June 6, 2001—the 57th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy—dawns gray and soggy in New Orleans, Louisiana. A tropical storm has dumped more than a dozen inches of rain up and down the Gulf Coast, and the city is humid and soggy. Actually, the weather is remarkably similar to D-Day itself, when the largest seaborne invasion in history was launched during rain and rough seas.
On this day, I am in New Orleans at the National D-Day Museum to mark the occasion with a smattering of Louisiana veterans who took part in the invasion that began the liberation of Europe. The men are old now, but they stand as the French consul in New Orleans—he speaks with a cartoon-French accent and looks remarkably like Inspector Clouseau—hands them a certificate thanking them for their service. One man in an old green uniform holds the certificate in his hand, staring at it but obviously thinking of other things. When the Star-Spangled Banner was played he had stood, chin raised slightly and bearing erect, but now his face was sad. It was a melancholy and proud moment, and intensely moving.
This emotion has a name—it is patriotism, and it was surely on display that day at the museum. As people moved through the exhibits, even those born well after the carnage and sacrifices of World War II clearly felt a swell of pride for their country and the force for good that it has been throughout history.
The question, of course, is whether those feelings would remain after they left the museum. For patriotism is a compromised emotion these days—acceptable at sporting events, the Fourth of July, and during brief desert wars, but not something that your average American feels necessary to give voice to in his daily life. This is not surprising. After a century in which patriotism has come to be associated with bloodthirsty nationalism, in which an obsession with documenting America’s sins has taken hold in academia and the press, and in which it is easier than ever to consider oneself a “citizen of the world,” what is amazing is that love of country remains as strong as it does.
We in the philanthropic sector are lucky that patriotism, as compromised as it is, retains such vitality among the American people. For patriotism’s decline is surely one of the greatest dangers facing philanthropy today. These two seemingly unconnected notions are in fact deeply intertwined, and unless philanthropy soon undertakes—like the boys of D-Day—the long and arduous task of reclaiming America’s patriotic heritage, it puts its entire future at risk.
To understand why, you must first ask: what does a true American patriotism look like? At the basic level, patriotism is about exceptionalism—we are a nation because we are different from those other people over there. In most nations, this sense of exceptionalism is based on shared characteristics, a “national identity” based on blood, religion, language, race, or ethnicity.
As the 20th century showed, this sense of patriotism can collapse into a cruder nationalism, one of the reasons patriotism has a bad rap these days among so many in the intelligentsia. To this day, expressions of national pride are suspect in many of the European nations that suffered so greatly in World War II.
But America’s ideal patriotism is different. This is not, and never has been, a nation of ethnic or religious homogeneity. Instead, America is a true experiment, the only nation in the world to be based on a proposition about man, man’s purpose in life, and how those notions should order the functioning of the state. This fact makes America a nation that demands moral reflection by its citizens. How is the country going? Are we living up to our highest ideals? Are our actions consistent with our principles?
American patriotism, then, is of a strange kind—it is a patriotism based on a devotion to American ideals of equality before the law, economic freedom, and civic virtue. It is a patriotism that can withstand revelations about American flaws and scrutiny of America’s actions throughout history. In fact, that kind of investigation is necessary to prevent benevolent patriotic fervor for America from collapsing into its cruder cousin.
American patriotism’s sense of exceptionalism derives from the assumption that this nation, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, is the noblest experiment in human history.
A Sense of Nation
That sense of the nobility of this national experiment is in danger of being lost. One major cause is a great national turn inward, to the smaller sphere of family and home.
Patriotism calls people to action—it forces them to value their duty to the public good above their self-interest. This is a difficult notion for modern Americans to accept, since our rights-obsessed culture has trained us to look first toward personal fulfillment. Consider the recent blockbuster film The Patriot. Mel Gibson’s character, a South Carolina widower named Benjamin Martin, lives quietly on his plantation with his seven children. Martin, a hero of the French and Indian War, has become an outspoken pacifist. He refuses to fight because, as he says, “I’m a parent. I haven’t got the luxury of principles.”
His 18-year-old son Gabriel feels differently; he joins the Continental Army against his father’s wishes. But after another son is killed by Redcoat marauders, Gabriel is condemned to hang by a wicked British colonel, and Martin’s home is burned to the ground, the old warrior takes up his weapons and resolves to drive the British into the sea.
