Patriotism, Nationalism, Exceptionalism
Over the past fortnight, two very different versions of patriotism were put on display. One of them was xenophobic, hostile, and downright plug-ugly. The other was hopeful, inclusive, and cheerful. Even though the media-saturated presentations of each were designed to “sell” a prepackaged vision of the political community known as The United States of America, and as such should be taken with a grain of salt and caveat emptor in the back of one’s mind at all times, it is clear to me which one of the two is morally and politically superior. The Republican candidate’s speech was framed in the first person singular, peppered with the pronoun “I” (except when the candidate referred to himself, as is his wont, in the third person as “Donald Trump,” an idiosyncrasy that I find chillingly disconcerting). The Democratic candidate spoke in the first person plural, as part of a wider “we.” Enough said, even if one might be granted a certain skepticism about whether Hillary Clinton will make good on her reference to a wider “we.” A patriotism that does not reflexively exclude “the other” as a kind of unpatriotic cancer on the body politic is manifestly preferable to one that does so as a matter of dogma.
Yet both visions share something that I find troubling. I suspect that both rest on an identification of American patriotism with “greatness,” one pledging to “Make America great again” and to recover this lost greatness, the other proclaiming that “America was always great and is great now,” and to continue and expand that greatness. Aside from the vagueness and slipperiness of the term “great,” I think that both kinds of rhetoric miss the point. Two stories explain why I think so.
A few years back, I was teaching and doing random I.T. work at a high school in Brooklyn. Many students were of Afro-Caribbean descent. In 2010 an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude struck Haiti, with an epicenter just outside Port-au-Prince, its capital city with a population of close to 1 million people. The devastation was unimaginable. The death toll was between 100,000 to 160,000 souls. Collapsed buildings, destroyed infrastructure, mass graves — all were elements of the horror. The morning after, the school’s population was addressed by a Haitian colleague, a history teacher, who had family in Haiti (all survived). He spoke Kreyol to the students — despite my shaky French, I could really only decipher a word here and there, but his somber tones conveyed the point.
It was then that I understood what “patriotism” meant, as well as how, why, and under what conditions it could be a virtue.
Apart from its heart-stirring beginnings with Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt, the history of Haiti has lurched from one heart-rending catastrophe to another, whether natural as in the case of the earthquake or political as in the case of the barbaric reign of the Duvaliers. It is a sad history that would dishearten anyone. Yet my colleague exuded what can only be understood as a keen, steadfast love of Haiti through his sadness. That love was palpable. And the love had nothing to do with visions of Haitian grandeur. He loved Haiti because he was Haitian. He loved his country Haiti, and mourned its losses, because it was his.
Another event convinced me that many Americans, perhaps even most, mistake patriotism for a false simulacrum, an expression of nationalism, of exceptionalism, of unalloyed righteousness and majesty. It expresses a conviction that The United States of America is worth loving because, maybe only because, it is great beyond measure. On May 2, 2011, I was watching a baseball game on television (for me, the only sport that matters). It was probably the Mets (for me, the team that matters most), but I forget whether it actually was the Mets or not, or what city in which the game was played. I do vividly recall this: the announcer at the game suddenly proclaimed, jumbo-tron aflame with pictures, that Osama Bin Laden had been assassinated in Abbotabad, Pakistan, by a group of Navy Seals. The crowd immediately cheered in applause, and then, with one voice, started to loudly chant “USA! USA!”
A chill ran up my spine, but not because I was particularly disturbed by the actions of the Navy Seals. Osama Bin Laden was a mass-murderer by any standard, and whether the actual assassination was morally justified or permissible under the standards of international law (I have my doubts), he was not the kind of person whose demise was to be regretted. What bothered me was the “USA! USA!” Acts of war may, under certain circumstances, be permissible or even obligatory. Their results, when successful, may be occasion for relief and even thanksgiving. But the assassination of the Al Qaida chieftain was not, on any understanding, analogous to the Mets winning the National League pennant. That was what the reaction of the crowd sounded like. “USA! USA!” is a sports victory chant, like “Number 1! Number 1!” It is fitting to use it when the US Soccer team clinches an Olympic medal. But in these circumstances a more somber, even solemn reaction was called for. That one’s native land might be “Number 1!” or a “great” military power, is not the point of a true love of country. There was more patriotism inherent in my single colleague’s cry of anguish for his Haitian homeland than in a stadium full of baseball fans.
