1. Current events are reminding us that patriotism, at least of the sort that gets publicly acknowledged, is a confusing virtue. I don’t mean that the patriot might get drawn into doing bad things on behalf of his country. Patriotism is a form of loyalty, and loyalty, whether to friends, family, one’s university, or whatever, can draw us into doing bad things on their behalf. I mean instead that those who say they care about patriotism seem surprisingly okay with others doing bad things without regard for the interests of their country.
Take Iran-Contra. Here we have government officials selling American military technology to Iran shortly after the hostage crisis, as well as raising money from Columbian drug cartels, in order to provide funds to insurgents in Central America in defiance of Congress. They then lied about all of this to Congress while under oath.
What’s extraordinary in all of this is not that these men professed to be patriots or thought of themselves as patriots. People cynically claim traits they don’t have. The less cynical are often self-deceived. What’s shocking is that a large portion of the public is apparently willing to accept that the men in question are patriotic—and this is that portion of the public which claims to be most concerned with issues of patriotism. Oliver North ran as the official Republican candidate for Senate in the state of Virginia, and lost, but with 43% of the vote. He has since had a show on Fox News, and is a regular guest for Sean Hannity. His books have been best sellers. John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams were both reappointed to government under the flamboyantly patriotic (or “patriotic”) George W. Bush administration. Abrams also served as a foreign-policy advisor to Romney’s presidential campaign.
This should be staggering. Putting aside the human-rights abuses of the insurgents being funded (we already acknowledged that the patriot might be drawn into doing bad things), we have here a group of government officials stealing military equipment and weaponry from the United States in order to sell it to a hostile foreign power, which had very recently invaded the US embassy and taken its staff hostage for over a year. This is unpatriotic if anything is. One would expect that, given the Republican Party’s vaunted commitment to patriotism, Oliver North couldn’t attend one of its conventions without risking his safety; that Fox News would blacklist him for fear of a boycott by their viewers; that the Bush administration wouldn’t appoint any of the known conspirators for fear of a primary challenge from outraged Republican voters; that Republican presidential candidates would avoid even glancing in the direction of Abrams for the same reason. But, instead, Republican voters seem to regard these men with at worst indifference; and at least in the case of North, a substantial portion are enthusiastic fans.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to characters associated with the Reagan administration, either. Over three-quarters of Republicans think the Confederate flag is a positive symbol. And, to be fair, in the 90’s a majority of Democrats did, and a third still do. What’s confusing about this isn’t tolerance for racism. There’s a lot of that in the US. What’s confusing is widespread affection for the flag of people who took up arms, risked their lives and killed others, in many cases in direct violation of their oaths as commissioned officers is the US Army, in order to no longer be part of the country. And what should be near incomprehensible is that this affection is most widespread among those from whom we hear the most about patriotism and loyalty.
2. My explanation of the phenomenon is not particularly surprising. Much of the time people are not really attached to their country but to a fantasy image of that country. This fantasy might be one in which square-jawed military men willing to act decisively are the nation (or embody the nation), and rule-bound bureaucrats and temporizing legislatures are somehow foreign. For square-jawed North to act unpatriotically, then, is as impossible as a medieval king acting treasonously. The tens of millions of people who voted that Congress in are either airbrushed away in the imagination, or made foreign as well.*
So, do we conclude that those who voted for North or defend the Confederate flag are unpatriotic? That is probably too strong. The actions are unpatriotic. Whether a person qualifies as patriotic or not presumably depends on what kinds of choices they make in a range of cases, over a period of time. But obviously an unpatriotic act is the sort of thing that must be compensated for in other decisions if one wants to qualify as a patriotic person.
In any case, loyalty to a fantasy version of one’s country can lead one to disregard or even actively undermine its interests, or to celebrate its attempted—and near successful—destruction. I want to try to draw a philosophical lesson from this. Patriotism, at least in a modern country, isn’t possible without some level of concern for people simply in virtue of their status as persons. This makes patriotism different from other familiar kinds of particular attachments, like friendship or loyalty to family. Again, I think that virtues come in degrees. I suspect that none of us can claim to be perfect in recognizing the value that others possess solely in virtue of being persons. But, to the extent that one has blinders to others’ personhood, one is more likely to act unpatriotically, which reduces the extent to which one can be regarded as patriotic. Bad people, in short, will find it more difficult to be patriotic; and their badness limits how patriotic they can be. Or at least that’s what I’ll argue.
I believe that patriotism requires concern for people on the basis of their humanity, but that other forms of particular concern do not. Before turning to my main argument, let me say something about why these other forms of concern (e.g. genuine loyalty to friends or family) don’t require universal human concern. First, accepting that someone has a claim on your concern in virtue of being a person or a human being seems, at first glance, distinct from accepting that someone has a claim on your concern in virtue of being a friend or family member. It seems possible for someone to accept the latter without the former. I think I’ve known people who accept the latter without notable concern for strangers or humanity at large. If anthropologists and historians are correct, there have been entire societies where particular loyalties have been regarded as ethically paramount, but concern for humanity at large has not been thought at all admirable.
