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Making Patriots ()

CSPAN Booknotes

    Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly
    uttered, in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm, at which many
    will start: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' But let
    it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of
    our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages
    and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.
        -Robert Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

For much of this book, Walter Berns resembles nothing so much as a high-wire trapeze artist.  Even as we thrill to his performance, we worry that there's ultimately nothing supporting him.  He begins by discussing how ancient Sparta created classic patriots, molding citizens into soldiers who cared nothing for themselves, but would make any sacrifice for their city-state.  But they loved their country simply because it was their country, their place of birth, and the fatherland of their family for generation upon generation.  America, where everyone, including the Indians, is an immigrant, can not depend on this kind of almost geographical, or even geological, fealty.

Mr. Berns then proceeds to explore some of the other daunting barriers we face if we wish to make citizens into patriots.   First, the nation was founded in rebellion and has nearly been torn apart by another one.  How can a nation that is founded on a war against its parent nation espouse patriotism as a value?  Second, America is a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation, and this necessarily means that its citizens will have a divided loyalty, to country on the one hand, but to God, on the other, and likely stronger, hand.  Third, with our democratic government and capitalist economy both premised on individualism, it must be difficult to turn around and demand that in social matters the citizen owes something to the group.  In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, as cited by Mr. Berns :

    Individualism disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart
    with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at
    large to itself.

Fourth, we are such a diverse nation--with citizens drawn from every other nation on Earth and practicing every religion--that it must be surpassing difficult to bind the population together, to make it cohere for a common purpose.  And, finally, we have an unfortunate national history of slavery and racism that would seem to justify a significant portion of the populace in questioning what it can possibly owe to the state that for so long countenanced, or even connived in, its oppression.

Nor do our challenges lie just in the kind of people we are; equal difficulty flows from the system in which we live.  The Constitution is for the most part a declaration of each of our rights as against the government.  It is generally silent about our duties in return.  Mr. Berns cites Federalist 55 to show that the Founders well understood the unique problem of such a republic.  The following occurs in the midst of the discussion of whether there is a danger that the small number of legislators may be more likely to be tyrannical than would a larger body :

    As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other
    qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the
    existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

It's all well and good for republican government to presuppose certain virtues, but quite dangerous to assume that they exist naturally, as if sprung full-grown from Zeus's head.  How is the republic to survive if its citizens do not develop these virtues?

Mr. Berns wades us up to our necks in these treacherous waters, til we wonder from whence will our rescue come.  How amidst all these roiling difficulties can we ever hope to make patriots?  It only gradually dawns on us--or perhaps I'm just a tech slow--that all along he has been doing precisely what he suggests we, as a society, must do if we are to cultivate patriotism; he's instructing us in our own history and ideals in order to demonstrate that our nation is worthy of our love.  And it is our ideals and our sometimes tragic but more often noble efforts to live up to them that should make us patriots.

Mr. Berns cites Thomas Pangle to the effect that :

    The declaration by which Americans made themselves independent marked the birth of the first nation in history grounded
    explicitly not on tradition, or loyalty to tradition, but on the appeal to abstract and universal and philosophical principles
    of political right.

It is this unique basis in ideas that can make it possible to achieve a cohesive and patriotic culture, provided, of course, that we all still value the same ideals.   Over the course of several centuries some of the Founders' ideas may have lost their luster for certain segments of the society, but Mr. Berns locates the still vibrant core of the American philosophy, and the best statement of why we must be patriots, in Abraham Lincoln's eulogy for Henry Clay :

    Mr. Clay's predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty -- a strong
    sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary
    and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. 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. [Italics added]

Human liberty may well not be the ultimate end that we seek--Christians see liberty as a means to the end of reaching salvation; others see liberty as a means to achieving self-fulfillment; yet others see it as the most efficient way to produce material plenty--but it certainly remains central to our purpose as a nation.  The question then is how do we guarantee that the people of America continue to see it as such, continue to believe that the nation advances the cause, and, therefore, love their country?

