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Why I Am Not A Patriot

Carol Nicholson considers the arguments for patriotism offered by conservative and liberal thinkers, and concludes that they don’t work.

Bertrand Russell was riding his bicycle one day when he realized that he didn’t love his wife anymore. I always found this story bizarre and unbelievable until a similar thing happened to me. I was reading the New York Times on Monday morning, June 28, when I suddenly realized that one of my love affairs was over. I am referring not to a personal relationship but to my love of the United States of America. At an exact moment in time, I realized that I no longer was a patriot. Webster’s defines a patriot as a person who loves and loyally or zealously supports his own country, which implies that there are two distinct components of patriotism, a feeling of love as well as an active expression of that devotion. Most Americans, even critics of the government, say that they are patriotic, but there are differences of opinion about how patriotism should be expressed. Some argue that patriotism involves obeying the law of the land as a minimum requirement and that its highest form is risking one’s life for one’s country, while others claim that civil disobedience can be an authentic form of patriotic action. Democrats and Republicans argue about who is more patriotic, and opponents of the war in Iraq carry signs saying “Peace is patriotic.” It would seem on the face of it that something just about everybody holds as a value and claims for their own side must be good, but philosophers have an odd tendency to challenge the obvious, and that is what I propose to do here. I will question the idea that patriotism is a good thing, at least for me in the present time and circumstances, and possibly for others, even though nearly everybody thinks that it is not only a good, but also one of the highest goods.

Various arguments in support of patriotism have been presented by the great philosophers of the past and present, and all of the ones I have discovered are based upon an analogy. Arguments from analogy can be very persuasive, but in order for them to be sound, clear and relevant similarities must be presented, and they must be able to withstand counter-arguments based upon dissimilarities. Defenses of patriotism are of two types, backward-looking and forward-looking. Arguments that look backward assert that patriotism is a duty we owe our country in virtue of debts incurred in the past, while forward-looking arguments are utilitarian or pragmatic in that they try to show that the future will be better if we adopt a patriotic attitude. Backward-looking arguments have their roots in Plato’s Crito, where Socrates argues that it would be wrong for him to violate the laws of Athens by escaping from prison, even though he has been unjustly condemned to death.

Two analogies from the Crito about the relationship of the individual to the state have been enormously influential in both the conservative and liberal traditions. The first compares the state to the head of household and the citizen to the child or slave. Socrates says, “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and raised and educated by us, how, in the first place, can you deny that you are our child and our slave, as your fathers were before you?” After establishing the analogy, he concludes that patriotism is an obligation: “Or are you too wise to see that your country is worthier, more to be revered, more sacred, and held in higher honor both by the gods and by all men of understanding than your father and your mother and all your other ancestors; and that you ought to reverence it and to submit to it, and to approach it more humbly when it is angry with you than you would approach your father; and either to do whatever it tells you to do or to persuade it to excuse you and to obey in silence if it orders you to endure flogging or imprisonment, or if it sends you to battle to be wounded or to die?” His second analogy compares the relationship of the individual to the state to a voluntary contract or agreement. Socrates points out that anyone who reaches adulthood in Athens is free to leave, but “every man of you who remains here, seeing how we administer justice, and how we govern the state in other matters, has agreed, by the very fact of remaining here, to do whatsoever we tell him.” He concludes that running away would mean acting like a “miserable slave” and breaking the contract he made to live as a citizen of Athens.

