On February 8, 2009 The Washington Post published an op-ed by the distinguished historian Michael Kazin entitled “A Liberal Revival of Americanism.” For the last four months it has sat in one of the piles on my desk and today as I cleared off things in preparation for summer working on a book I rediscovered his piece. Inevitably when I clean up the material on my desk I discover things that months ago seemed worthy of keeping, but now get assigned to the recycle bin of history. Just today for instance I put a review of The Flash Press in my paper bin after making sure that my library had the book. But Kazin’s piece continues to interest and worry me.
When I put it aside I had planned to look again at William Appleman Williams’s 1959 book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, a work that indites the conduct of American foreign policy for serving basically imperialist goals under the name of liberal good fellowship. I haven’t had the time to look at Williams’s book so my characterization of the it here is somewhat rushed and from memory, but that book, now 50 years old, did tell us something about the problems that occur in the world when American notions of their own essential goodness are projected on to the world.
Kazin’s piece does not directly engage with American foreign policy save to note that “since liberals turned against the war in Vietnam 40 years ago, they have struggled to prove that they love their country even while opposing most of the policies of its government.” For Kazin liberals have been able to reclaim the mantle of patriots because of the disaster of the debacle in Iraq. Kazin points to the “immensely attractive and remarkably supple creed” that is Americanism and notes that battles, are fought over just what this means and how America’s founders envisioned the nation. To a certain point Kazin is simply restating truisms. Political change in America comes when enough people are convinced that American ideals are not being upheld by an existing arrangement of power.
When Kazin reminds liberals though that America must have a “privileged place in their hearts” I worry somewhat. It seems a fine line between loving American ideals and demanding that the nation live up to its better self, and seeing, as did liberals in the 1950s and 1960s that the nations ideals would be best served by an intervention in Vietnam. Perhaps I read too much into the phrase “privileged place in their hearts,” but to my mind it was an ability to put aside such notions that let some liberals see the wrong of the war in Vietnam. I hope those who do determine they love America can still oppose wrong policies.
For what it is worth I met Michael Kazin twenty years ago and between 1989 and 1993 had a couple of interactions with him. On those ocassions he was certainly more generous to me than he needed to be.