The Patriot grossed more than $113 million in its American run; moviegoers loved its stirring battle scenes and thumping pro-America themes. Yet the movie’s popularity actually demonstrates how removed most Americans have become from the patriotic impulse. Despite his sympathies for the fledgling Republic, Martin’s primary loyalties are to family and home. Only when these are threatened does he join the fight, and the movie makes clear that he fights primarily to protect those things, not for love of country or out of any identification with the principles at stake. The Revolution, you see, is all politics, but when they burn down my home, then it’s personal.
This attitude would have completely befuddled—and likely repulsed—the generation of Washington, Adams, and Madison, many of whom suffered financial and personal ruin for their principles. Even stranger, few critics—even many who applauded the film’s positive portrayal of the Revolution—were perturbed by this theme.
Patriotism calls us to look beyond private interests to the public good, which first of all requires of us a recognition that we are a people. This is a difficult notion to sustain in modern life. Advances in technology and communications have given rise to a strange and new view that, as the journalist David Brooks has noted, is at once local and global. Meritocratic Boomers look to home and hearth first; who has time for grand causes when the kids have band, soccer, and SAT prep to attend? And certainly, no country is worth sacrificing your kid to the dangers of military service. These parents, like Benjamin Martin, don’t have the luxury of belief.
At the same time, the Internet, global communications, and the ease of travel have reshaped our relationship to the world at large. Now, it’s a simple thing to communicate with someone half a world away. When you get tired of chatting, you can fly there—for the past several years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, growth in international air travel has far outpaced growth in domestic air travel. Many families, not all of them super wealthy, now vacation in Europe or the Caribbean as easily as families of the past went to the shore or the mountains. This is a phenomenon almost unheard of in human history.
And it makes inculcating a sense of the specialness of the United States—and a respect for its traditions, culture, and guiding principles—a difficult task. What is America to you when you can leave it so easily, with just a phone call or a plane ride?
But it has always been difficult to shape Americans for the rigors of patriotic service, since the nation’s individualistic principles are at war with the notion of sacrifice for the larger good. In today’s climate, when patriotism is suspect, we too often don’t even make the attempt.
The Well of Patriotism
It is important to remember that American patriotism, though reaching beyond mere affinity for one’s own, nonetheless starts as a feeling, an emotion. It is for that reason that patriotism cannot be taken for granted as something that is innate to every American. Like any emotion, patriotic feeling has to be evoked.
Early Americans knew this. Noah Webster’s elementary primers, Parson Weems’s Life of Washington, the McGuffey Reader, which included patriotic vignettes representing various civic virtues—all these were tools used to instill in the young love of their country. Linking these lessons to the various tasks of education—learning to read and write, do sums, and comport oneself—seamlessly integrated patriotic feeling into the process of maturation.
The McGuffey Reader is a far cry from contemporary education, which invests a great deal of time and effort into knocking down myths and dredging up America’s flaws and failings. The 1994-95 debate over the National History Standards produced by UCLA—which forgot to mention the Constitutional Convention in its teaching exercises and didn’t identify George Washington as our first president, but managed to mention Joe McCarthy 19 times and the Klu Klux Klan 17 times—shocked many parents. But the standards were part and parcel of a decades-long drift toward an historical take on America that is not simply “balanced,” that does not simply “reimagine” history from other points of view, but is actually anti-American.
Recently, I went with family to visit Monticello. During the course of the tour, the well-meaning volunteer guide “admitted” that Jefferson fathered children by his slaves. I was shocked to hear not less than a dozen more references to Jefferson’s slaves and his racist views. In the end, far more time was spent on slavery than on Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration, his presidency, or even on the workings and construction of the house we were visiting.
Jefferson’s views on slavery are, of course, an important part of the complex and contradictory mix that was his personality. But no mention was made of Jefferson’s deep qualms about slavery nor of his efforts to condemn the horrific practice in the Declaration. No one even made the connection between the principles of freedom and equality he established in the Declaration and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation 90 years later.
Slavery cannot be airbrushed from American history; to do so would be an historical injustice and a deep violation of the true spirit of American patriotism. But what message do we send to children when we suggest that the only important fact about the Founding Fathers is that they owned slaves—and, in fact, that slave ownership negates the validity of everything else they did? Is that any way to nourish a true and mature love of country?