The whole tradition of political philosophy has been influenced by these analogies, the main difference being that conservatives emphasize the head-of-household analogy in Socrates’ argument, while liberals emphasize the contractual analogy. Edmund Burke, the founder of conservatism, argues that members of a society are part of a sacred covenant, a partnership in “all arts and sciences,” the foundation of all civilization grounded in the natural order created by God, which cannot be broken without causing harm which would be more dangerous and sinful than to do violence to one’s father or mother. The liberal ‘social contract’ theory of government from Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Rousseau to Rawls argues that an implicit agreement to live in a society entails the obligation to be loyal to it and to obey its laws, just as any other promise or contract should be honored. I think that these analogies which have been so influential in our tradition of political philosophy are weak and that the arguments upon which they are based are fallacious. It is not obvious that the relationship of the individual to the state is similar in every respect to that of the slave to the master, the child to the parent, or the partner in a business contract, and even if the analogies are accepted for the sake of argument, the conclusions drawn are dubious. For example, assuming the head-of-household analogy, it could be argued that there are circumstances in which slaves should run away and in which children are justified in disobeying abusive or neglectful parents. On the contract analogy, must a consumer continue making payments on a car that turns out to be a lemon? Locke and Jefferson recognized that there are exceptions to the rule that contracts must always be honored, arguing that when there are serious violations of the contract on the part of the state, revolution is justified.

Since our focus is on patriotism, we should distinguish obedience from emotional attitude. Is the slave obliged to love the master who beats him? Is the child obliged to love the father who sexually abuses her? Is the consumer obliged to love the car dealer who sold him the lemon? It seems clear from these examples that under unjust circumstances, although it may sometimes be in our self-interest to obey our superiors and to fulfill our contracts, it is not obligatory to love those who have abused and mistreated us. In situations where serious violations of rights have occurred, love is not only an unnecessary and inappropriate feeling for us to have towards those who have treated us unjustly, but it may also be positively harmful, if it undermines our self-respect and independence and helps to perpetuate injustice. Even if we accept the Socratic arguments from analogy as convincing explanations of why we should obey the laws of our country under all circumstances, we still may ask if citizens owe patriotic love to a government which treats them unjustly, any more than the slave, the abused child, or the cheated buyer should love their oppressors. Socrates answered that if we cannot persuade the state, we must continue to revere and submit to it, and he obeyed the laws of Athens to his death. Aristotle had a somewhat different opinion of his relation to the state. After the death of Alexander, he left Athens “lest the Athenians should sin against philosophy for the second time.” Feelings of patriotism did not interfere with Aristotle’s survival instincts, his self-respect, or his understanding of what would be best for his society and for the growth of knowledge in his time. I think that Aristotle made the right decision.

Having challenged some of the backward-looking arguments for patriotism throughout our tradition, let us now look at some contemporary arguments which address the issue of patriotism in a forward-looking way. Richard Rorty, one of the most controversial philosophers of our time, offers a pragmatic defense of patriotism which is not based upon obligations incurred in the past but on hope for the future. Like Plato, Rorty bases his argument upon an analogy. Patriotism, he argues, is like self-respect in the individual and is necessary for self-improvement. He points out that both self-respect and patriotism are virtues found in an Aristotelian Golden Mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. Just as too much self-respect results in arrogance and too little can lead to moral cowardice, an excess of patriotism can produce imperialism and bellicosity, and a lack of patriotism prohibits imaginative and effective political debate and deliberation about national policy. Rorty believes that patriotism is best instilled by means of inspirational images and stories about a nation’s past, which help citizens to form a sense of moral identity. He tries to counter what he sees as an overly pessimistic and unpatriotic attitude, especially among intellectuals on the left, by appealing to the visions of Whitman and Dewey, who believed in the possibility of “achieving our country,” in the words of James Baldwin, by creating a decent and civilized nation which would realize the true American dream of justice and equality. The gist of Rorty’s argument is that patriotism is necessary, because without it we will lack the moral courage, hope, and vision to work towards a better society.

