Patriotism Still A Mistake

The three responses provoked me to further thought, and I appreciate their incisiveness.

Answer to Professor Berns

I agree with Berns that there is a close link between popular government and patriotism. Popular government is the promise that government will serve the people — all the people and not just a few. Popular government supposedly undoes the immemorial pattern in which government has been the instrument and weapon of a few to hold down and use the rest of the population. Oligarchy is systematic unfairness and oppression, but popular government stands for fairness and some significant reduction of oppression.

Popular government is not meant, however, to serve the majority at the expense of the minority; its foundation is the premise that when all people perceive that their government exists to serve them, they should feel obliged to support it. Popular government is the one kind of government that seems to be owed devotion. Its beneficence is rare in the history of governments, and citizens should reciprocate such beneficence and do what they must in order to preserve the source — or, a principal source — of their blessings. Patriotism is the name of the most general disposition to do what is necessary to sustain one’s government for the sake of the society’s well-being. Correspondingly, we can well understand that subjects of oligarchies might not feel that they had a stake in the survival of their government and do as little as possible to preserve it. Their support is compelled. But to consider popular government as if it were merely an oligarchy in reality and a democracy only in empty form would seem to indicate an unearned cynicism.

This is a lovely picture. But it remains lovely only when we sever devotion from patriotism, or if we keep patriotism, only when we sever it from war. Even if we grant that, say, the U.S. government is a democracy and not an oligarchy — and such an assumption merits and has received serious criticism from the very start of its existence — the fact remains that some citizens die for other citizens, a minority for the majority. I still fail to see how a popular government that is founded in an agreement of the people can extort sacrifice unto death — and on a conscripted basis — from some citizens so that others can prosper. If such altruism were part of the original agreement, then that agreement was a muddle. What muddled it was patriotism and what continues to muddle it is patriotism.

I am not writing from a pacifist basis. I believe in the right of self-defense, by violence if need be. The trouble is that most democratic wars are not fought to preserve the lives, liberties, and goods of the people, but are fought, instead, for grandiose and often insincere ideals and for limitless augmentation. If patriotism — devotion to the country and obedience to its state for the wrong reasons — has to exist, it should be defensive in temperament and parsimonious in the expenditure of life, including the lives of its enemies, and not mobilize the energies of self-defense and transmute them into the energies of expansion and imperialism. In truth, if strict self-defense were ever at stake, patriotism would be unnecessary: people would not require any inflated passion to defend what was not an inflated purpose.

Answer to Professor Kukathas

In the past, I have said that patriotism is a mistake. Now Kukathas says that it is a mistake to take the state too seriously. He must mean that the state does not matter very much. Such a belief can’t be correct; rather, it expresses a utopian ideal. It’s an ideal that I have sympathy for. The ties that people tend to value most are close up, face to face, whether personal or institutional. A life made up entirely of relationships of love, friendship, neighborliness, and collegiality in the workplace is a good life. The moral trouble is that this good life is enclosed within a country, even if the country often seems invisible and lacking in reality. The country matters because it has a government, and a functioning government in a self-confident and powerful country is always ready to involve the country in war. A government not only possesses a preponderance of the means of violence and coercion in a country, it can, as Kukathas says, get the country to support the projection of these means into the world beyond its borders. In answer to him, I say that it cannot act abroad unless it is sustained by patriotic sentiment. Indeed, it cannot act for right or wrong unless it knows, to begin with, that there is a standing reserve of patriotic sentiment on which it can draw. This sentiment is a cause of war, not merely a symptom of a temporarily aroused and manipulated public. If it is a symptom, it is a symptom of an inescapable human pathology, which is self-love — what Kant calls “radical evil.” Patriotism is one of the principal underlying causes of war, just as weapons are. Patriotism is a weapon. The means of war help to create wars. In the age of mobilized masses, patriotism is the sine qua non of war, whether waged by democracies or not. Wars are inevitable because patriotism is incurable.

We must take the state with the utmost seriousness, if only when it involves a country in war and when war typically has profound effects, many of them ruinous, on the lives, liberties, and goods of people at home, but also abroad — in the case of the United States and its allies, especially abroad.