Second, from what we can tell, impartial morality has not been the norm in human societies for the majority of our history, and we would need strong argument before we conclude that a large portion—maybe the majority—of humanity have been incapable of friendship or of loving their family members. Patriotism, on the other hand, is a culturally and historically local phenomenon, one that only makes sense for those within a certain kind of political community, one that hasn’t existed for most of human history. Achilles is not patriotic (he prays the Greeks face defeat on the battlefield while he’s not fighting); nor, apparently, did the audience expect him to be.
So why would patriotism require concern for people on the basis of their humanity when other forms of particular concern don’t? Mostly because countries are really big. And also that membership is for the most part non-voluntary. Consider, on the opposite end, friendship. We choose our friends, more or less, and our loyalty to a friend is loyalty to one other person. So racists, homophobes, religious bigots, and so on can have friends: they just need to choose for their friends people of the right race, sexual orientation, and religion, who are cool, for whatever reason, with the bigotry. Yes, one of their friends could turn out to be gay, or another could leave the church, and they couldn’t be good friends to them. But they could remain loyal to other friends who are straight and remain in the church, and in lots of cases some of their friends will do that.
Families are closer to countries, in that they involve multiple people, and for the most part we don’t choose our family members. So the chances of religious, ideological, or ethical diversity go up, as do the chances of inter-racial nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. A bigot who happens to have a family like this will be constrained in how loyal a family member she can be. But families are still small enough, and they play a role in replicating both genes and value-systems in the future generation; so it can still happen that one’s family lies entirely outside of the blind spots in one’s concern.
Countries are much larger, and by and large we don’t choose our countries. Even when we do, we have little control over who shares the political community with us. The majority have populations in the millions. Some people will be LGBTQ. There will be ethnic minorities. There will be religious, ideological, political, ethical and moral disagreement. There will be class and educational divisions, and different sectors of the economy with distinct, sometimes competing interests. One won’t know or be related to all of them. Most blind spots in one’s concern will constrain one’s ability to care about the interests and claims of all of one’s fellow citizens, and thus one’s dispositions to act patriotically. Maybe there was some point in the past where this was not so, but in the modern world patriotism will be in conflict with the failure to be concerned with people in virtue of their humanity.
So, to be a real patriot you have to be a cosmopolitan with broadly liberal, post-enlightenment moral views? I’d like that conclusion, but I think it may actually demand quite a bit more. Real patriotism might require a level of saintliness that most of us can’t aspire to, and which I’m not ultimately sure is a good thing. Because countries are so large, and membership is by and large not voluntary, they are also effectively guaranteed to contain a fair number of bigots, and people with illiberal, anti-enlightenment moral views. These won’t just be a few marginal weirdos, either, but a decent portion of the population. Perfectly complete patriotism, then, probably requires feelings of solidarity and loyalty towards these bigots, then, even while one is opposed to their bigotry. I’m not saying this can’t be done, but it’s hard. (Anyone who has found themselves furious with Trump-voters knows that it’s hard.) Maybe being patriotic is harder, in at least some ways, than just having impartial moral concern. You have to have feelings of love to strangers who may despise you, and in any case are not particularly lovable.
To sum up, lots of people self-deceptively believe themselves to value patriotism or regard it as a virtue, while condoning actions that are flagrantly unpatriotic. My guess is that they are able to do this because they are able to discount the claims of some members of their own country. This leads them to misinterpret loyalty to a particular subculture or demographic with loyalty to the country at large. But genuine patriotism requires solidarity with all the members of one’s country—who will typically have little in common beyond their shared humanity. Patriotism is generally incompatible, then, with the standard blinders that allow us to discount the claims and interests of others. It may
Two final thoughts:
- I assumed that patriots wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about human rights abuses of Central Americans. Based on the above, maybe that was wrong. After all, a decent number of US citizens are Central Americans.
- What about countries in the past, in the 19th century, for example? Would any of those have been ethnically or ideologically homogenous enough that one could have been a patriot while still being a racist?
— Derek Baker
* I am admittedly rejecting an alternate explanation here that might seem more charitable: people believe that North was acting in the best interests of the country. I acknowledge that there could in theory be patriotic reasons for stealing weapons from one’s own military in order to sell them to a hostile terror-supporting foreign power which had recently invaded the embassy of one’s country, and then lying about it all under oath. But presumably this would have to be pretty extraordinary. A very small strategic advantage over the Soviet Union is not extraordinary.
By way of analogy, if someone tells me they value law and order and that they wish there were more cops like Dirty Harry, there’s an initial discrepancy. Harry Callahan tortures suspects, and that’s illegal. But if I’m feeling charitable I can make sense of it by remembering that he tortured in order to save a young woman from a serial killer—and okay, I get how someone might care about the law but think this is a permissible case of breaking it. But if Harry is torturing suspects in order to track down a jaywalker, the Harry-enthusiast does not care about law and order. The enthusiast might believe that the jaywalker really is a serial killer, but if he believes this in complete defiance of the evidence, then he does not care about law and order. He is simply willing to engage in motivated reasoning so that he can continue to believe of himself that he cares about law and order—or at least that’s the most plausible explanation, all else being equal.
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