About this Issue
Ispatriotismgoodfor anyone other than flag manufacturers? If so, goodfor whom, and why? Do we have special obligations to some people simply in virtue of common membership in a nation state? If so, how is this different from special obligations to some in virtue of a common race, or a common religion? Does the unquestioned utility of shared nation-level institutions require a special sentiment, patriotism, to hold it all together? Would our institutions be more effective if we were more patriotic? Patriotismis surely useful for creating the solidarity needed to defend against an external enemy. But aren’t our potential enemies patriotic, too? If we need patriotismfor defense against patriotism on the offense, wouldn’t we all be better off with multilateral disarmament?
To tackle these questions and more, we’ve assembled a lineup of world-class political theorists, starting with lead essayist George Kateb, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University and author of Patriotism and Other Mistakes. Commenting on Kateb’s essay, we’ll have the American Enterprise Institute’s Walter Berns, author of Making Patriots; William Galston of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland, author of The Practice of Liberal Pluralism; and Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics, author of The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom.
Patriotism is love of country. What kind of love is that? Some defenders of patriotism who want us to love our country use such terms as fatherland and mother country. Such usage seems to indicate that we should love our country as we love our parents. Do they mean that a country is a person and should be loved as a person is loved? Obviously a country is not a person. There is a metaphor involved. If we notice the metaphor, we see that what we are doing when we liken a country to a parent is performing an act of the imagination. More commonly, the metaphor is not understood as a metaphor. Rather, many people just accept the usage as if it were natural and can and should go without examination. They manage to do two contradictory things simultaneously: they know that of course a country is not a person, yet they act with energy on the belief that it is. The metaphor facilitates an exploitable mental confusion.
Let us repel the metaphors of fatherland and mother country by thinking about love of parents. We might find that it would be fairly monstrous to love a country as one already loves one’s parents (or conversely to model love of parents on the love we are urged to feel for our country). I love my parents — if I do — because I began my life in infant attachment to them, well before I had a sense of self and a developed mind. They “imprinted” themselves on me; we bonded; only pain ensued from their neglect or abuse, while I was content if they wrapped me in their enfolding nurturant love. As I grew, I realized that I would be lost without them; I was wholly dependent on them; I loved them. With the onset of maturity, I felt gratitude towards them. I knew that without them there would literally have been no me. Love of parents is an obligation that is more than an obligation and should not be felt as one, except under the most trying circumstances. Love should overwhelm all feelings of reluctant duty. Despite conflicts and frustrations I loved my parents; if the difficulties were too great and I became alienated or even hostile, my feelings would remain at least ambivalent. (Is there ambivalence from the start?) I realized that alienation or hostility was an open wound; only reconciliation could heal it. Perhaps it could never be healed, to my inestimable loss.
Are such feelings properly transferred to a country? Should love of country overwhelm all self-centered reluctance? In particular, is gratitude, a kind of love, the right emotion to feel towards one’s country? Although children are not usually asked to die for their parents, and most parents wouldn’t accept the offer if it were made, some defenders of patriotism imagine the state as a super-parent that may ask its children to die for it. The idea of patriotism is inseparable from killing and dying for your country. A good patriot is a good killer.
I do not literally owe to my country my coming into existence. It’s true that I could not go on if I didn’t live in some society, but my genes are not politically identifiable; a country is not a biological entity. My parents could have moved after I was born; my country could have lost the territory in which I was born; I could have been abducted and raised elsewhere. My parents are one thing, my country another, altogether different. A country would not exist without its people; the reverse is literally false and appears true only by metaphorical distortion.
A famous assertion that the feelings towards parents are the right feelings towards one’s country, but with even greater intensity, is Socrates’ speech in the Crito. In various diluted forms, the sentiment he expresses so radically appears, at least residually, in many defenses of patriotism. Some attention to it, though not solely to it, helps us to see why patriotism is urged by theorists and why many people feel it. As he waits to endure capital punishment when he could escape it with the help of friends, Socrates impersonates the city and its laws, and lectures his friend Crito while also lecturing himself, and says things he never said before. In the speech, he says “your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, and all your ancestors, that it is more to be revered and more sacred … that you must worship it” (51b-c). The city is the mother of all mothers and the father of all fathers. What makes it so? Its laws establish the institution of marriage and provide guidance in the rearing of children. Without the city, it would seem, no one would exist – or at least no human being would grow up as a person with an identity, a role in life, and a purpose for living. The city gives a person more than parents do, and what it gives is parental in nature. The major meaning is that obedience to it under all circumstances is required, above all, as an exaction of gratitude. The ultimate exaction is to die in war or punishment; one must be ready to endure in a grateful spirit whatever the will of the parent-city commands.