Mr. Berns answers, as it would seem anyone must, that we must so instruct the citizenry.  In the end it turns out that the best way to make patriots in a republic is to teach people to be patriotic.  In our current age of multiculturalism and political correctness, it is not uncommon to hear that public schools should provide a values-free and amoral education, because to teach a particular political viewpoint would be divisive or would impose ideas on students.  Some topics and persons have been expunged from the curriculum because they do not measure up to modern standards of sensitivity--can't teach kids about Washington or Jefferson who owned slaves, or Columbus who killed natives, etc..  Many schools have done away with the Pledge of Allegiance altogether rather than run the risk of offending a few students whose religious scruples will, entirely justifiably, not allow them to participate.  There is, it seems, a trend away from civic education and patriotic pedagogy, as if there were no place for them in schools, which should instead apparently just teach reading, math, and science.  But Mr. Berns demonstrates that the Founders, and the philosophers they drew upon, supported public schools not for the general purpose of educating the populace, but for the precise purpose of making them better citizens.  Thus, Mr. Berns writes of Montesquieu :

    Virtue in a republic is a 'very simple' thing, he says.  It is love of country, 'and to inspire it ought to be
    the principal business of education...'

and of Noah Webster :

    'Every child in America,' he writes, 'should be acquainted with his own country,' not only with its settlement and geography,
    but also with its principles and the 'illustrious heroes and statesmen' responsible for its liberty.  'These are interesting objects
    to every man,' he goes on; 'they call home the minds of youth and fix them upon the interests of their own country, and they
    assist in forming attachments to it, as well as enlarging the understanding.'

and of Thomas Jefferson :

    Inculcation of a love of country, like moral education generally, takes place at an earlier age, which is why Jefferson...proposed
    that the young--boys and girls alike, and without regard to 'wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance'--be educated
    at public expense.  A liberal education in 'reading, writing, and common arithmatick', he writes, followed by the reading of
    'Graecian, Roman, English, and American history,' would render them 'worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of
    the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.'

Note that all of them understand public education's very purpose to be the creation of republican citizens.  How perverse then that our educational regime today frequently refuses to even participate in this fundamental task, much less view it as the most important part of their mission.

Mr. Berns more than makes the case for restoring such patriotic teaching to our schools, and, at the same time, his book is a subtle exercise in so educating the reader.  I hate to admit that I was nearly to the end of the book before I realized it; but his determined argument, buttressed by examples and stories, that patriotism is vital to America and that America is worthy of patriotic fervor, is itself an exercise in the making of patriots, and a powerfully effective one at that.  This is the book of a teacher, gently guiding his students (us) towards an enduring truth, that we should and must love America and the ideals for which it stands.

In a final section of the book, Mr. Berns takes on the issue of the Supreme Court's flag burning decision [TEXAS v. JOHNSON, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)], and offers his view of why it was wrongly decided.  Though his discussion is adequate and reasonable, it does leave out an argument that I would make, which is of a more visceral nature.  Here is an excerpt from Justice Brennan's opinion in the case :

    Nor does Johnson's expressive conduct fall within that small class of "fighting words" that are "likely to provoke
    the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire,
    315 U.S. 568, 574 (1942). No reasonable onlooker would have regarded Johnson's generalized expression of
    dissatisfaction with the policies of the Federal Government as a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange

    We thus conclude that the State's interest in maintaining order is not implicated on these facts. The State need not
    worry that our holding will disable it from preserving the peace. We do not suggest that the First Amendment
    forbids a State to prevent  "imminent lawless action."  And, in fact, Texas already has a statute specifically prohibiting
    breaches of the peace, which tends to confirm that Texas need not punish this flag desecration in order to keep the peace.

I've always thought it unfortunate that there were no hard hats on the scene--like the ones in NYC in the 60s who beat the tar out of antiwar protesters.  For had someone retaliated Brennan's argument would be manifestly false; as is, I would say it is merely obvious that it is wrong.  It would be best if this decision were overturned, but it can probably be circumvented if state legislatures just pass laws allowing citizens to thrash flag burners (perhaps even to set them on fire, since it's now a form of protected speech).  Make it clear that burning an American flag is exactly the kind of action that most of us do consider "fighting words".  Let the Court try and weasel out of that bind.

