CAPE NEDDICK, Maine — To suggest on the Fourth of July that we need to consider the downsides of patriotism is to risk a heresy far more troublesome than challenging the merits of baseball, fireworks, hot dogs and beer.
Let's leave baseball unsullied. But we know that fireworks, misused, can be dangerous, and that excess when it comes to hot dogs and beer is a problem.
I am unabashed about the merits of American patriotism as the constructive alternative to divisive and aggressive forms of nationalism. All who love constitutional democracy and justice can claim there is something distinctive about our country's patriotic feeling. A diverse people, we revere ideas and the documents that embody them. We don't define nationhood by race or ethnicity or even the places we love — although I confess a special affection for New England, where I was raised and where I'm happily celebrating Independence Day.
Our choice of July Fourth as our day of national celebration is itself significant. It memorializes not a great military victory but an essay explaining why our country exists. Its key line is so familiar we forget how radical it remains: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Our forebears, John F. Kennedy observed, embraced "the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God." This was a revolutionary inversion of the divine right of kings. The Declaration's claim about the equality of everyone embedded a subversive doctrine into our intellectual and moral DNA — subversive over the long run of all aspects of our society that worked against equality, from slavery and segregation to sexism (despite that word "men") and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Fighting for equal rights moves with the strong tide set in motion at our founding.
A form of patriotism celebrating our ideas is very different from blood-and-soil nationalism. American patriotism is contingent on upholding certain principles and it's thus the antithesis of "my country, right or wrong." Our love is not primarily for a place. It is a love for "self-evident" truths. When our country fails to live up to them, it forfeits its special claim on our fidelity.
And let's acknowledge that patriotism is not a philosophically airtight virtue. My self-assigned reading for this holiday was an essay by the iconoclastic philosopher George Kateb, "Is Patriotism a Mistake?" Kateb believes it is. He sees patriotism as nothing more than "self-idealization" and "group narcissism without any self-restraint except for a frequently unreliable prudence, and carried to death-dealing lengths." Patriotism thus "makes a certain kind of self-love into an ideal."
Kateb writes with some respect for an idea advanced by the philosopher Maurizio Viroli, "the patriotism of liberty" rooted in "an interest in the republic" and "a love of the common good." But Kateb qualifies this appreciation by noting that if patriotism can be used to advance just causes, it can also be invoked for unjust purposes. Our Civil War, he argues, provides evidence on both sides of the question.
Lincoln used patriotism (saving the Union) to justify a war to abolish slavery, an objective that would not have initially rallied popular support in the North. But Southern patriotism, Kateb wrote, was "enlisted to preserve the radically unjust institution of slavery." While defending white supremacy was always the Confederacy's purpose, the goal of Southern nationhood provided the rebellion's leaders with a broader rallying cry.
Kateb thinks we should reject patriotism as a fundamentally selfish notion manifested most plainly in a willingness "to die and to kill for one's country." I respectfully disagree with Kateb because I share Viroli's view that certain forms of patriotism are bound up in the defense of free institutions and human solidarity.
Still, Kateb's bracing skepticism reminds us that we always need to judge patriotism by its fruits and its purposes. Our founders did not pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the narrow interests of 13 colonies but to large principles, including the rights of "a free people." American patriotism rests not on power and might but on a loyalty to the equal rights of all to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Dionne is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached via Twitter: @EJDionne.