At one time I thought that this argument might have some value, at least for the audience of disillusioned academics that Rorty had in mind, but even then I had some doubts. Now I am convinced, in light of recent events, that Rorty is completely mistaken. Last year I wrote the following for Philosophy Now: “What is troubling in all of this is that at times the rhetoric of his heroes, especially Whitman, seems to go too far to the other side of the Aristotelian Mean. From a pragmatic point of view, it is not clear how a secular vision of America as the ‘vanguard of history’ and the ‘greatest poem’ is different from the idea of ‘God’s Chosen People’ of ‘Manifest Destiny.’ Praising the U.S., in the words of Whitman, for pledging obedience to no outside authority and ‘putting itself in the place of God’ is not likely to persuade the left or inspire patriotism among countless Americans who are filled with outrage and fear that their President will wage war in Iraq without either a decent respect for the opinions of mankind or the support of the United Nations. Whitman’s vision of America as the first true experiment in unlimited self-creation, like Emerson’s call for ‘self-reliance’ and a ‘declaration of independence’ from the traditions of the past, was perhaps useful in an earlier age when America’s self-image was still under the heavy influence of European ideals. In the 21st century, however, the tables are turned, and the U.S. seems determined to dominate the entire world. Whitman is not the guide we need right now. One can question Rorty’s choice of patriotic heroes without rejecting his overall project of developing a pragmatic and secular self-image of America, but the particular story he tells to inspire national pride is not the most pragmatically useful way to meet human needs or solve human problems today. How can we ‘achieve our country’ in Baldwin’s sense if the left becomes as arrogant as the right? Can’t we strive for a dream country without having to be the best?”

I wrote this before the war in Iraq began, but having seen the outcome, I think I was too easy on Rorty. It is now clear to me that patriotism is not a virtue, an Aristotelian Golden Mean between extremes, but it is itself a dangerous extreme. If I may be permitted to offer an analogy in the tradition of my predecessors, patriotism is more akin to the plague than to filial piety or honor among business partners. Fixing love on an abstraction such as ‘country’ leads to the erroneous conclusion that one’s country is better than all others, which is a recipe for intolerance, hate, and war. People do not need to be patriotic in order to vote, participate in their communities, work for common goals, and hope for the future. Fanatical delusions about the superiority of their country and their leaders can only get in the way of people’s ability to make intelligent, independent decisions. My problem with the backward-looking arguments is that they don’t look back far enough to Athens and to Rome, which would enable them to see that patriotism is what destroyed these (and probably most) great civilizations. My problem with the forward-looking arguments for patriotism is that they aren’t forward-looking enough. If we look ahead to the truly long term, we’ll see that patriotism is a dead end street, pitting nation against nation in a deadly battle for dominance. The best future we can hope for is one in which people love their families, friends, and neighbors and respect all human beings, but don’t waste their love on destructive and suicidal obsessions with national power. Love is too precious to spend on fuel for the raging fire that kills selfrespect and independent thought and brings a curse upon the earth.

In maintaining that several backward-looking and forward-looking defenses of patriotism fail, I am not claiming to have proven that patriotism in general is always a bad thing. It may be good for some individuals to be patriotic at certain times and places, but I am presenting my reasons for not being patriotic myself at the present moment in history. I have nothing to lose and much to gain. I will not miss the thrill of pride in hearing the national anthem. The ‘rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air’ symbolizes the military power of our country, surely not a worthy object of love, any more than Hitler’s army was. I can still delight in the thought of our ‘spacious skies and amber waves of grain,’ which are worthy of love, but no more so than the natural beauty of other nations. Although I have renounced patriotism, I continue to admire the ideals in the name of which America was founded, but since my country does not stand for them, I do not love my country. Don’t worry, there is no need for you to rush out and turn me in to the FBI. I am not a terrorist or an evil person. Having found no good justification for patriotism, I have chosen to withhold my love of the U.S.A. Love is one of the few things in life that cannot be compelled, and if I no longer love my country, nobody can make me do it. I will continue to vote, pay taxes, obey the law, and fulfill my responsibilities as a citizen, but as a rational person, I have neither the obligation nor the desire to love my country until such time as my country deserves it. I write this on the eve of July 4th, and everybody else will be celebrating tomorrow except for me, but I am not afraid to be a member of Thoreau’s ‘majority of one.’ In the present circumstances, I am proud to be unpatriotic.


Carol Nicholson teaches philosophy at Rider University in New Jersey.

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