Let every faction bloom

John Patrick Diggins

  • For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism edited by Joshua Cohen
    Beacon, 154 pp, $15.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 8070 4313 3
  • For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism by Maurizio Viroli
    Oxford, 214 pp, £22.50, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 827952 3
  • Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism edited by John Bodnar
    Princeton, 352 pp, £45.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 691 04397 3
  • Buring the Flag: The Great 1989-90 American Flag Desecration Controversy by Robert Justin Goldstein
    Kent State, 453 pp, $39.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 87338 526 8

In the mid-seventies, when the New Left in America was beginning to sense its impotence after the part it had played in bringing to an end the war in Vietnam, I was asked to give a talk at the University of Florence on the subject of American radicalism. Italian students and academics, many of them Marxists and feminists, seemed to appreciate my account of a student phenomenon that was unable to reach beyond the campus. Then came a question from the audience. What did I think was the biggest mistake the New Left made? If young radicals wanted to reach the ‘masses’, I replied, they should connect means to ends and refrain from abusing the symbols of American patriotism. The American New Left was almost unique in turning against America’s own patriotic heroes and traditions. In Italy, I reminded the audience, Antonio Gramsci had been able to synthesise Marxian radicalism with Mazzinian nationalism. I came away from the conference pleased that my remarks were received more with respect than with rancour. Yet shortly afterwards, taking part in a conference on the Sixties, held in Philadelphia, I made the same reply in response to a similar question about the failure of the New Left. This time my remarks about patriotism were greeted with hisses and I was told that no one could love a country that had attempted genocide in Asia.

It could well be that the present cult of multiculturalism that has taken root in the American academy is a result of the anti-patriotic legacy of the Sixties generation. True, the ethnic composition of the US has been changing emphatically since then, with waves of immigrants from South America and South Asia. But multiculturalism has its advocates primarily in the universities, and noticeably less so among immigrants themselves. The number of feminists teaching in the various disciplines also does little to help the case for patriotism, for, not only has patriotism been associated with male chauvinism, it also seems to depend on local, geographical identities, whereas the cause of women generally looks to universal standards of equality and justice.

Among intellectuals, patriotism, not truth, is often a war’s first casualty. Before the First World War, the Greenwich Village rebels Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman and John Reed regarded themselves as nationalistic liberators willing to draw on the country’s intellectual traditions. Eastman defined himself as an ‘American lyrical socialist – a child of Walt Whitman reared by Karl Marx’. But with America’s entry into the war, the same thinkers saw an outbreak of ‘blind tribal instincts’ among intellectual leaders no less than among the masses. Eastman’s essay on ‘The Religion of Patriotism’, and Bourne’s on ‘The State’, both depicted the war as having laid bare the ‘herd impulse’ of ‘military patriotism’. More than culture or class conflict, war reached the people and compelled them to acts of self-sacrifice based on patriotic identification with country and government. ‘War is the health of the State,’ declared Bourne, disillusioned that the masses did not rise up in resistance.

In the Twenties, the French writer Julien Benda continued this critique of patriotism in The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. The ‘Treason of the Clerks’, as the French title had it, resulted when eminent cultural figures renounced universal, cosmopolitan ideals and sought instead to have their countrymen identify with their own race and nation. Curiously, Benda attributed the failure of intellectuals to identify with the transcendent concept of ‘humanism’ partly to the philosophy of pragmatism that had come from America. With the rise of pragmatic instrumentalism and relativism, it was tempting to exalt the particular over the universal and the practical over the spiritual. It did not help intellectual history when Mussolini described himself as a pragmatist who saw war as the test of manhood, and when Benda drew dubious comparisons between William James’s ‘will to believe’ and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’.

Yet at the time Benda’s book appeared, the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey was advocating pacifism and renouncing the nationalistic illusions that had led him to support America’s entry into the First World War. Those illusions derived from two assumptions: that bringing Wilsonian democracy to Europe would help bring progressive reform to America, and that a country had to become involved in the movement of events in order to control the direction of history. Had Dewey pondered James’s earlier essay on ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’, he might have been more aware that the courageous, if militaristic, emotions fed by patriotism needed to be rechannelled domestically.

