Moderation in Pursuit of Patriotism is No Vice

Kateb’s response to me raises a number of questions. Let me comment on a few.

(1) Kateb notes that constitutional patriotism involves devotion to a particular political order because it is one’s own and “not only” because it is legitimate. That’s true, but what’s wrong with it? My son happens to be a fine young man; I cherish him for his warm, caring heart, among many other virtues. I also cherish him above other children because he is my own. Am I committing a moral mistake? I would be if my love for my son led me to regard other children with indifference — for example, if I voted against local property taxes because he is no longer of school age. But it is perfectly possible to love one’s own without becoming morally narrow.

(2) Kateb observes, rightly, that people “often” sacrifice themselves for illusions, not for high constitutional principles. Agreed; but that formulation points to a larger truth-namely, that patriots don’t always act that way. That is all that my position requires.

(3) Kateb merely affirms what I deny, that patriotism entails “my country, right or wrong.” Patriotism means, rather, caring enough about your country to try to correct it when it goes astray. When that is not possible, one must make a difficult choice. A number of non-Jewish German patriots left their country in the 1930s because they could not stand what Hitler was doing to their Jewish fellow-citizens.

(4) “Whatever is worth killing for is worth dying for.” Again, agreed. Does it follow that a political community must be morally unblemished to be worth killing or dying for? The United States was a deeply flawed nation when it went to war, not only against the country that had attacked it, but also against Nazi Germany. I suppose we could have stayed out of that fight if Hitler had let us (he didn’t). The servicemen at Normandy harbored no dulce et decorum est illusions; they fought against pure evil in the name of a partial good. They were neither wrong nor deceived to do so, or so I believe.

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.”