So it is not surprising that—as numerous commentators have illustrated with various shocking factoids—American students are woefully ignorant of their own history. That has an effect on their susceptibility to patriotic appeal, since a basic historical and civic education is the fertile ground from which patriotic impulses arise. (Education also channels those feelings into a considered love of the principles behind the American experiment and away from the cruder impulse to love one’s own. In that sense, anti-American educators have ironically contributed to the cruder form of patriotism they claim to hate.)
But it is not as simple a matter as historical ignorance. This ignorance is part and parcel of a kind of “civic tone-deafness.” That part of the soul that is susceptible to patriotic appeal seems to be increasingly atrophied in modern Americans. The ironic and detached attitude cultivated by many—call it “creeping Seinfeldism”—makes Americans wary of anything that smacks of corniness. In an age of sophisticates, who wants to be a sucker?
Extraordinary circumstances are still able to call forth that emotional patriotic impulse. When the U.S. women’s soccer team takes the World Cup, for example, or America fights and wins a war while suffering few casualties, the nation responds with patriotic fervor. But make no mistake—the well of patriotism can run dry. It is increasingly in danger of doing just that.
As that well of patriotism runs dry, its aridity becomes a danger to philanthropy. For, at a very deep level, the two are deeply intertwined in the American soul; as my colleague Tom Riley has said, patriotism is in the DNA of philanthropy. The notion of “giving back” tempers the American system of individual self-fulfillment and helps, along with traditional religious sentiment, to keep America from becoming a rapacious nation.
Andrew Carnegie—along with most of the major donors of the past century—understood this connection. In a 1901 letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, presenting to the “Treasurer of the United States Ten Million, Five percent bonds of the United States Steel Corporation” that would be used to found the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the tycoon said that he was “made a very happy man this day of thanksgiving by the thought that I have been so favored as to be enabled to express, at least in some degree, my gratitude to, and love for, the Republic to which I owe so much.” Throughout his life, he expressed his philanthropic motivations in terms of his love of country.
It is profoundly important that we understand this point: at the root of the public-spiritedness that motivates people to found schools for inner-city kids, care for the addicted, teach the illiterate, and feed the hungry, is patriotism. How is this? Because the American patriotic creed, as scholar Walter Berns says in his recent book Making Patriots (reviewed this month in Philanthropy), “is not a parochial patriotism; precisely because it comprises an attachment to principles that are universal, we cannot be indifferent to the welfare of others.” American patriotism demands that we pay attention to the suffering of others, because we recognize how blessed by freedom and fortune we are. And it demands action to alleviate that suffering—not the paternalism of the government dole, but the action of private initiative taken for the public good. In a word, philanthropy.
Patriotism is the thing that prompts and sustains philanthropy. Make no mistake: if philanthropy participates in the attenuation of patriotism, it endangers its own existence.
Some will object that it is religion, or some sort of charitable fellow feeling, that motivates philanthropy, and not patriotism. This is true, to an extent. Religion will always be an important factor in moving people to give. But I would argue that only patriotism can be the true motivation behind the attention to the general welfare—and not just the welfare of one’s own—that is a peculiar trait of American philanthropy. (It is notable that Europe—where patriotism is based more on blood, language, or religion than on shared ideals—does not have anything approaching the vibrant philanthropic sector you see in America.) And it is only patriotism that will be able to draw forth that charitable response on a grand scale in an increasingly secular age.
At the margin, some government policies can help to spark philanthropy, but government alone cannot sustain what is at heart a cultural phenomenon. It remains a question whether government should ever be the primary motivator behind patriotic feeling in a democracy—the temptation for citizen-leaders to celebrate themselves and not the ideals of the country is probably too great. (Of course, government also should not be an impediment to strengthening patriotism, which it certainly is today.)
Answering the Call
In the end, it turns out that philanthropy is the sector of society most uniquely suited to building up patriotism—and in restoring patriotism, philanthropy will benefit by the public-spiritedness patriotism prompts. The D-Day Museum is an excellent example of this kind of initiative—an institution that serves to remind Americans that sacrifice for the public good and for notions of freedom and liberty are right and wholesome. But there are also more systematic ways for private philanthropy to recall America to its great patriotic roots.
