Blargh Blog

Monday, July 04, 2005

My Country

"My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right."

This twist on a famous phrase turns it from something odious (I will support wrong if my country is the one doing it) to something noble, the maxim of a true patriot who works to make sure that his country is on the side of right. In fact, it's not a novel twist on an old phrase - it's the original quotation from Senator Carl Schurz's 1872 speech. Robert Koons at Right Reason provides this Independence Day tidbit, along with a defense of patriotism properly understood. Waxing Aristotelian, he defines patriotism as a virtue that is the mean between the deficiency of neutrality and the excess of jingoism. With a defense of patriotism that even a utilitarian could love, he acknowledges that our duty to humanity is a higher aim, but argues that patriotism is consistent with, and even an aid to, the virtue of humanity: "It is not easy for us to feel strong bonds of concern for people who live far from us, with whom we share little in the way of history or culture. ... If we stifle patriotism, love of country will be replaced, not by an equally fervent love for all of humanity, but rather by a host of narrower and still more fractious loyalties." Like Peter Singer, he speaks to broadening the set of people we care about by working through intermediate steps (though he uses the metaphor of climbing a ladder rather than expanding a circle).

Matthew Yglesias makes a related point about the importance of affinity towards those with a shared history or culture, as he takes a tangent from a July 4th musing to consider the history of international relations. A sphere of peace serves modern advanced democracies well because of "hard-headed economic fact", he argues, but "the actual historical processes through which this peaceful zone has come to exist show ... that though cultural and political affinities play no formal role in the demonstration of peace's value, they seem to be integral to its realization in process."

Matt Weiner at Opiniatrety takes up the task set forth by the Senator, arguing that people should face up to the wrongs that our country has been committing in military prisons so that our policies can be righted. Attempts to hold America up to the standards of right and wrong embodied in its own ideals so that it may continue to be a force for good in the world should not be dismissed as "Anti-American screeds," though Matt and The Poor Man before him realize that some hopelessly partisan people who fail to properly understand patriotism will do just that.

Brad DeLong greets our Independence Day with a 229-year-old document that sets some limits on the true patriot's maxim "My country, right or wrong." The document's authors provide a list of wrongs that their country has committed against the some of its own citizens, and argue that when the wrongs reach this high of a level and there seems to be no way to set them right, then the proper thing to do is to leave your country and join or form a new one.

The argument is clearer in a translation of the document, linked by Jim Henley (via Semiquark) and written by H. L. Mencken, who was translating English into plain English before it was cool:
All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of goverment they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any goverment don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American coons and yellow-bellies and Bolsheviki, or every time some job-holder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons and Bolsheviki, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work.
That is my 4th of July roundup. I hope that you and America got along well on this holiday.


At November 21, 2007 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"My country right or wrong" these days
Is like to damning with faint praise--
´Tis not what early on envisioned
Forefathers in their wit provisioned.

Dissent is now approved--not threat
Beneath, but promise--one will get
Hounded from his career, or choose
As willfully to get abuse.

No tolerance to criticize
The bold administration´s lies:
Tyranny that direction lies
As knew our forebears bold and wise.



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