Final Thoughts on Patriotism

Discussions of this sort are more likely to end in clarification of differences than in agreement. In his latest post, for example, Kateb says that “Love of country that expresses itself in killing and dying is not love at all, but some fantastic delusion.” I cannot believe that Kateb really means the full sweep of this declaration. Suppose one’s country is attacked and thousands of fellow-citizens die. Is everything done in response an expression of delusion? Not at all: some reactions are necessary and justified; others are excessive and illegitimate. I favored retaliation against the Taliban, which asked some Americans to kill and die for their country, and vociferously opposed our invasion of Iraq. My distinction between moderate and extreme patriotism tracks this difference. I can only conclude that Kateb rejects this distinction. For him, patriotism is the night in which all cows are black.

Or consider this statement: “In the United States, patriotism and the Constitution are engaged in a permanent civil war against each other.” Here Kateb elides the paradox that he urges us to “live with” in his longer essay on patriotism. Yes, patriotism can lead, has led, to serious breaches of the Constitution. The internment of Japanese-American during World War Two is an enduring blot on our legal order. But it is equally true that without patriotism we would have no Constitution; the nation it imperfectly constituted would have died a century and a half ago.

Lurking behind Kateb’s critique of patriotism is the longing for an almost Kantian moral purity in politics. I take my stand with Max Weber, with the ethic of responsibility that embraces the necessary moral costs of maintaining our collective existence. For as Kateb knows full well, it is only within political community that citizens can hope to practice the ordinary morality we both cherish.

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.”