Letter to a Former Subscriber

Letter to a Former Subscriber

Dear ______,

I knew something had gone wrong by the time the Dissent public forum called “Patriotism in a Time of War” ended that evening last October in New York City. Some people in the audience (although by no means everyone) seemed to have concluded that the three speakers—all of us Dissent editorial board members—were arguing that leftists in the United States should be patriotic right now and that patriotism requires sup- porting the Bush administration’s policies, including a war against Iraq. Since I despise the Bush administration and wholeheartedly oppose its policies, including the war, this was a jolt. A few days later, I heard that you had attended the forum and then canceled your subscription.

A canceled subscription isn’t necessarily a grave problem for Dissent. Obviously we want to put out a magazine that attracts and keeps readers, but I’ve also heard it said that if a magazine of criticism like Dissent doesn’t generate enough debate to lose a subscriber now and then, it’s not doing its job. Still, the gap between what I thought I had communicated and what some listeners heard—and I’m writing here only about my part in the forum—is a problem for me. On the one hand, I know I stated more than once that being patriotic has never meant that you shouldn’t protest government policies or social conditions and struggle to change them. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose goal was to make the United States live up to its founding ideals. On the other hand, I needed to say more because a string of issues for the left—patriotism, explanations of 9/11, U.S. imperialism, and political dissent—have gotten badly tangled over the last eighteen months. Rethinking how I would disentangle them for myself, I’ve come up with three points:


First, patriotism and the left. Patriotism is simply a feeling, and it comes in all the usual versions of a feeling: strong, weak, fleeting, latent, and so on. You can’t tell yourself to feel patriotic anymore than you can urge someone else to feel that way. The problem is not that part of the U.S. left doesn’t feel patriotic or make a show of patriotism. But it is a problem if some leftists come across as disdaining the patriotism of other Americans as if there were no difference between patriotism and jingoism. This matters because many U.S. citizens who support progressive causes or consider themselves radical, or voted for Gore or Nader in 2000, or march against war in Iraq also feel patriotic. Leftists who can’t fathom or differentiate the patriotism of their own political allies (or potential allies) have to consider why this is so and whether or not it undermines the left. This issue came up during all the flag waving immediately after 9/11.

Second, the causes of 9/11. In trying to analyze 9/11, part of the left relied too heavily on the...