Socrates’ speech takes in earnest the metaphor of the city as parent, while insisting on an un-enlightened, un-democratic conception of the powers of parents. He moves in the direction of likening children to slaves and hence citizens to slaves. Citizens are owned because they owe their very lives to the country. The double meaning is that without the country they would not now be alive, and that therefore if the country needs or wants to take their lives it can do so. What it gives, it actually lends; what it lends, it can take back. One’s life is not exactly a debt that one owes and that only one’s death can discharge, but it is only a conditional gift.
Where Pericles in his Funeral Oration can urge devotion to the city even at the expense of one’s life, he is sure to avoid all endorsement of slavishness in his appeal to Athenian patriotism. His oration mixes elements that are, in turn, erotic passion for the city, aesthetic wonder at its beauty, and a mystical loss of self in its sublimity. But one strong element is the invocation of the practical advantages that people enjoy by living in a democratic city that elevates them above a life of humiliating inferiority to their betters and affords them a chance to live decently and make the best of themselves. He breaks the back of the parental metaphor because it is inappropriate for adult citizens in a democracy, even though he urges them to risk death for the sake of the city’s defense of itself as an empire, and rather maniacally asks them to keep on replacing the dead warriors with new children. At the same time, he speaks to an audience that, if Plato is to be believed, had already re-defined the relation between parents and children in a democratic manner, thus liberating children from unquestioning obedience and subjection to the unexplained will of their parents.
I do not think, however, that Pericles’s defense of patriotism, though it is far more enlightened and democratic than Socrates’ servile advocacy of total submission to the parent-city, settles the matter of the validity of patriotism.
I believe that buried pretty far down in some modern defenses of patriotism is a sentiment rather close to what Socrates is expressing in the Crito, if not exactly the same. The best recent defense of patriotism, Maurizio Viroli’s For Love of Country, bases itself on the metaphor of country as fatherland, as fidelity to the legacy of the political fathers, who are supposed to bind succeeding generations by a kind of filial piety. An intensely American philosopher, William James (in “The Moral Equivalent of War”), can think that it is good for young people especially to feel that they are “owned” by their country. I find it surprising that such a clear-headed thinker, democratic through and through, can voice such a view. But the much larger surprise is that we find in him, where we shouldn’t, a defense of the idea that, being owned, we owe the state or the country a debt, a “blood-tax” that must be paid when the state demands it. A blood-tax, however, isn’t an exaction of gratitude. Rather, the patriotic heroism of dying prematurely or risking death is the best definition of being a man. If James doesn’t follow Socrates in saying that the state, as our parent, gives us our lives, he exceeds Socrates by suggesting that in being owned by the state, we owe it a blood-tax, not merely a grateful readiness to die when it commands. For James, only death or its risk proves patriotism.
Socrates’ position in the Crito and the sentiment expressed by William James and other advocates of patriotism share the idea that we do not own ourselves. We come into the world already obliged after a certain age to serve the country and feel patriotic passions for it. I associate this notion with traditions of thinking that have not yet arrived at the idea that political society owes its rightful existence only to the consent of the people, originally and continuously thereafter. Through consent, the people own the state, which is its servant, not its parent or owner. The premise is the principle that each person owns himself or herself. From self-ownership is derived the idea of political consent, freely given or withheld or withdrawn, and it is formulated variously by theorists of the social contract, from the seventeenth century and after. The most relevant theorists are the Levellers, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The most formidable social contract is the United States Constitution. I hazard the thought that all defenses of patriotism finally rest on the rejection of the idea of individual self-ownership, even though people have patriotic feelings that can and do emerge without the assistance of any theoretical defense.
The common thread in contract theory is that the obligation to obey can derive only from consent, expressed or tacit, and always given by the individual, whether as a personal pledge or a pledge given in association with other like-minded people. Every person is born equally free by the very nature of his or her humanity. The first enemy of the social contract is therefore patriarchy, the assertion that the state, usually a hereditary monarchy, exists by the will and grace of God; the ruler is father of his country; as father, the king rules without consent, just as children did not and could not choose their father (or mother); as patriarch, what is more, the king owns the people of the kingdom and their property. They belong to him and they ought to feel grateful for his protection. The king’s only obligation is to God; otherwise he may dispose of the people and their goods as he sees fit. In battle with this outlook, the theorists of the social contract tried to kill not the king exactly, but the view that the king is father in the image of the God who is the lord and father of mankind, the source of life and death.