Finally, in an Epilogue, Mr. Berns recites a story (taken from The Camp Pendleton Scout, 5/28/98)  that I'd like to include here in full, because I found it very moving :

    The following story is told by a foreign diplomat who, as he explains, had occasion to visit the United States Embassy
    in the capital of his country.

    'I arrived at a quarter to six, after official office hours, and was met by the Marine on guard at the entrance of the Chancery.
    He asked if I would mind waiting while he lowered the two American flags at the Embassy.  What I witnessed over the next
    ten minutes so impressed me that I am now led to make this occurrence a part of my ongoing record of this distressing era.

    The Marine was dressed in a uniform which was spotless and neat; he walked with a measured tread from the entrance of
    the Chancery to the stainless steel flagpole before the Embassy and, almost reverently, lowered the flag to the level of his
    reach where he began to fold it in military fashion.  He then released the flag from the clasps attaching it to the rope, stepped
    back from the pole, made an about-face, and carried the flag between his hands--one above, one below--and placed it securely
    on a stand before the Chancery.

    He then marched over to a second flagpole and repeated the same lonesome ceremony....  After completing his task, he
    apologized for the delay--out of pure courtesy, as nothing less than incapacity would have prevented him from fulfilling his goal
    --and said to me, "Thank you for waiting, Sir.  I had to pay honor to my country."

    I have had to tell this story because there was something impressive about a lone Marine carrying out a ceremonial task which
    obviously meant very much to him and which, in its simplicity, made the might, the power and the glory of the United States
    of America stand forth in a way that a mighty wave of military aircraft, or the passage of a supercarrier, or a parade of 10,000
    men could never have made manifest.

    One day it is my hope to visit one of our embassies in a faraway place and to see a soldier fold our flag and turn to a stranger
    and say, "I am sorry for the delay, Sir.  I had to honor my country."

The beauty of this story to me is twofold; first, obviously, the love that this lone Marine bore our country can't help but be affecting.  Secondly though is that his own patriotism and love of America so deeply impressed this foreign diplomat that it made him realize how necessary it was to improve his own country.  Edmund Burke once said :

    For us to love our country our country ought to be lovely.

Mr. Berns, if nothing else, shows us that our country is quite lovely.


Grade: (A)


