Patriotism and Young Americans

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Patriotism and Young Americans

Apr 11, 2017 4 min read

Author and weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal

In a coming crisis will our children grown to adulthood have the thing within them that prompts them to protect their country? Photo: iStock

On Dec. 9, 1998, Peggy Noonan spoke at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on the topic of patriotism. The follow is an excerpt from that lecture that was also included in “Leadership for America: The Principles of Conservatism.” 

What about the rising generations? There is trouble there, too. 

Nobody is really teaching our children to love their country. They still pick it up from their parents, from here and there, but in general, we have dropped the ball. 

The schools, most of them, do not encourage patriotic feeling. Small things—so many of them do not teach the Pledge of Allegiance. Bigger things—they do not celebrate Washington's birthday and draw pictures of him and hear stories about him as they did when we were kids. There is no Washington's birthday; there is President's Day, which my 11-year-old son was once under the impression is a celebration of Bill Clinton's birthday. 

Beyond that, the teaching of history has changed and has been altered all out of shape. My son is instructed far more in the sins of racism than in the virtues of Abe Lincoln. There is a school in Washington—and I almost moved there so my son could attend—that actually had pictures of Washington and Lincoln on the walls. On the wall of my son's classroom, they had a big portrait of Frieda Kahlo. 

The old historical teachings that were also moral teachings are by the boards. No teacher has ever taught my son the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. And if someone did, the kids in my son's class would pipe up, "I know what young George said. He said, 'It depends on what the meaning of "cut down" is!"' 

Cynicism is a virus. Our culture has been spreading it most efficiently for decades now. Our society does not teach patriotism to the young. The media do not teach it or suggest it or encourage it. When they refer to it at all, it is to show patriotism as vulgar or naive or aggressive. This is a particular problem because Hollywood tries in its own way to do the right thing, but they go off on a toot. For 30 years now they have been trying to teach us all about the imperfections of our country: America's racist past, America's sexist past, American injustice to the Indians. In a more balanced culture, this would be a good thing; it would be a counter to mindless flag-waving period. But there is precious little flag-waving, mindless or otherwise to counter. 

What young Hollywood producers do not notice and do not think about is that they are teaching our children not only that racism is wrong—a good lesson—but that America is unregenerate on this issue of race. That in our South we have been cruel and in the North indifferent; that we are full of sin on this issue; that we have always been this way and this is what America is. Do you know what children think when they see this? They begin to think that America is not a very good country. They begin to think America is not so deserving of their love and loyalty. 

When we endlessly hammer America, we tell our kids: This is not a country that deserves your loyalty. It creates cynicism and skepticism among our children, and this is bad because childhood is the only time in life when you can be fully romantic and full-hearted and starry-eyed. It is in adulthood that you should develop healthy skepticism. That skepticism balances early love, but we are not letting our kids have that early love. 

In a coming crisis, down the road, will our children grown to adulthood have the thing within them that prompts them to protect their country? To protect their Constitution? What if, in that coming crisis, the best of our children have grown into adults who are somewhat ambivalent about America? A person in Hollywood might say, "Wait, it's good their love of country isn't based on a lack of realism." But I have never seen any kind of love that lasted without a little lack of realism. 

I would add, parenthetically, that the internationalization of American culture, the fact that the whole world watches our television shows and our movies, the fact that they get their sense of who we are from the media we send them, means that they are changing and have changed in their attitudes toward us as a people. They are not allowed to have illusions about us either. 

Recently, on television, I saw in a news story American troops in a helicopter airlifting people of another country—I think it was the Philippines—out of the way of a hurricane. They were saving them from rampaging floods. As the Americans bravely herded the imperiled people onto the American helicopters, it looked like an old war movie. For a moment, I thought of the feelings the people being saved would have had in an old war movie—people in France in 1944, in Italy, in Germany in 1945. They would have had thoughts like, "Oh, thank you, Lord; the Americans are here with their famous idealism and plain rectitude! They've brought us food." 

But it's 1999. They've seen our culture, and now I imagine it would be more like, "The producers of Melrose Place are here; the makers of Bride of Chucky have landed! Come, neighbors; maybe they've brought us some pornography. Get to the helicopter!" We should think more about what the people of the world conclude about us from the media we send them. It actually—and I mean this seriously—has implications for our future in the world. 

So the old are turning off and turning away, and the young are not being taught love of America—and neither are our new immigrants. 

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