A great irony is that, try as it might, the theory of the social contract never wrestled free of the claim that the people owe their existence to the state and hence that the state owns the people. While the contract theorists unmistakably struggle to establish the proposition the state does not own the people, they nevertheless also say – and I think, inconsistently – that it can require citizens to die to preserve it. All the theorists accept this requirement. It is as if by eroding the idea that the king is father and owner of the people and owes his authority to God’s grace, they feel the compensatory need to replace devotion to the king by some other bond that would yield a moral obligation to sacrifice oneself for the state. The claim is that such a bond is created by a person’s consent to live under a state. The basis of the state in rational choice is turned into the basis for morally allowing the state to cause the death or the risk of death of citizens. Our choice to preserve our lives is turned by the contract theorists into a choice to assume an obligation to die for the sake of what supposedly, in the first place, exists in order to preserve us. Necessity gives birth to the state but the state gives birth to another kind of necessity, which is a dangerous and recurrently lethal necessity. The state for all does not preserve all lives, and loses or wastes a good many.
There is cruelty lodged in the heart of the theory of the social contract, even though it seeks to demystify the state and to replace the traditional awe of the parent-state by clear-sighted understanding of the state’s rational purpose. The language of obligation supersedes the language of gratitude and devotion. But the mentality of self-sacrifice perhaps takes on a greater strength when it is made to flow logically from the obligation that choice creates. The social contract tends to become a more ingenious trap than any appeal to the patriotic love of country rooted in filial loyalty, whether in its pure Socratic form or in the various dilutions of it that are always current. Just because parents usually don’t ask their children to die for them, and consider it an unspeakable tragedy when any child dies before its parents, the metaphor of the state as parent must contradict its literal source: parents feel horror at the death of their children. The theory of the social contract must confront and try to overcome a different contradiction: a contract for life is also, and inevitably, a contract for (premature violent) death. The upshot is that the social contract can become a more bloodthirsty theory, despite its apparent dispassion, than the idea of the parent-state (or owner-state), because its contradiction seems more successfully resolvable on the theoretical level. Children are not supposed to die for their parents but equals are supposed to die for one another.
Yet the theorists of contract knew that consent would not supply the passionate energy that is required to discharge the obligation to die, if need be. Hobbes and Rousseau, more than the Levellers and Locke, proposed techniques of indoctrination in political mystique in order to shore up what they knew was, to begin with, a quite shaky scheme by which the choice to live turns into an obligation to die. The mystique of patriotism, shored up by civil religion, mattered most to Rousseau because he was keenly aware of the cruel irony lodged in the heart of the theory of the social contract, as Hobbes was; but, at the same time – and here is another irony – Rousseau was much more eagerly insistent than Hobbes to provide a worked-out rationalization for the obligation to die that did not depend on the mystique of patriotism. Hobbes went this way and that on the problem of conscription and its possibility of death, as if to suggest that the problem really was not soluble at all within the framework of consent and contract – or perhaps within any theory.
Rousseau in The Social Contract (Bk.2, chap. 4) asserts that by dying to preserve the city, its citizens are merely giving back to the state what they received from it. In his theoretical desperation, he thus returns us to the pre-contract idea that the state owns the people: because it has given them life, it may take life away from them, if need be. To this old mystique, Rousseau then adds the enlightened rational calculation that without a state, they would have had to risk their lives in the anarchic condition in an eventually vain attempt to preserve them. Don’t people gain from collective strength? Don’t they reduce their chances of dying by living in a political system that their consent has created? Yes, they do – that is, some do, but some don’t. The dead have been sacrificed for others, and therefore the whole egalitarian logic of the social contract is violated by a majoritarian calculation. It is a best bargain only for those who live, not for those who died before their time. And so Rousseau works to bypass the dilemma by advocating a tight communal life infused with patriotic love of country. His theory is a tremendous effort to make political life more fair and less arbitrary. But in many respects the life he advocates is finally not more rational. It is as irrationally based in devotion and gratitude to the city as other societies are, or even more so. Even worse, his theory may seduce us, by its promise of justice, to grant the blood-tax it levies. I doubt, however, that Rousseau’s version of the blood-tax joined to his sketch of the best bargain can succeed in theoretically reconciling the social contract with the obligation to die for the state.
