Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Defending Matthew Yglesias

There has been some chatter on some righty blogs about Matt Yglesias's bona fides as a patriot. James Kirchick wondered whether we can now question Yglesias' patriotism. Mark Hemingway at the Corner tries to take him to task for misunderstanding what patriotism is, as does Armed Liberal, who thinks Yglesias is essentially equating the Celtics with the United States.

All of this is pretty silly. First, Kirchick, Hemingway, and AL don't really seem to understand Yglesias' argument; it's not that patriotism is "bad"; it's that the patriot can't really talk to the non-patriot in a way that's going to persuade the non-patriot to his point of view (to use an example, the American flag-waver won't convince the Chinese flag-waver to drop his flag and start waving the stars and stripes). This has to do with the nature of patriotism, not with the nature of patriotism's object. If patriotism is a sentiment of solidarity, enthusiasm, and affection, then the analogy to sports fandom is apt. But it's misreading Yglesias to think that he's accordingly equating a country with a sports' team. He's not.

Second, bloggers seem to be misreading the very provocative notion that Yglesias makes that we might be living in a better world today if the American Revolution had never happened, and if the colonists had instead found some political solution to the problems with the Crown. This is of course anathema to many conservatives, since it challenges the central myth that America's founding was providential, the U.S. has been an unalloyed force for good in the world, etc. The truth is, Yglesias' counterfactual is really very thought-provoking if you dig into it. Would WWI (and thus WWII) have happened if the colonies had remained a part of GB? Would slavery have died peacefully, and sooner? If we could have lived in an English-speaking world without slavery by the 1830s and not shed blood over the question, and if we could have avoided the two greatest calamities to have befallen the modern world, how can that not be a net good?

Third, the whole argument is pretty unseemly. I do not understand how or why some find it necessary to, like an Inquisitor, inspect whether someone is a real patriot simply because he posits an interesting historical question and makes an insightful comment about the nature of patriotism. Note that in none of these posts does Yglesias say we live in a terrible country; but even if he did, why isn't it enough to simply engage in the merits?

On this score, I will note that the BHTV argument between Yglesias and Kirchick is telling. Note that Kirchick's tack is to (1) question Yglesias, (2) rather than engage Yglesias on the merits, question him further, (3) back off and offer some limited agreement with Yglesias, and then (4)move on. This is a good illustration of why the attacks of "anti-patriotism" on Yglesias' rather thoughtful post are vacuous.

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