Fighting for the Idea of a Country

Professor Kateb begins his response to me by agreeing with me concerning the close link between patriotism and popular government. I can return the favor by agreeing with him that popular government is not intended to serve the majority (of the people) “at the expense of the minority.” He continues by saying that he believes in “the right of self defense,” but he also declares, as if it were a self-evident truth, that most democratic wars are fought not to preserve the “lives, liberties, and goods of the people,” but, instead, for “grandiose and often insincere ideals and for limitless augmentation.”

I can speak with some authority on this subject. I spent four long years fighting World War II, and it never occurred to me, nor does it do so now, that I was fighting for some grandiose and insincere ideal. Rather, I fought – as I suggested when I referred to Lincoln’s eulogy on Henry Clay – for the “idea” of my country. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln referred to this idea as a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. By fighting and winning that war, Lincoln went far toward making that “idea” a reality for this country’s longest lasting minority. Call me naive, but I firmly believe that by fighting and winning World War II, we made it more likely that the day would come when a member of that minority – specifically Barack Obama – could say that he would “never forget that in no other country on Earth is [his] story even possible.”

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • On Patriotism by George Kateb

    “Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that?” asks George Kateb, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University, in this month’s provocative lead essay. According to Kateb, patriotism is the kind of love that suggests our lives are not our own, that we should be prepared to kill and die for the state: “Being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a ‘blood-tax’ that must be paid when the state demands it,” Kateb writes. After treating the reader to a learned account of the uneasy place of patriotism in the liberal, social contract tradition, Kateb concludes, “Patriotism, more than any other passion in political life, makes virtues do the work of vices while promoting the praise of vices as disguised virtues. It thus sustains enormous moral perversity. If no one were a patriot, the world would be better off than it now is, when almost all are patriots.”

Response Essays

  • On George Kateb’s Patriotism by Walter Berns

    In his reply essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots, argues that the value of patriotism, the love of country, depends on the nature of the country to be loved, and criticizes George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms. Berns notes that historically patriotism has been linked with ideas about popular sovereignty, which gave rise in the 17th Century to new ideas about the rights of man. “From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism” fundamentally different from “the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.” Berns finds Kateb agreeing that a legitimate liberal democracy needs citizens willing to defend it. “Although [Kateb] ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots,” Berns writes, “he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.”

  • Patriotism: A Hair from the Tail of the Dog by Chandran Kukathas

    The London School of Economics political theorist Chandran Kukathas argues that George Kateb “takes the state far too seriously, and fails to realize that it is the state, and not patriotism itself, that is the source of the problem.” Patriotism, Kukathas claims, is a symptom “of the place the state has in the life of a person or of a people.” When people come to think there is a problem that only the state can solve, patriotism tends to surge, but “they will come to think this because the state and its acolytes have persuaded – tricked, cajoled, manipulated, deceived, conned, frightened, bullied, sweet-talked – them into believing so.” However, the state is not going anywhere, and therefore neither is patriotism. So “we should just get used to patriotism, patriots, and their discontents,” Kukathas concludes.

  • In Defense of a Reasonable Patriotism by William Galston

    Like Walter Berns, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston faults George Kateb for failing to distinguish between virtuous and vicious forms of patriotism. He then observes that one may love one’s country without loving it in the way one loves a parent. Moreover, Galston argues, if we need the state, as Kateb admits, then it seems we may need patriotism. “It would seem to follow that the beliefs and traits of character that conduce to government’s security-providing function are ipso facto instrumentally justified, as civic virtues. That is the basis on which a reasonable patriotism may be defined and defended.”

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