If neither the metaphor of the parent-state nor the idea of the people’s consent to government can justify killing and dying for the state, patriotism has not run out of resources. Whatever theory says, patriotism will prevail. One main reason is that it is a usually tacit ideology and flourishes without philosophical assistance. The theoretical debate about patriotism directly interests only thinkers who concern themselves with questions of political and moral philosophy, and publicists who are eager to promote some policy or other. The debate about patriotism reaches undeniably to some of the most profound speculative matters, yet patriotism itself proceeds as a brute fact of life. The trouble is that this brute fact contributes to the erosion of the sentiment that government exists by consent and has the status of servant to the people. But haven’t I just said that the manifestation of consent, the social contract, tends to rationalize killing and dying for the state? Yes. But I think that properly revised, it need not; the revision must build on the ambivalent work of Hobbes and the ambiguous work of Locke, as I have elsewhere tried to suggest. In any case, modern liberty can’t do without the premise that government rightfully exists only by means of popular consent to a system of government that routinely works through continuous popular consent. The point is to show that patriotism facilitates the erosion of the idea of rational consent, and does so by means of an improvident and un-reasoned acceptance of a second social contract that usurps and inhabits the body of the original one that created the system of constitutional democracy.
The brute fact of patriotism is made brute by the inveterate inclination in men to associate virility with the exertion involved in killing and risking death. No theory can ever defeat or discredit this inclination, which helps to engender the fantasy that the competition of political units is the highest kind of team sports. Men love teams, love to live in a world where they are called on to back or play for their team against other teams, even though the sport of war is soaked in blood. Socratic notions of gratitude or Jamesian notions of infinite indebtedness are not necessary for this love. In the sport, where aristocrats used to play their games, elites now mobilize groups or masses to slaughter each other. Men can become peace-loving for a while, but not forever. The women who love them encourage their inclination to see team sports as the essence of their masculinity, and to call patriotic this inclination when it is projected into politics. The pity is that men lend their energies to a state that sooner or later embarks on an inherently unjust imperialist career and thus gets constantly engaged in policies that are deliberated in secrecy, and sustained by secrecy and propaganda, and removed from meaningful public deliberation. Patriotism is indispensable for sustaining this career of anti-democracy.
In general, an activist foreign policy works tirelessly to de-legitimate any constitutional democracy. Patriotism is the greatest asset in the internal and ever-present war against the sentiments and institutions of free government. The support of one’s team is not the defense of the Constitution. What gets hollowed out is government by rational consent, while a number of basic freedoms are steadily attenuated. The original contract for constitutional democracy is usurped, and replaced, in significant part, by a second contract for expansion and predation. It is bad enough that the original contract is interpreted to mandate dying for one’s country. Much worse is the displacement of the original contract. The spoils of activism and imperialism intensify political and economic inequality while immunizing leaders from their accountability to citizens to an ever greater extent. Citizens become followers. Leaders and followers live in different worlds. Citizens allow the patriotic thrill of team sports to obscure the radical alteration that descends on the original contract, while acquiescing in the gains of large and sometimes sinister interests that use patriotism in their appeals for support. The great theorists of the social contract would have been horrified; they didn’t quite have such a drastic mutation in mind – not to mention the anti-imperialist Socrates in his espousal of the parent-state.
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. Theorists shouldn’t join in.
George Kateb is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University and author of Patriotism and Other Mistakes.
On George Kateb’s Patriotism
Professor Kateb begins by defining patriotism as love of country; fair enough. He then distinguishes this love from that of a child for his parents, pointing out that, whereas a child is not likely to be asked to die for his parents, “the idea of patriotism is inseparable from killing and dying for your country.” What he might better have done here is to have distinguished between loving, or pledging allegiance to, a democracy or a monarchy, or, with a view to our current situation, a liberal democracy or any of the forms of tyranny. This, surely, is the decisive issue in an appropriate analysis of patriotism.
It is significant that Aristotle did not number patriotism among the virtues — courage, for example, or prudence, justice, and magnanimity — probably because he knew that it should be praised or fostered only in the case of a country that deserved to be loved. And not all countries, or regimes, deserve to be loved. But Kateb makes no such distinctions; his analysis is abstract; it abstracts from every relevant political consideration; he is opposed to patriotism as such; rather than a virtue, patriotism as such is a vice; it is the cause of “enormous moral perversity.” He goes so far as to say that a “good patriot is a good killer,” regardless of whom, or for what purpose, he kills.
And it is also significant that the first recorded use in English of the word “patriotism” did not occur until 1726, when it was defined as “public spiritedness.” Prior to that time (and for some time, and in some places, after it) the modern European world consisted of princes and their subjects, who were expected to be loyal and obedient, and to fight and die in battle, but not be public spirited. So it was the Emperor Frederick, not the people of Bohemia — and Maximilian, Elector of Bavaria, and Philip III, King of Spain, and Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and Louis XIII, King of France, and Christian IV, King of Denmark, and (one more in a long list) Charles Lewis, Elector Palatine, not their respective peoples — so, as I say, it was these various princes who fought (or made the decision to fight) what we know as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Generally speaking, only citizens (not subjects) could be expected to be public spirited.