If those who praise patriotism think mainly of liberation, those who oppose it think only of subordination. Once again, positions taken on the issue seem more generational than geographical, for everything turns on the historical situation. When Mazzini made the case for patriotic nationalism in the mid-19th century, he believed that to unite a divided people was also to free a subject people, and this mission he bestowed on a younger, rising generation, assuming it would be both idealistic and discontented, whereas senior citizens would always be prudent, contented and conservative. That scenario turns upside down in today’s America. While older citizens are calling for patriotic unity, along with prayer in the schools, younger academics make a fetish out of difference and diversity. The classical, imperial dictum of divide and rule has given way to a new dictum of divide and prevail by virtue of the demands of differential recognition. Identity politics lets every faction bloom while patriotism, now seen as the snare of subordination, perishes.

During the Sixties, when the Vietnam War was raging, many young Americans made sure that they stayed in school in order to enjoy the draft deferment that kept them out of the war. During the early Forties, it was not uncommon for American youths to drop out of school, some even lying about their age, to join one of the Armed Services. Today, the generation of the Forties and that of the Sixties exist in different worlds, as was shown by the Enola Gay controversy over the use of atomic bombs against Japan in 1945. The Forties generation believed that the resort to an atomic attack was vital in ending the Second World War: much of the Sixties generation remains convinced that it started the Cold War.

It is no coincidence that the latest debate over patriotism should have begun when the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, with her Sixties sensibilities, responded to a New York Times op-ed article by Richard Rorty, a relatively senior philosopher who identifies with the Old Left of the Forties. Rorty had urged young Americans, especially Leftists, to cease denigrating the value of patriotism and take seriously the ‘emotion of national pride’ as essential to a ‘shared sense of national identity’. Nussbaum’s response in the Boston Review drew 29 replies from academics in various disciplines, some of which are included in For Love of Country.

Drawing on classical philosophers, Nussbaum made an eloquent case for cosmopolitanism as an answer to the provincialism of patriotism. If we regard ourselves as ‘citizens of the world’, we are better able not only to know ourselves but to work out differences with others beyond our national borders and share moral responsibility for the rest of humanity. Several contributors agree with Nussbaum that patriotism often masks pride and even jingoism, and may rest on an assumption of the uniqueness and exceptionalism of one’s own country and culture.

Martha Nussbaum’s critics, however, offer thoughts both troubling and telling. There is, for one thing, the theoretical problem of deriving consensual values among differing countries with differing cultures. There is also the practical problem of dealing with refugees if political leaders in a given country see themselves as world citizens. ‘Is our government,’ asks Nathan Glazer, ‘to treat fleeing Cubans the way it would, for example, American citizens, as permanent residents, or as refugees who have established their bona fides as escaping from persecution? If so, then what distinction should make it necessary among those who wish to settle in this country?’ Moreover, does being a citizen of the world not presuppose the existence of a world government? And does it not deny identity as something inherited rather than chosen? Gertrude Himmelfarb cites ‘the givens of life: parents, ancestors, family, race, religion, heritage, history, culture, tradition, community – and nationality’. Similarly, Charles Taylor reminds Nussbaum that democracy requires a strong national identity on the part of its citizens, and Michael Walzer insists that his circle of allegiances (‘spheres of affection’) starts, not with the outermost periphery, but at the ‘centre’.

In a book with the same title, For Love of Country, Maurizio Viroli offers further, more sustained reflections on the subject. Years ago John Schaar, noting how patriotism had become an object of abuse because of the Vietnam War, went on to distinguish it from nationalism, ‘its bloody brother’. To be a patriot is to be part of a legacy with a sense of place. The nationalist, on the other hand, looks to the militant nation-state in an environment where rootless people identify with the progressive march of history. The patriot supports the republic and devotes his efforts to the common good, while seeing tyranny and corruption as potential evils within his immediate environment. The nationalist advocates ethnic, cultural and religious unity, while opposing all that is alien, impure, diverse and plural.

Although Viroli’s book concentrates on Europe, his distinction between patriotism and nationalism resonates in America, especially in the thoughts and actions of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico, and unlike the more nationalistic Walt Whitman, had reservations about expansion and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. He looked backward as much as forward, and his sense of patriotism expressed itself in his reverence for America’s founding principles, especially the Declaration of Independence, which he regarded as something of a moral covenant. Lincoln believed that America could be large enough to reach out and embrace ‘the family of man’.