G.K. Chesterton once mocked the old cliché “My country right or wrong” as on a par with “My mother drunk or sober.” But Chesterton’s quip is double-edged. Someone who argues that one has to go along with anything the government of one’s country establishes as policy, whether it is launching the Spanish-American war or any other moral or strategic disaster, is a bit like thinking “well, my mother is absolutely hammered, and wants to go drag racing on the freeway, but well, hey, she’s my mother, so I will give her the keys to the car.” You would be culpably wrong to do so. But that does not make her any less your mother. You will love her anyway — because she’s yours, not because she is “great” whatever she does.
George Orwell almost, but not quite, nailed this conception of measured patriotism in his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” in which he contrasted nationalism and patriotism in the strongest terms:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad”. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Orwell’s attempt at articulating true and false patriotism falters, I think, in two ways. First, it goes awry in its claim that the patriot believes his or her native way of life is “the best in the world” but is simply not motivated to impose it on others. Patriots may think that or not, but it is irrelevant: it is the particularity of their way of life, of their time and place, that matters and that engenders loyalty and love on the part of the patriot, rather than “greatness.” Orwell is also right to link nationalism with the exclusive drive for power and prestige and exclusive loyalty, but a bit too hasty in concluding that a nationalistic hunger for domination is for the nation’s sake rather than one’s own. Perhaps Trump is not a true nationalist, although his rhetoric seems to put the lie to that. I rather suppose that he is a new kind of nationalist, one that would boggle Orwell’s mind if he were alive today.
Can Orwell’s conception of patriotism as local-national loyalty be given a sharper and more cogent philosophical defense? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his Lindley Lecture “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” almost achieves this goal. Through an interesting mash-up of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, and Marx, MacIntyre makes a powerful case for patriotism as a virtue by arguing that in a way it is inevitable. Patriotism first and foremost rests on not just an acknowledgement not of one’s indebtedness to a local and particular mode of living, but a recognition that there is nowhere else to start thinking politically but in that very situated mode of living. The idea of rooting morality in impersonal principles, available to and justified by a universal rationality-as-such, ignores our historicity, and thus is both futile and unnecessary. It is futile for all the reasons that Hegel cited in rejecting Kant’s deontological moralität for the situated, sittlich givens of particular social and political communities. It is unnecessary, because the kind of pernicious relativism this seems to invite is only apparent. When the values of different sittlich communities clash, the rational superiority of one over the other can be established by a form of immanent critique — a task of out-narrating a rival moral code or practice by showing that it is inadequate by its own standards, and that one’s own codes or practices are not likewise vulnerable. The idea, often endorsed by philosophical liberals, that patriotism names a vice rather than a virtue fails, insofar as we cannot leap out of our sittlich skins, but insofar as a rival Sittlichkeit puts one’s own to the question, one has the ability and indeed the responsibility to rise to the dialectical challenge and come to grips with it. Relativism, or irrational political dogmatism, is not the patriot’s inevitable fate.
Still, MacIntyre’s defense of patriotism fails to satisfy on three fronts. First, he assumes that political liberals, such as Rawls and Nozick in philosophy, or Galbraith and Friedman in economics, contend that their different variants of liberalism rest on neutrality between moral-political visions of the good and the institutionalized ways such visions are put into practice. He argues, here and elsewhere, that liberalism as such is not neutral, that it endorses particular and contestable views of freedom (differently conceived by “liberal liberals” like Rawls and Galbraith and “conservative liberals” like Nozick and Friedman) and presumes that they are not open to rejection, and hence advocates a very particular vision of the good that is not rationally neutral at all. Liberalism, for MacIntyre, is necessarily a self-consuming tradition that denies, in a form of false consciousness, its own traditionality. But MacIntyre fails to show that this is the only kind of liberalism, or that all kinds of liberalism are therefore incoherent. As long as a liberal political theory refuses to “ground” itself in a presumably “neutral” philosophy, it escapes MacIntyre’s critique. Jeffrey Stout, for example, in his book Democracy and Tradition, has persuasively argued that liberal democracy, at least in its pragmatic formulation by Dewey, Emerson, and Whitman, is a tradition – and a very good one at that, better than its antiliberal and antidemocratic rivals. His argument employs the same kind of immanent critique that MacIntyre maintains is the only kind of political argument available to those who acknowledge the historicity of rationality. Richard Rorty goes even further than Stout: no political stance, whether liberal or not, needs any philosophical grounding whatsoever. Thus certain kinds of liberal democracies or social democracies have no problem making their peace with Sittlichkeit.