For this reason patriotism became linked with the rise of popular sovereignty. This development, in turn, depended on the discovery or pronouncement of new universal and revolutionary principles respecting the rights of man — see Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690). From these new principles came new governments, first in America, then in France, and with them came a new understanding of patriotism, or an understanding other than, or in addition to, love of country, or the sort of filial piety associated with classical Sparta.
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to recognize this new form of patriotism, or at least to speak of it. In his Democracy in America, he argued that this patriotism was more rational than the simple love of one’s native land. It was born of enlightenment, he said, “and grows with the exercise of rights.” A few years later, Abraham Lincoln referred to the Founders of this country as “the patriots of ‘76,” not, I think (or as Professor Kateb would have it), because they killed their erstwhile “British brethren,” but, rather, because they established this free country. Lincoln said it was “the last best, hope of earth.” Thus, he eulogized Henry Clay by saying that Clay loved his country “partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he [worked zealously] for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such the advancement, prosperity and glory of human liberty, human right and human nature.” In a word, the patriotic Clay loved the idea of his country, or its principles.
There is, of course, nothing parochial about these principles; any country might adopt them and many have done so. This was of particular concern to Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist. He understood that the French Revolution was something new and (to him) alarming, especially because its principles appeared to be readily exportable; those scientific and universal principles, if exported and unleavened by the unique experiences or traditions of a country, would reduce not only the French but the people of all Europe to “one homogeneous mass.”
Something like this did in fact begin to happen, but the French Revolution, and what a Frenchman of our own time has called the enormous Napoleonic enterprise, “unleashed a contrary movement of particularization and national separation.” In a word, the attempt to export these universal principles gave rise to the glorification of the nation, which is to say nationalism and a politics of ethnicity, where what matters is blood, not the political principles associated with patriotism. “I speak for Germans simply, of Germans simply,” said the philosopher Johann Fichte in 1807, a sentiment repeated by many another European. But not by Americans. The word “fatherland” has no place in the American vocabulary.
Since then, at least in intellectual circles, the very idea of the nation, as well as patriotism, has been discredited. This process began in 1848 when Karl Marx declared (in the Communist Manifesto) that “working men have no country” and predicted that they would refuse to fight for country. This proved not to be true when World War I broke out in 1914. Then, after World War II, Europeans set about the task of divesting themselves of their sovereignty in favor of European Union. It remains to be seen if the citizens of the Union will love it, let alone fight for it.
Unlike Edmund Burke, Kateb’s quarrel is with the theory itself, not its possible consequences; and by theory I mean the social contract propounded by Hobbes and Locke. Or to be more precise, he argues that the state, coming out of the contract that men enter into in order to preserve or secure their lives — “lives, liberties, and estates,” in Locke’s account — cannot legitimately require them to risk or give their lives in its defense. “Our choice to preserve our lives is turned by the contract theorists into a choice to assume an obligation to die for the sake of what supposedly, in the first place, exists in order to preserve us.”
This is not the place to discuss whether Hobbes and Locke can rightly be accused of an inconsistency at the heart of their proposals. It is sufficient to note that Kateb agrees that modern liberty, or liberal democracy, is based on the consent of the governed. What is interesting here is that, in the course of making his case for the inconsistency, he suggests that this government, being legitimate government, needs and deserves citizens willing to defend it. Which is to say, although he ends up saying the world would be a better place without patriots, he has to concede that a government by consent is dependent on them.
Fortunately — although he does not say this — there continue to be patriots; I presume he means in the United States. He explains this by saying that its proponents have presumed the existence of a second contract, one that justifies the new patriotism, but, by doing so, “usurps and inhabits the body of the original one that created the system of “constitutional democracy.” This suggests that he is, after all, a champion of constitutional or liberal democracy and, if he is paying any attention to what is going on in the world, he has to know that constitutional or liberal democracy is threatened by enemies more dangerous than implicit contracts.
Despite the compelling case that can be made for it, patriotism has become unfashionable among some intellectuals. One prominent American university professor (Martha Nussbaum) suggests that the times require that people get rid of patriotism and, to that end, become citizens of the world and lovers of humanity, and thereby protect all those desirable human rights. But humanity does not have a government (or an army), and there is not reason to believe that, if it did have a government, it would be lovable.
Walter Berns is Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Making Patriots.
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.
In Defense of a Reasonable Patriotism
As a political theorist, I have followed George Kateb’s work with admiration for decades. He always challenges me, even when (as on this occasion) he does not persuade me.
