Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post greeted the reopening this last weekend of the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum in Washington by writing that “the museums don’t manage to elucidate some essentially American culture — because no such thing can or should exist, especially in a country as young and big and plural as this one.” It’s a not-uncommon point of view these days, perhaps particularly among artists and intellectuals who are more likely than other people to find something politically and ideologically suspect in the very idea of national identity — let alone patriotism or pride in America’s world leadership. Some similar feeling must have been at work among the opponents of a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, which failed by a single vote in the Senate last week.
What a long way we have come in the 190 years since Commodore Stephen Decatur, the hero of our first war on terrorism and our first war as a country, first proposed the toast that will be forever associated with his name. “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” I well remember what those words — or rather the mangled version of them, “My country, right or wrong,” that we most often quoted — meant to those of us who came to political consciousness in expressing opposition to the Vietnam War. To us they meant the creed of the Nazis because they seemed to rule out dissent. That appears to be still the view of such political philosophers as George Clooney, who recently said: “‘My country right or wrong means women don’t vote, black people sit in the back of buses and we’re still in Vietnam. My country right or wrong means we don’t have the New Deal.’ I mean, what, are you crazy? My country, right or wrong?”
Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite what Stephen Decatur had in mind. To begin with, he specified “in her intercourse with foreign nations” which hardly rules out political and social change for the better wrought by democratic processes within the nation. We also need to remember that Decatur grew up as part of the dueling culture that was prevalent in the early days of the republic and was himself killed in a duel four years after making that toast. He knew that there are times in life when we are forced to take sides, whatever the complications at issue — and he knew what side he would always be on.
I feel sure that he had, like most of us, some experience of being both right and wrong. I, for instance, now think that I was wrong about, well, that whole Vietnam thing. Even President Bush now thinks he was wrong to say, “Bring it on,” in the early days of the insurgency. (I don’t, by the way.) Perhaps only George Clooney has the luxury of being able to suppose himself, unlike his country, always in the right. But even Mr. Clooney might be able to understand that, when we are challenged, we all want people who will stand by us without first having to make minute inquiries into whether our moral or political standards are quite as high as their own. Ironically, Decatur seems to have been killed in that duel partly because his second was not the loyal friend he had thought him to be and refused to patch up the quarrel when a chance was offered.
So it is with our country. She has sometimes been right and sometimes been wrong, but when she is challenged by an enemy our place is in her corner. Fortunately, the current enemy is about as obviously wrong as he can be, as we learned again recently with the brutal and barbaric murders of privates first class Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker by their Iraqi captors. Like the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg and similar atrocities, like the wanton murders of innocent civilians by suicide bombers, these murders were a reminder of the differences between the primitive honor culture of the terrorists and ours, insofar as we still have one. Questions of right and wrong don’t even arise for them. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the honorable imperative (as they see it) to strike terror into the hearts of their enemy.
The fact that America’s honor culture, which was still thriving when Decatur lived, cared about right and wrong at all has over the intervening period seemed to many Americans a reason in itself to pledge unconditional support to their country. Certainly such a concern is the exception rather than the rule among the world’s honor cultures, which tend to be more like that of al-Qaeda than our own. Now that that culture, at any rate as a society-wide phenomenon, is all but extinguished, perhaps we can still see, dimly and afar off, enough of it to be able to say that there is no shame in such patriotism.