Penthouse Retrospective

by Eric Breindel Originally Published: July, 1991

Patriotism 1991 | 30 Years Ago This Month

Now we stand at a kind of pinnacle. No nation is stronger. No nation enjoys such universal admiration. No nation draws nearly as many would-be immigrants. Patriotic fervor is altogether appropriate.

An intelligent patriotism would endeavor to safeguard the core elements of the American Dream over the next decade. First and foremost, we need to protect the twin principles of opportunity and mobility. Americans and potential Americans need to know that this remains a land where anything in the way of achievement is possible; where there are no major barriers to the advancement of those who work hard and demonstrate aptitude; where people are judged as individuals, not in accordance with race or creed or ethnicity or gender.

The threat here comes, in large measure, from those who would transform the principle of affirmative action into reverse discrimination — from those who believe in racial and other quotas. Apportioning rewards on the basis of race or ethnicity, even if prompted by an interest in redressing past discriminations, has the inevitable effect of denying opportunity on the same basis. Such practices run counter to the values that define the American Dream; they undermine Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a society in which men and women are judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Whether we see ourselves as a “melting pot” or as pieces of a “gorgeous mosaic,” America needs to remain a nation of individuals — a land where people succeed or fail in accordance with their own private gifts and flaws.

An intelligent patriotism would also safeguard dissent and free expression, particularly in the academy. Sadly, university campuses throughout the country have become citadels of intolerance. “Politically correct” thinking is the order of the day. From Duke to Stanford to the state universities of New York, Western culture and democratic values are mocked and heckled.

Students, teachers, and visiting speakers — save for the bravest — fear the implications of failing to conform to new political norms. “Codes of conduct” — barring racist, sexist, homophobic, and other ostensibly retrograde forms of speech — have been introduced on campuses.

The traditional curriculum itself is under assault. “Eurocentrism” — the teaching of the classics of Western culture, from Plato to Shakespeare to John Locke — is denounced by students and faculty as inherently racist. The chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go” was first aired at Stanford. Now, however, the tendency to crusade against the study of books and art works by “D.W.E.M.s” (dead white European males) is standard fare at major universities.

The push for an Afro-centric curriculum, in place of the traditional course of study, is also a national phenomenon. Its advocates readily admit that their purpose is less to teach than to raise the self-esteem of non-white students. In other words, the search for academic truth is being replaced by a quest to make students feel better about themselves. The result of this quasi-therapeutic approach to teaching is a form of ethnic cheerleading.

The entire phenomenon is characterized by marked intolerance. Opposing views are derided as racist. And insofar as academic institutions are crucial to keeping the American Dream a reality, the advent of intellectual intolerance and disrespect for free inquiry on our campuses is a blow to that dream. Here, then, is another item that belongs on the intelligent patriot’s agenda for the nineties: safeguarding freedom of expression on campuses and ensuring the survival of the traditional curriculum — at least for those who want to pursue it.

But let’s bear in mind how much is already in place, how many blessings we have to count. We live not just in the earth’s richest country, but in its most generous. While our sheer size and diversity create near-terrifying social problems — including the appearance of a massive urban underclass — no one disputes the obligation of society at large to feed, clothe, and shelter people who don’t or can’t work. No one disputes the view that everyone is entitled to health care as a matter of right. Not that there’s general agreement on how to address certain very real social crises such as the presence of the mentally ill and the homeless in the streets of large cities, the multigenerational welfare-dependency cycle, growing illiteracy, and high crime.

But few doubt that America will produce answers and policies and programs. Few doubt that America will preserve its internal resilience, its commitment to broad individual liberties, and its determination to keep open opportunity a fact of life. Thus, the immigrants will continue to arrive. The economy, in all likelihood, will adjust and expand.

If the renewed confidence in our national prospects requires anything to sustain it over the next decade, it’s good leadership. Political leaders guided by an understanding of the nation’s immediate needs — set in the larger context of the American Dream — sometimes seem few and far between. But such men and women do appear.

Those who feared that George Bush wouldn’t rise to the occasion when tested by fire have been proven profoundly wrong. This wasn’t the first time that the American people underestimated their leader. And it won’t be the last.

The system works, the dream is constant, the values firm, the future promising. We have a lot for which to be grateful. Good reason to be proud. And much to safeguard. That’s not a bad way to head into the twentieth century ’s final decade. For Americans, patriotism makes sense.

The esteemed author of this piece died at a very young age, sadly. Think about how much has changed since early 1998, and you’ll have some sense of what we all could have learned from this very special mind.

These days the simple word "patriotism" can stir a range of feelings from comfort and pride to rage. Consider how it looked 30 years ago.