The title of John Bodnar’s anthology, Bonds of Affection, comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, but one cannot be sure that Bodnar has the slightest understanding of what Lincoln stood for since he cites secondary works rather than the writings of Lincoln himself. One senses a generational tension between him and older scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Allan Bloom, both of whom wrote bestselling books criticising multiculturalism as a danger to the ideal of ‘one people’. Referring to Lincoln, Bodnar writes: ‘He would not ask citizens simply to have faith in American ideals as Schlesinger did. Rather, he offered the possibility that American political institutions could not expect support if they did not actively pursue a just society.’ Actually, Lincoln is an embarrassment to both Bodnar and Schlesinger, for his idea of patriotism had more to do with economic liberalism than with the citizen’s pursuit of social justice via the intervening state. ‘What is the true condition of the labourer?’ Lincoln asked. ‘I want every man to have a chance – and I believe the black man is entitled to it – in which he can better his condition – when he may look forward and hope to be a hired labourer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him. That is the true system.’

Many of the contributors to Bodnar’s anthology are less interested in the reasons than in the conditions for patriotism. More concerned with history than philosophy, they deal with it as a product of institutions – schools, churches, the armed forces – or as a phenomenon of wartime or post-war reconstruction, and treat it as a rather dubious emotion that needs to be taught or instilled. Thus, even if originally it symbolised the virtue and valour of George Washington and the scenes of sacrifice associated with the ‘spirit of ’76’, patriotism came to be generated by appeals to masculinity, chauvinism, racism, religion, xenophobia, monument-worship, or, more positively, a group moral covenant and narratives of collective memory based on the need for self-esteem.

To the American patriot, the most insulting sight is to see the flag set ablaze. This led to fury when, in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that dissidents had a constitutional right under the First Amendment to burn the flag. During the Bush Administration, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act (FPA), and in so doing reflected the broad spectrum of opinion that saw the flag as a sacred symbol of American freedoms. Robert Justin Goldstein’s Burning the Flag thoughtfully draws on the disciplines of law, political science and history to analyse the controversy in all its dimensions. The author is on the side of the civil libertarians, and his book concludes with the Supreme Court declaring, in 1990, the FPA invalid and flag desecration a constitutionally protected form of political protest.

Does the future of America depend on a sustaining sentiment of patriotism? Those conservatives who would like to think so and cite the Founders as exemplars, and those radicals who would have us believe that patriotism has been imposed on generations of young Americans as an invisible form of ‘hegemonic domination’, are both to be embarrassed. For neither the Federalist authors nor Thomas Jefferson looked to patriotism as reliable. The former saw divisiveness as inevitable, while the latter saw ‘uniformity’ as carrying within it the seeds of ‘tyranny’. Even George Washington, in the midst of the Revolution, warned Americans on what limited grounds the colonists would fight, writing to the Continental Congress: ‘I did not mean to exclude altogether the Idea of Patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present Contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting War can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by the prospect of Interest or some reward.’

Contrary to what both Right and Left assume, the Founders did not think that patriotism could or even should be instilled or imposed. Jefferson’s loyalties extended no further than Virginia, while Alexander Hamilton, the one true nationalist who had no local allegiances, realised that the principle of propinquity meant that an overarching sense of national solidarity was beyond the reach of the new republic. A half-century after the Framers had made that point, Tocqueville reiterated it in Democracy in America, when he observed that human affections restrict themselves to the familiar and habitual. ‘The Union is a vast body and somewhat vague as the object of patriotism.’ The state and local community, in contrast, are ‘identified with the soil, with the right of property, the family, memories of the past, activities of the present, and dreams of the future. Patriotism, which is most often nothing but an extension of individual egoism, therefore remains attached to the state and has not yet, so to say, been passed on to the Union.’

Historically, patriotism, like nationalism, has been associated with a country’s struggle for freedom. But such a struggle is the missing episode in the history of colonial America and the early federal republic. During the French Revolution the spirit of patriotism joined forces with the aspirations of liberalism, and it was French thinkers like Turgot who were the first to see that the American Revolution had been different – hence the theme of ‘American exceptionalism’. In the New World, America had been, in Tocqueville’s expression, ‘born’ free and equal, and hence did not have to contend with an ancien régime resisting change and modernisation. Enjoying liberty as almost a gift from nature, Americans regarded patriotism as important but far from essential. ‘Where liberty is, there is my country,’ instructed Ben Franklin; to which Tom Paine retorted: ‘Where liberty is not, there is mine.’ The activist Paine did what the academic Nussbaum would find incompatible. As a crusading ‘citizen of the world’, he headed off to a Paris seething with patriotism.