Kukathas says that “it is not possible to take the state seriously and not be at least something of a patriot.” Am I a patriot — say, a disappointed patriot? I certainly wish no harm to the United States. But I want us all to have a much keener sense of the harm its wars and policies have done to other people — Koreans, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Iraqis, and others. How could I not therefore take the American state seriously? How could any person who hopes to be halfway decent not take seriously a source of so much harm? I wish to be guided by what Thoreau said in his great lecture, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” after a runaway slave, Anthony Burns, was returned to slavery by the government of Massachusetts in 1854: “I am surprised to see men going about their business as if nothing had happened.”

I am a disappointed citizen. It’s not my patriotism, however, that is affronted by American policies of aggression and coercion, but my conviction that the high moral principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution as written and amended are violated by successive governments that have sworn to uphold those principles. Saying that a person has to be a patriot to care about what the government does or fails to do is somewhat like saying that a scientist has to have cancer in order to want to understand it. Doesn’t Kukathas take seriously the UK government’s steady erosion of certain British civil liberties and its steadfast support of the aggressive war against Iraq, and do so, not as a patriot, but as one who cares about human rights and human suffering?


Answer to Professor Galston

Some scholars have in recent times tried to develop the idea of “constitutional patriotism.” This idea, though not literally Galston’s, is sufficiently close as an analogy. Nothing so far said in defense of it has persuaded me of its tenability. The phrase is an oxymoron. The idea holds that we have patriotic feelings towards the constitution of a legitimate government — that is, a constitutional democracy. What does that mean? What could it mean but that citizens should be devoted to a constitution because it is their own, not only because it is a constitution for a legitimate government. The very phrase indicates that we should have partial or particularist feelings towards a constitution, which if it is a constitution for a legitimate government, must stand for principles that, despite some institutional differences when they are realized, are shared by legitimate governments everywhere. Patriotism is a form of love of one’s own — if we suspend our skepticism and grant that patriotism is really love and not, instead, an abstract or hallucinated love that we call love only because it may involve self-sacrifice. We impute love because a person has given up so much. But people often sacrifice themselves for illusions, for what is unworthy of their sacrifice. They sacrifice themselves not for the high principles embodied in a constitution but to sustain a government that frequently acts in violation of the constitution’s principles. One’s team just has to win. It is a regrettable fact that patriotism can be useful for a good cause, but when people have to be deceived into usefulness by an appeal to their patriotism rather than to the goodness of the cause (as with the abolition of slavery), the good they do is unintentional, almost accidental, though they suffer greatly.

Patriotism is an emotion that colors every effort that it is enlisted to achieve. Its core is not moral duty. It doesn’t calculate and it’s not given to deliberation about rights and wrongs, costs and benefits. Patriotism declaims, despite Galston’s wish that it were otherwise, my country right or wrong (in the words of Stephen Decatur’s toast in Norfolk, 1816). Although it may be mixed with other elements in the mind and heart of people, patriotism is an emotion in itself, and its advocates defend it purely, by itself, and for its own sake. Love of one’s own, when it takes a political form, is a peculiarly virulent expansion of self-love.

Galston thinks there can be a moderate patriotism, just as others think that there can be a constitutional patriotism. Yes, of course: people can be only moderately patriotic. But that fact shows that an obedient person who has only mild or moderate feelings can perform extreme acts. In a war, a moderate patriot can die as willingly as a fanatic, and kill, if not as easily, nonetheless as efficiently. Moderate patriotism doesn’t lead inevitably to moderate policies or the moderate pursuit of them.

Is nothing worth dying for? The answer is that whatever is worth killing for is worth dying for. What allows killing? To preserve oneself. Then there is an obligation to protect those one loves from death and radical dispossession, but this is an obligation that is not often felt as an obligation, but as an act that one must do if one is to continue to believe that one has a life worth living. Indeed, loved ones sometimes lead us to overlook or cover up wrongs that they have done others and to forgive the wrongs they have done us. The indulgences of personal love do not quite seem immoral, but are appalling when extended to a state. To kill and die for a moral principle — say, for a constitution that genuinely protected everyone’s fundamental rights when it was threatened by domestic usurpation or foreign tyranny — that would be admirable; it would be heroic, if not obligatory. But to kill and die at the behest of the notion that it is sweet to die for one’s country, and honorable to kill, when the country is immersed in wrong or embarked on it, that is the curse of patriotism.

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.”