I begin with a point drawn from Aristotle. Even if, as I believe, a certain kind and degree of patriotism is a virtue, that is not necessarily the case for every kind and degree. I can reject “My country, right or wrong” without ceasing to be a patriot. I can believe that other objects of regard (my conscience, for example) on occasion outrank my country without ceasing to be a patriot. The fact that blind or excessive patriotism often has terrible consequences does not mean that reasonable and moderate patriotism does so. While Kateb’s fears are not wholly unwarranted, they seem to be directed to the erroneous forms of patriotism, not to the phenomenon tout court.
Kateb works hard to drive a wedge between love of parents and love of country. The latter, he suggests, is at most a flawed metaphor. I am not convinced. Love of parents and of country are not the same, to be sure, but it does not follow that one’s country cannot be a legitimate object of affection.
To be sure, a country is not a person, but it begs the question to say that love is properly directed only to persons. It abuses neither speech nor sense to say that I love my house and for that reason would feel sorrow and deprivation if disaster forced me to leave it. (I have had such an experience.) A country is, among other things, a place, a language (one’s “mother tongue”), a way of life, and a set of institutions through which collective decisions are made and carried out. One can love these things reasonably, and many do. Consider immigrants who arrive legally in the U.S. from impoverished and violent lands. Their lives are arduous, but they at least enjoy the protection of the laws, the opportunity to advance economically, and the right to participate in choosing their elected officials. Is it unreasonable for them to experience gratitude, affection, and the desire to perform reciprocal service for the country that has given them refuge?
Kateb is clearly right to insist that citizens don’t owe their “coming into being” to their country in the way that children owe their existence to their parents. But here again, his conclusion does not follow from his premise. Surely we can love people who are not responsible for our existence: parents love their children, husbands their wives. Besides, refugees may literally owe their continuing existence to countries that offer them sanctuary from violence. Is it less reasonable and proper to love people or institutions that save our lives than those that give us life?
Nor do I understand why a reasonable patriotism implies the denial of self-ownership. If we agree to become members of a community, surely we are accepting a package of privileges and responsibilities. Does Kateb agree with Robert Nozick that taxation is on a par with forced labor? I believe, with Justice Holmes, that taxes are the price we pay for civilization — that is, for the opportunity to live in communities that offer us security and opportunity we could never attain on our own.
But isn’t dying for one’s country different from paying taxes? Of course, and some theorists have used the difference as the basis of an argument against the military draft. But whatever one thinks about that issue, the United States today has all-volunteer armed forces. So Kateb must make a bolder claim: it is irrational to choose a life that puts you at heightened risk of dying for your country. That is why he uses terms such as “indoctrination” and “mystique” to explain what induces individuals to make such choices.
I cannot quite believe that Kateb believes that there is nothing worth dying for. If he does not, then he must explain why it is reasonable and admirable when, for example, parents sacrifice their lives to protect their children but not when citizens do so for their country.
Let me end on a philosophical note. In his article “Patriotism as Bad Faith,” Simon Keller argues at length against the proposition that patriotism is “a character trait that the ideal person would possess,” at least if one’s conception of the good or virtuous human being includes a propensity to form and act upon justified belief rather than distorted judgments and illusions. Toward the end, Keller acknowledges that “Consistent with all I have said is a defense of patriotism as a character trait that has instrumental value.”
In his stirring polemic, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?,” George Kateb seems to me to do just that. Patriotism, he argues, is an intellectual mistake because its object, one’s country, is an “abstraction” — that is, a “figment of the imagination.” Patriotism is a moral mistake because it requires (and tends to create) enemies, exalts a collective form of self-love, and stands opposed to the only justified morality, which is universalist. Individuals and their rights are fundamental; one’s country is at most a “temporary and contingent stopping point on the way to a federated humanity.” Intellectuals, especially philosophers, should know better, Kateb insists. Their only ultimate commitment should be to Enlightenment-style independence of mind, not just for themselves, but as an inspiration to all. In this context, “A defense of patriotism is an attack on the Enlightenment.” From Kateb’s standpoint, it is hard to see how civic virtue can be instrumentally good if the end it serves — the maintenance of one’s particular political community — is intellectually and morally dubious.
But Kateb is too honest an observer of the human condition to go that far. While the existence of multiple political communities guarantees immoral behavior, government is, he acknowledges, not just a regrettable fact but a moral necessity: “By providing security, government makes possible treating other persons morally (and for their own sake).” 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. Yes, the individual community that makes moral conduct possible is embedded in an international system of multiple competing communities that invites, even requires, immoral behavior. But as Kateb rightly says, rather than positing and acting on a non-existent global community, “One must learn to live with the paradox.” As long as we must, there will be a place for patriotism.