Walter Berns Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Walter Berns
    -ENTRY: Walter Berns (Contemporary Thinkers)
    -ESSAY: The Primacy of the Good: Remembering Leo Strauss. (Harry V. Jaffa, Summer–Fall 1982, Modern Age)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Walter Berns Resident Scholar (American Enterprise Institute)
    -EXCERPT : The Patriot's Flag from Making Patriots
    -BOOKNOTES : Making Patriots by Walter Berns (C-SPAN, August 19, 2001)
    -ESSAY : From the Ashes, Patriotism Reborn (Walter Berns, Boston Globe, September 23, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Two-and-a-Half Cheers for the Electoral College (Walter Berns , April 2001, On Principle)
    -ESSAYS : Flunking the Electoral College? (Michael Nelson, James Clyburn, Walter Berns, William Delahunt, James R. Whitson, 12.18.00, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Historians Spring An October Surprise (Walter Berns, Wall Street Journal | November 3, 1998)
    -ESSAY : The Constitution and the Pursuit of American Happiness (Walter Berns, Symposium on American Values)
    -ESSAY : Third Parties and the Presidential Race : Third Party Candidates Face a High Hurdle in the Electoral College (Walter Berns,
January 1996, American Enterprise)
    -ESSAY : We are the world? : Mikhail Gorbachev has a dream - which would be a nightmare for the rest of us. (Walter Berns, National
Review, Feb 26, 1996)
    -ESSAY : Marriage Anyone? (Walter Berns, April 1996, First Things)
    -ARCHIVES : PBS: Think Tank: Walter Berns
    -INTERVIEW : Online NewsHour: American Patriots (July 9, 2001)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Choosing a President : Walter Berns (CS Monitor)
    -TESTIMONY : House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution : Subcommittee Hearing on "Proposals for Electoral College Reform: H.J. Res. 28 and H.J. Res. 43" (Walter Berns, September 4, 1997)
    -AUDIO LECTURE : Topic: Electoral College (Walter Berns, Feb. 20, 2001, Ashland University)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION : James Madison and the Future of Limited Government : Religion in a Free Republic (Cato Institute, March 1,
2001 )
    -Walter Berns (Media Transparency)
    -ESSAY : Patriotism (The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network): 10/8/01)
    -ESSAY : ÝAmerica: Love It or Leave It : For some conservatives, patriotism means simply going to war. (Sam MacDonald, June 1, 2001,
    -ESSAY : Protect the flag? (Thomas J. Bray, Jewish World Review, June 14, 2001)
    -LECTURE : Christianity, War, and America : This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at the annual Constitution Day celebration of
the University of Dallas, on Sunday, September 16, 2001 (Thomas G. West)
    -ESSAY : Educating Citizens (Christopher Flannery, Claremont Institute)
    -ESSAY : IN A CRISIS, WE BECOME PATRIOTS ALL (Claudia Brinson, 10/14/01, The State)
    -ESSAY : All the President's Men (David Greenberg, April 1999, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY : Between Fear and Faith (Carl M. Cannon, National Journal, Oct. 5, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Neocons and Free Speech (Paul Gottfried,
    -ESSAY : Neocon v. Theocon : The new fault line on the right (JACOB HEILBRUNN, 12.30.96, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Con Job : Theocons v. Neocons? Strauss v. Aquinas? Catholics v. Jews? Or The New Republic v. reality? (RAMESH PONNURU, January 1997, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Roads to Romer : How Moral Teaching Became a 'Fit of Spite' (Richard L. Kent, Eutopia)
    -ESSAY : Extended Editorial : Why Conservatives Will Lose (Rev. Andrew Sandlin , Chalcedon Report)
    -ESSAY : McVeigh to Macbeth : The difference between revenge, retribution, and right. (July 2001, Reason)
    -ARCHIVES : "walter berns" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots by Walter Berns (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots by Walter Berns (Alan Wolfe, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots (National Review, August 30 2001 by Michael Potemra)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots (JUDE P. DOUGHERTY, World & I)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots (George Will)
    -REVIEW : of Making Patriots (First Things)

    -EULOGY : Eulogy on Henry Clay (Abraham Lincoln,  July 6, 1852, Springfield, Illinois)
    -DECISION : TEXAS v. JOHNSON, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)
    -DECISION : Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (March 9, 1942)
    -REVIEW : of Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, eds. ÝLeo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Ken Masugi, Perspectives on Political Science)
    -REVIEW : Gordon S. Wood, The Fundamentalists and the Constitution (NY Review of Books)
            The American Founding: Politics, Statesmanship, and the Constitution edited by Ralph A. Rossum
            The Complete Anti-Federalist edited by Herbert J. Storing
            "The Constitutional Order, 1787?1987" edited by Irving Kristol, edited by Nathan Glazer
            Constitutionalism and Rights edited by Gary C. Bryner, edited by Noel B. Reynolds
            The Founders' Constitution edited by Philip B. Kurland, edited by Ralph Lerner
            The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution edited by Leonard W. Levy, edited by Dennis J. Mahoney
            The Moral Foundations of the American Republic edited by Robert H. Horwitz
            Saving the Revolution: "The Federalist Papers" and The American Founding edited by Charles R. Kesler
            Taking the Constitution Seriously by Walter Berns
            The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic by Ralph Lerner


Thank you very much for your wonderful review of this fine book. This is a book all Americans should read.+

- elizabeth fradkin

- Nov-12-2003, 23:53