A Peculiarly Virulent Expression of Self-Love

To Professor Galston

(1) & (2) I’m certainly not going to quarrel with Galston about his love of his son. I emphasized that love of one’s own, when it takes a political form, is “a peculiarly virulent expansion of self-love.” We don’t have to feel guilty about the extended narcissism that Freud saw in all relations of love. There would be no adherence to persons without it. The terrible thing is to adhere to figments of the imagination, to abstract entities, to masses of tens of millions of people whom one doesn’t know, with the same single-heartedness that one feels towards the identifiable persons one loves. Love for a child or partner or friend is essential to a human life. But love of country that expresses itself in killing and dying is not love at all, but some fantastic delusion; or more moderately, an unexamined ideological commitment. In both cases, terrible results must ensue, and do.

(3) If one cares about the doing the right thing, one cares about doing the right thing for its own sake and not because the right thing happens to coincide with devotion to one’s country. To try to correct one’s country “when it goes astray” is an impossible task for any one person. It can be done only by a massive and lengthy cooperative effort, if it can be done at all. But to consider the American war in Vietnam or Iraq as merely going “astray” is to speak an unacceptable euphemism. These wars are not blemishes, but purposive imperialistic policies that grow out of the very nature of the political-economic system, and in defiance of the high moral principles embodied in the US Constitution. Great rules and procedures can, unfortunately, accommodate political policies that vitiate the spirit of the laws. Patriotic support of these policies helped make them possible. In the United States, patriotism and the Constitution are engaged in a permanent civil war against each other.

(4) Yes, Nazism was purely evil. But the millions who fought for evil, killed and died for it, were not themselves evil. These millions weren’t Nazis. Most of them were only good German patriots.

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.”