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.
Taking Seriousness Seriously
George Kateb wishes me to be more serious — or at least to take the state more seriously. Well, the most serious thing a philosopher can do is make distinctions, so let me begin with one. It is one thing to take the state seriously as a force in the world, and quite another to take it seriously as an ethical entity.
I find it hard not to take the state seriously as an agent that is capable of exercising great power. When it goes to war, there is no alternative but to take the state very seriously indeed. I take North Korea very seriously as a nuclear-armed power, and Equatorial Guinea no less seriously as a state that exercises its power through the machete. To take the state seriously here means to be wary of its presence in the world. Taking it seriously in this sense will not lead to patriotism, only prudence.
I find it impossible, however, to take the state seriously as an ethical construct, and cannot take seriously those who see in it something to be celebrated or who view membership in it as something to be treasured. The state is a form of social organization that reflects the human desire to have power over others. It has its origins in war. Camps are the mothers of cities, as Hume so neatly put it. Because rule by force alone is difficult, most states try to rule by gaining approval — enough at least to make it difficult for the state to be overturned — but the use of force remains a vital resource. There is little to be gained by decrying this fact, for it remains true that we haven’t come up with alternative forms of social organization that will better keep those who love power in check. To be sure, there are better and worse states; and I’m all for doing what it takes to stop our own states from becoming worse — more ambitious, more tyrannical, and more warlike. But it’s not a form of human association for which I hold out great hopes. Happily, however, I am rarely disappointed by the state, for my expectations are not high.
None of this is inconsistent with taking seriously the erosion of civil liberties, or with working to prevent or to end destructive military adventures. It is not inconsistent with taking politics seriously, if limiting harm and suffering are best served by political efforts. But it is inconsistent with seeing the state as an important moral good. States matter; but really, states just don’t matter.
That said, I will invoke a third sense of the word when I admit that I find it very hard to take George Kateb’s analysis of the causes of war seriously. It is his thesis that patriotic sentiment, along with weapons, is one of the principal underlying causes of war. Unless it is sustained by patriotic sentiment at home, the state cannot act abroad. I can’t take this proposition seriously because I think it’s simply false. It’s not that I can’t see what Professor Kateb is driving at. It’s true that the state cannot act unless it enjoys some minimal level of support. But states go to war all the time without the approval of their subjects or citizens, who are all-too-frequently duped into granting that approval after the fact.
The causes of war, I submit, lie not in the explosive power of untapped reserves of patriotism but in the fact that political and economic elites with political and economic interests compete for political and economic power. No less importantly, the origins of war lie in the fact that when states grow they develop interests of their own, and will pursue them regardless of the interests of their members, or of human beings more generally. That interest is, above all, an interest in an expansion of the state’s power. We are, to that extent, the plaything of alien powers — to coin a phrase — for it is difficult to control great institutions.
So I’m all for criticizing patriotism and chiding patriots. But I remain unconvinced that patriotism, unlike the state, is a serious force in the world.
Fighting for the Idea of a Country
Professor Kateb begins his response to me by agreeing with me concerning the close link between patriotism and popular government. I can return the favor by agreeing with him that popular government is not intended to serve the majority (of the people) “at the expense of the minority.” He continues by saying that he believes in “the right of self defense,” but he also declares, as if it were a self-evident truth, that most democratic wars are fought not to preserve the “lives, liberties, and goods of the people,” but, instead, for “grandiose and often insincere ideals and for limitless augmentation.”
I can speak with some authority on this subject. I spent four long years fighting World War II, and it never occurred to me, nor does it do so now, that I was fighting for some grandiose and insincere ideal. Rather, I fought – as I suggested when I referred to Lincoln’s eulogy on Henry Clay – for the “idea” of my country. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln referred to this idea as a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. By fighting and winning that war, Lincoln went far toward making that “idea” a reality for this country’s longest lasting minority. Call me naive, but I firmly believe that by fighting and winning World War II, we made it more likely that the day would come when a member of that minority – specifically Barack Obama – could say that he would “never forget that in no other country on Earth is [his] story even possible.”
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.
The Patriotism of Enemies and the Health of the War-Spirit
To Professor Berns
I have been trying to suggest that patriotism is a feeling that is at the disposal of all countries, no matter what cause they pursue by means of war. Patriotism cannot be a principle of conduct because it is without any inherent moral commitment. Its most important meaning is that unreserved loyalty to one’s country in time of war — whatever one’s country is — is to be expected and praised. In U.S. history, it took the Northern states four years to defeat the Confederacy because, in part, Southern patriotism for the Confederacy was, if anything, stronger than that of the North for the Union. How we can defend patriotism just for the side we’re on or even the side that we think is morally superior? It’s not in our power to distribute patriotism as we please. I’m as happy as Berns that the U.S. and its allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II. But we mustn’t forget the enormous strength that patriotism gave these two enemies.
