Walter Berns, an eminent constitutional scholar, plumbs the mysteries and paradoxes of American patriotism in this slim volume. How is it, he asks, that Americans can pursue their individual liberties and at the same time demonstrate public spirit? "Patriotism means love of country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one's life for it," writes Berns. "Why, especially, should Americans be willing to do this? In theory, this nation began with self-interested men, by nature private men, men naturally endowed not with duties or obligations but with certain unalienable rights, the private
rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that each defines for himself."
The short answer is that Americans dedicate themselves to universal principles enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. This is, at bottom, a book on why Americans love their country. But it does not drip with star-spangled sentiment. Rather, it is almost wholly intellectual. Berns might have included more storytelling and less analysis on these pages. His narrative is occasionally character-driven--Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass make significant appearances--but Berns is primarily interested in their ideas. Making Patriots has the virtue of being both succinct and direct, and it addresses a set of thorny problems in clear language. Berns offers smart chapters on how patriotism interacts with religious devotion and racial identity, plus commentary on how patriotism is learned ("No one is born loving his country; such love is not natural, but has to be somehow taught or acquired"). Making Patriots may be read quickly, even as its insights are deep. Readers will find themselves returning to the book again and again, long after they thought they were done with it. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In 1932, theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr observed the ambiguous nature of patriotism as a virtue. Patriotism, he argued, requires an individual's self-sacrifice to the self-interest of a particular group and, as such, often results in horrific evils and conflicts. Berns (Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment), professor emeritus at Georgetown and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledges that the idea of patriotism in 21st-century America is indeed a paradoxical one. After all, in a country that elevates the self, to be a patriot requires one to give up one's self for something greater, most notably one's country. In his brief survey, Berns explores the meaning of patriotism in ancient times in Sparta, the changing idea of patriotism after the establishment of Christianity (when loyalties to church and state became divided) and the emergence of the American flag as the symbol of a republic to which Americans pledge their allegiance. He asserts that our contemporary educational system does not succeed in educating young people in the ways of patriotism and urges schools to rethink their ways of inculcating love of country in students. Finally, he elevates Lincoln to ""patriotism's poet," for the 16th president "promoted love of country, reminding us that as citizens we are bound to each other... by a cause we hold in common." Unfortunately, Berns's book offers no clear definition of patriotism, though his view of it appears narrow and sentimental. Although plenty of people will disagree with him, Berns comes to no startling new conclusions about patriotism; he merely recycles old ideas that will appeal to a limited readership.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.