Patriotism: A Hair from the Tail of the Dog

“I’ll perish without a hair of the dog.”

— Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), The African Queen

Many years ago, shortly after my father died, I sat with his younger brother (my uncle) and talked late into the Kuala Lumpur night, our conversation guided by Mr. Johnnie Walker, appropriately dressed in Black. What had become of his brother’s son, my uncle wondered, knowing that I had left Malaysia far behind, to study in Australia and Britain, and then to settle in Australia more permanently — visiting the land of my birth only occasionally. What exactly, do you do, he asked. I explained that I had become a political philosopher, but that answer called for a fuller account and more whiskey.

Well, a political philosopher writes about the nature of politics and about the thing called the state, asking questions like: what is the purpose of the state and what is the basis of our obligation to obey it. Or so I explained. And what’s the answer, my uncle then asked. Why do we need the state? The obvious strategy for dealing with this sort of question is usually to say that it all depends on what you mean. But Mr. Walker, presiding, would have none of that, so I was forced to come clean.

To be honest, Uncle, I answered, I don’t really think we need the state, except for two bad reasons: first, we need it to protect us from other states; and second, if we don’t have a state someone will come and set one up anyway, so we might as well get used to it. My uncle seemed satisfied with this, and probably reflected that I was my father’s son after all, since Dad held politicians in low esteem, never voted, and actively discouraged anyone with any talent from wasting time in the profession he’d spent many years reporting on as a journalist. But an hour or two and many more splashes of whiskey later, Uncle said: you know, I think there’s a third reason we need the state; it’s because we need someone to blame. I congratulated him on his insight and we both felt pleased that our conversation had yielded such fine fruit.

It should come as no surprise that this outlook is not that of a patriot. For the patriot, the state is an institution that has to be taken very seriously. It is difficult to be a patriot and regard one’s state as a construction of no great ethical importance. Equally, it is not possible to take the state seriously and not be at least something of a patriot. Patriotism is a solemn business.

My reservations about George Kateb’s splendid invective against patriotism stem, then, from my fear that he 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. He expresses a concern that patriotism helps erode the sentiment that government exists by consent and is no more than a servant of the people. It fuels an activist foreign policy, which in turn works to de-legitimate any constitutional democracy. The patriotic tail wags the constitutional dog.

The trouble is, tails just don’t wag dogs. Patriotism, in the end, is not a cause of anything but a symptom. It is symptomatic of the place the state has in the life of a person or of a people. Its salience will rise and fall with the circumstances of the individual patriot, and with the circumstances of the people as a whole. It will rise in time of war or national emergency and decline in times of peace and prosperity. Patriotism comes into its own when things look desperate. In good times, people recognize that it is the last, and not the first, refuge of a scoundrel, and are at least dimly aware that it has all the ethical oomph of an insanity plea in a court of law.

When patriotism rises it is because people have become more convinced that there is a problem and that only the state can address it. 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. It is easiest to do this in time of war.

Sadly, it is not necessary to provoke or be drawn into war to make people think the state matters, though it certainly helps when enthusiasm for the state wanes. Other noble causes can be invoked to give people a sense that the state is embarking on a task that compels their allegiance — building great structures, eradicating pestilence and famine, cleansing the atmosphere, eliminating poverty, ending smoking, purifying morals, and making us all a little thinner. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

The problem, in the end, is that many people think that countries matter. That, I say, is simply a mistake. Ironically, the most brilliant expression of this error may well be the Constitution of the United States, read through the Declaration of Independence. It proposes that we need the state not just to protect us from external enemies or to attend to some difficulties more easily remedied by a collective agent, but to make possible our very freedom.

George Kateb says that patriotism “proceeds as a brute fact of life.” Though I agree with him that it is a brutish sentiment, I think he is mistaken in suggesting that patriotism erodes the sentiment that government exists by consent. At least in the case of the United States, it is the theory that there is a government by consent embodied in the American state that generates patriotism.

Patriotism comes not to undermine citizenship but to fulfill it. To rid the world of patriotism it would be necessary to rid the world of states. Even this would not relieve us of the burden of petty loyalties to clumps of soil or to far-fetched abstractions, but it would mean the end of one kind of nonsense. Yet I don’t see states disappearing anytime soon, and am not wholly convinced we can give them up, whether or not we would perish without them. So I conclude we should just get used to patriotism, patriots, and their discontents.

There is an old cure for a hangover, which involves taking more alcohol to overcome the effects of too much alcohol. The hair of the dog that bit you, the theory goes, cures you of the rabies caused by its bite. The only thing wrong with the theory, of course, is that it’s false. George Kateb, very wisely, points out the unloveliness of drunkenness. But the real root of the problem is liquor. Inveighing against drunkenness will not make us sober any more than will another drink. The dog will not be controlled by its tail, or its bite disinfected by its hairs.

Patriotism is as unlovely as it is tiresome, but it is not the source of the trouble. The state is to blame. On that much, my uncle and I certainly agreed after a long night of discussion, Mr. Johnnie Walker concurring. George Kateb should find himself a glass, pull up a chair, and join our party.

Chandran Kukathas is a Chair in Political Theory in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and author of The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • “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

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.”