If we imagine the inwardness of patriots on all sides, what’s the difference between them? They’re all patriots who want to be patriotic; they’re inwardly all on the same level. It’s luck that happens to put a person on the morally right side. On the other hand, devotion to the right, not to one’s side just because it is one’s side, shows fidelity to a higher standard. The world is full of patriots, but wouldn’t it be better off if no one were a patriot?
To Professor Kukathas
I of course don’t think that patriotism is the only cause of war and international coercion. I say, rather, that elites know from the start that once a country is involved in war, no matter for what reason, the great majority will rally behind the government. Elites are emboldened to do what they otherwise would not imagine doing. The historical record gives many examples. Think of the how the German labor movement fought so bravely for the German government in World War I, and how, at the start, the parliamentary representatives of that movement, against their better instincts, voted to grant the government war credits. Think of how the strong isolationist movement in the U.S. in the 1930′s became instantly patriotic after Pearl Harbor, even though some citizens knew beforehand that FDR was making economic life untenable for the Japanese and that he meant to involve the U.S. in a global conflict eventually and was waiting for his opportunity. Whether people are successfully duped or fully attentive to what is going on, they will patriotically support a government in time of war. That fact is known to elites; their knowledge of basic human behavior makes their wars inevitable. Patriotism is inculcated from an early age and can remain mostly tacit (except on holidays and ceremonial occasions) for a long time. It is a latent and pervasive ideology. But certain issues and crises can bring it to the surface and make its presence and force blatant.
My critique of patriotism is part of a more extended critique of group identity, which I know is impossible to get rid of. I only ask that those who spend time thinking about political theory shouldn’t become enthusiasts for the group. People shouldn’t be given elaborate theoretical justification for loving their group so much that the divisions between societies become like absolute differences in nature. Patriotism reinforces this tendency by entwining group identity with the unexamined masculine idea of team, team spirit, and team sports between us and them. Ethnocentrism, racist pride, and religious arrogance all do their part in supporting group identity and help to provide the spark and the fuel for war. If elites often get the major benefits of a successful war, patriotism helps to dim awareness of the motives behind war, and thus to minimize popular resentment.
Randolph Bourne, an exemplary thinker, said that war is the health of the state. I just say that patriotism keeps the war-spirit in good health.
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.
Professor Kateb and I seem to be caught up in a game of chicken, each trying to outdo the other in his disdain for patriotism. As an Australian, all I can say is, I think Australians are better anti-patriots than Americans.
The more serious question, however, is what comes first: patriotism or the (warring) state? The egg or the chicken? In evolutionary biology, the chicken comes from the egg, which came from an earlier kind of chicken: the two evolved together. In political theory, the conclusion surely must be that patriotism and the state also evolved together, their being, if not impossible without one another, at least mutually reinforcing. George Kateb is worried about the patriot egg; I think he should be at least as worried about the chicken.
Like Professor Kateb, I am not an enthusiast for the group. But some groups are more troubling than others and need to be diminished. The state is such a group and I reserve my sternest criticisms for it. I dare Professor Kateb to join me.
I think that I can now declare victory and, so to speak, go home. Professor Kateb now rests his case by making my argument. He says, as if I had said, patriotism’s “most important meaning is that unreserved loyalty to one’s country in a time of war — whatever one’s country is — is to be expected and praised.”
But this is not, and was not, my point. Instead, I said in my essay — and repeated in my first response — that patriotism deserves to be “praised or fostered only in the case of a country that deserves to be loved.” And I added that not all countries deserve to be loved. Thus, I faulted him for not making that distinction, which he now insists has to be made.
Unfortunately, in his closing statement, he reverts to his faulty ways. He suggests that the world would be better off “if no one were a patriot.” Really? No one in the northern states in 1861-65? And no one in the United States in 1941-45?
Last Post from a Whiskey Patriot
Would the world be better off if no one were a patriot — as Professor Kateb suggests? Even in the United States in 1941-45? On one reading of Kateb’s analysis, the answer must be yes. If no one in the world were a patriot, there would, presumably, be no one wanting to fight for his country and so no one for anyone in the United States 1941-45 to fight against. We only need patriots to fight other patriots.
Unhappily, if patriots did not exist, the state would be forced to invent them. And then, even more unhappily, we might just need them after all.
And that, I believe, is why whiskey was invented.
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.