''To criticize one's country,'' Sen. J. W. Fulbright once said, ''is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that a country can do better than it is doing. ... Criticism, in short, is ... an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.''
Governments, of course, normally do not listen to criticism kindly, and none less than the Reagan administration. Governments frequently seek to deflect it, especially during political campaigns, by mouthing ''the familiar rituals of national adulation.''
Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who is in charge of human rights , has now carried this reaction a step further. In his view failure to see the world in black and white is the same as being anti-American. In a speech the other day, Mr. Abrams described Frank Mankiewicz, former president of National Public Radio, ''as a willing apologist for one of the most vicious tyrants of our time'' (i.e., Cuba's Fidel Castro). Mr. Mankiewicz's presumed apologia consisted of writing a number of years ago that Cubans were ''proud of their accomplishments and sing songs about themselves and their country that reflect their self-pride.''
In any reasonable interpretation, that is not an apology; at the time Mankiewicz wrote, it was a simple statement of fact. For many Cubans, perhaps most, the bloom is off the revolutionary rose and disillusionment has long since set in. But as late as the middle 1970s, Cuban pride in that revolution was one of the things that struck a visitor most forcefully. And why should the Cubans not have been proud? After all, they had made one of the few thoroughgoing revolutions in the Western Hemisphere (the fact that it has turned out badly has nothing to do with having been proud of it), and they had successfully defended it against all the dirty tricks in the CIA's bag.
Such a view is not, as Abrams put it, ''distorted by a seemingly invincible anti-Americanism.'' It is, rather, simply a recognition of reality - the indispensable starting point for a successful foreign policy. The objectives of such a policy have normally been considered to be to strengthen ties with one's friends and to reduce frictions with one's adversaries. The Reagan policy, on the other hand, seems to be aimed more at alienating both friends and adversaries abroad while cultivating national adulation at home.
In the process, words and meanings get hopelessly mixed up. The invasion of Grenada becomes a liberation, or a mission to rescue Americans. It is presented as a redemption for years of supposed shilly-shallying. In its aftermath, America is again ''standing tall,'' as the President likes to put it. A bully stands tall in the neighborhood he intimidates, but he does not thereby acquire much respect.
Guerrillas trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua are freedom fighters. Guerrillas trying to overthrow the government of El Salvador are just guerrillas.
There is a fine line between patriotism and chauvinism, and much of the country - egged on by the administration - seems to have crossed it. This is not unusual as a presidential election approaches, but it appears to be more pronounced this year.
President Reagan described the Olympic torch as ''a celebration of America.'' It had previously been thought of as an international symbol of sportsmanship. American victories in the Olympic Games set off a national adulation which the rest of the world found offensive. Foreigners complained about one-sided television coverage. A respected (and pro-American) British magazine, The Economist, concluded that the US ''did itself as much harm as good in Los Angeles.''
Lawyers have an aphorism that when you have neither the law nor the facts on your side, you should wrap yourself in the flag. It would be comforting to hope that this is what the administration is doing and that a greater sense of balance will reassert itself by mid-November. Unfortunately, the administration may really mean it.