union address, that “as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers and America’s forgotten communities.” Pretty tough stuff for the snowflakes. Why couldn’t he have taken as his highest loyalty, his greatest compassion and his constant concern the children and the forgotten communities of Lower Slobbovia? Lower Slobbovia (and Upper Slobbovia, too) might be calling, and he could hear it, if he would dispense with all that patriotism stuff and put America out of mind.
Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the wise doctor did not say, as many in our intellectual class are eager to say he did, that all patriots are scoundrels.
“Nationalism,” for those offended by patriotism, is the worse sin, and indeed the most depraved despots of the 20th Century embraced it, abused it and gave it distorted meaning. “Patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past,” writes Irving Kristol, “and nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. Nationalism in our time is probably the most powerful of political emotions.”
Of course it is. “There are only a few things that human beings will give their lives to protect,” says Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, writing in Politico, “their family, their faith and their country among them.”
Far from being a sometime thing, the love of nation, like original marriage, is something held until death puts finis to it. Flags, gestures and anthems are the songs from the secret places of the heart sung by patriots unashamed of their love of country. It’s not the flag waved, however passionately, as the social psychologist Michael Billig says, “but a flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.” Donald Trump noticed that flag, and how it was abused and who abused it, when other politicians didn’t see it. Millions of Americans see it, too.
“For the left,” observes Rich Lowry, “‘nationalism’ has become simply a swear word — a cramped, small-minded perspective inevitably tinged with racism. It associates nationalism with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century, and considers any expression of it as borderline dangerous.”
But ordinary Americans, those who demonstrate ordinary compassion, courage and fidelity and sometimes their lives in extraordinary circumstances, know better. You have to take pride in your country, exclusive of all others if necessary, to give your life for it.
You have to take pride in the nation’s past, too, particularly in a time when the politically correct gesture is a sneer. That’s the voice of ignorance, and it could doom us all.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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