Education. The single most important step that can be taken toward refilling the well of patriotism is educating young people to love their country. An important part of that is ensuring that they have some understanding of that country—its history, culture, and traditions. Philanthropy has an important part to play in reorienting how the education system presents American history, through its support of educational reforms that put power in the hands of parents, through its support of scholars working in these areas, and through the support of good institutions.
What is needed is a 180-degree turn in the way American history is presented. A true American patriotism would always be self-critical, since, as noted above, to be blind to America’s faults would betray the very ideals on which the nation was founded. Yet much of the educational establishment today demands not just a careful consideration of American failings but a morbid dwelling upon those failings—to such a degree that the idea that America might in fact have virtues.appears suspect We need to reorient this approach so that historical education emphasizes America’s special place in human history as the repository of freedom. Philanthropy can play a part in this.
Preservation and Restoration. Presently, there are hundreds of important historical sites scattered throughout the country that are in danger of being lost forever. For example, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, thousands of acres of historically-significant countryside are in danger of being bulldozed. This area, which saw some of the Civil War’s most desperate fighting during three major battles—Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness—and hundreds of individual engagements, is under increasing pressure from the growth of suburban Washington, D.C. Private philanthropy is perfectly positioned to save these sites by purchasing and maintaining them. (For another example of foundations working to preserve important sites, see this month’s “Great Grant” on page 4.)
Another innovative philanthropic initiative is the preservation of important historical artifacts. Recently, the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was almost sold when the young British aristocrat who owned it threatened to auction it off unless he was paid $20 million. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, Nevada, stepped in to buy the painting and donate it to the Smithsonian. The foundation also gave an additional $10 million to support a nationwide tour of the portrait and to fund a special display at the portrait’s permanent home in the National Gallery. Foundation president Steven L. Anderson explained the gift by saying, “The idea that it would be available for schoolchildren across the country to see—that struck our patriotic core.” Indeed.
Private Initiative. One of the concepts most important to a healthy civil society is an understanding of the proper role of various sectors. The notion that there are a private sector and a public sector—and that these two, while overlapping at the margins, properly do different things—is a uniquely American idea, and one of America’s great contributions to political thought.
The great temptation of private philanthropy in the 20th century has been the notion that private philanthropy exists to “road-test” ideas for the government. Only now, with the reemergence of interest in faith-based and community solutions to social problems, has that idea begun to be abandoned. Private philanthropy should encourage this development, understanding—and articulating and defending the notion—that this is a quintessentially American way of alleviating poverty and finding solutions to social pathologies.
Greater Crusades. In the 1950s and 1960s, the American government—with the backing, support, and approval of the American people—worked to put a man on the Moon. Such a project was properly a function of government, as the space race was one more front of the Cold War. Should America decide to put a man on Mars that would again be a task for government.
But government success in the space race does not mean that all projects of similar size and scale are properly the realm of government. No one is suggesting a foundation-funded Mars shot, but there are any number of large and worthy projects that philanthropy is suited to undertake. Cures for debilitating diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and various forms of cancer; the development of infrastructure such as roads, railroads, and communications systems in the Third World; cleaning up waterways and pollution around the world; developing and teaching new agricultural practices that alleviate hunger—these are the kinds of massive projects that private philanthropy ought to undertake with more vigor.
True, money may be wasted in misguided research and blind alleys, and the efficiency with which dollars are spent will never be as high as we would like. But private philanthropy, through stringent accountability measures and a willingness to take risks that government cannot take, can make those dollars stretch further and hold out hope to billions worldwide who live in poverty, hunger, and disease.
Why is this patriotic? Because America’s highest ideals demand that its citizens take an interest in extending the blessings of freedom and prosperity worldwide. Our attachment, ultimately, is not to a nation, defined as a particular geographical place or even a particular group of homogenous persons. It is to a universal ideal of freedom that prompts us to extend that freedom—and the blessings that accompany it—worldwide. It is not paternalistic but instead deeply patriotic to look to the betterment of our nation and the world. It is the greatest possible actualization of our most deeply felt urges and our most lofty ideals.
Justin Torres is managing editor of Philanthropy.