Second, MacIntyre hedges his bets by contending that patriotism does not require fealty to any regime that represents the status quo, but rather that patriotism requires loyalty to one’s nation considered as a project. Loyalty to that project as it exists, or as it once was but is no longer, or as something to be born in the future, is what makes one a patriot. Thus both Charles DeGaulle and Charles Péguy, or Otto von Bismarck and Adam von Trott, could all count as patriots. One can be a patriotic revolutionary or reactionary as easily as a patriotic defender of the established order. But here, however, MacIntyre buys consistency at the price of the empty formalism he is trying to avoid. For if DeGaulle and Péguy, or Bismarck and von Trott, are all patriots, in some sense or at least in their own minds, then it is hard to distinguish one project-that-is-France or project-which-is-Germany from another, and thus to label one as the “true” and the other the “false” patriot, without being arbitrary. If (almost) everyone is a patriot, no one is.
MacIntyre’s third shortcoming is related to the second: he fails to note that one can be “patriotic” about different overlapping levels of local identity. I am a Quirk, a Long Islander, a one-time resident of Brooklyn and Queens, a New Yorker, a US Citizen, a human, and an inhabitant of planet Earth (not to mention a teacher and scholar of philosophy, an information technologist, a musician, etc.). All of these have a claim on my loyalties for the very reason MacIntyre cites: they are all elements of a thickly layered identity. They need not come into conflict, but there is no reason why they might not conflict at a given point in my history. It is not clear how MacIntyre could supply the conceptual tools to resolve these potential conflicts; nor is it clear how he could account for their occasionally smooth coexistence. An example of the inability of MacIntyre to reconcile the potential conflicts would be the work of theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas proceeds from a standpoint of moral particularity influenced by and similar to MacIntyre’s, but who, as a Christian pacifist, rejects the claims of national patriotism altogether, on the grounds that the church, as the people of God, is the only true polity. An example of the inability to account for multiple patriotic identities can be found in the public commentary of Jürgen Habermas, whose recent political criticisms of the European Union and its critics rest on the balancing of national and European identities. Habermas’s residual Kantianism — his prioritization of the right over the good in a “theory of communicative rationality” — is a problem, but his pragmatist side leaves plenty of room for the kind of overlapping or concentric identities for which I am arguing, and provides a immanent critique of one such identity from that of another (e.g., critiquing German economic policy from the vantage of being European, and criticizing the “democracy deficit” of the EU from the vantage of being a committed German democrat). Habermas does not ignore the particular when he thinks politically. He shows in his own political activity and personal character that one can be simultaneously and enthusiastically both German and European, and that not all cosmopolitans are “rootless.”
If MacIntyre is right about the impossibility of escaping from the particulars of our moral histories, and Orwell is right about the gulf that separates a patriotism based on particular moral identities and a nationalism that tends toward universal domination, then another distinctive feature of the American patriotism expressed in both conventions should go by the boards: American exceptionalism. The notion that the United States of America has a distinct and elevated mission among nations, that it is the novus ordo seclorum or “city on a hill”, is both arrogant and pointless. Its arrogance is revealed in strange amalgamation of universalism (that it is built on values and virtues that are valid for all people in all times) and a particularism that holds that only the United States stands as an exemplar of these universal values and virtues. If patriotism is love of a particular place and project because it is enmeshed with what and who you are, exceptionalism, as the need to proclaim one’s country’s “greatness” and to project it aggressively, is a kind of secret vice. It deflects love of country into false and destructive paths. And it is pointless because even if one’s country is not exceptional, not the vanguard of a divine mission or world-historical destiny, the patriot will love it just as much anyway.
While the “inclusive exceptionalism” celebrated at the Democratic convention is unquestionably superior to the exclusionary and hostile exceptionalism shouted at the Republican convention, I worry that exceptionalism as such, like nationalism, is being conflated with the love of one’s particular modes of groundedness in the human condition, the love that can make patriotism a virtue. Patriotism has its limits, and one can understand what Samuel Johnson meant when he proclaimed patriotism to be the last refuge of scoundrels. But the quiet mourning of my colleague in the aftermath of Haiti’s tragedy reveals that it need not be so, and should not be so.