In “Politics,” Aristotle famously asked the question whether a good citizen is the same as a good human being. Can we be both loyal members of a particular city, nation or state and at the same time fulfill our larger moral obligations and duties to humanity? Is there a conflict between a commitment to intellectual inquiry and the free exchange of ideas wherever they may lead and the offices of citizenship that require loyalty to a particular set of institutions, practices and beliefs? In short, is patriotism a virtue? If so, what kind of virtue is it?
In recent years, universities have not been friendly to the discussion of patriotism. Raise the issue and you are likely to hear either Samuel Johnson’s barb that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” or E.M. Forster’s wish that if he had to betray either his country or his friend, he would have the courage to betray his country. Forster presents the choice of friendship over country, of private over public goods, as a tragic, even noble, decision.
But Forster’s way of posing the problem is false. Loyalty is a moral habit, just as betrayal is a moral vice. People who practice one are less likely to indulge the other. A few years after Forster made this comment, three young Cambridge University undergraduates, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, chose to betray their country and within a short time began to betray one another.
Loyalty, like betrayal, is not a bus that one can get off at will. Rather, people who betray in one area of their lives are more likely to do so in others. None of this helps answer the question, what is patriotism and why is it a virtue?
Since Sept. 11, a reconsideration of patriotism has been under way. In a remarkable statement, President Lawrence Summers of Harvard (of Harvard, no less!) exhorted his faculty to support the nation’s war against terrorism and warned against the dangers to the university that may accompany elite distaste for the military. In a similar statement Thomas Friedman of the New York Times appealed to President Bush to encourage Americans to express patriotism in ways other than shopping.
Like every virtue, patriotism is a mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Excessive patriotism holds absolute attachment to one’s own way of life as unconditionally good. This is the kind of loyalty expressed in statements like “my country right or wrong” or on bumper stickers declaring “love it or leave it.” Patriotism necessarily involves love of one’s own, but like any love it must be judged not only by the intensity with which it is felt but by the object to which it is attached. No one doubts a terrorist’s sincere devotion to his cause. The question is whether the cause to which he is devoted is a noble or worthy one.
The defect of patriotism often comes to light as a kind of transpolitical cosmopolitanism. According to this view, we owe no greater moral obligation to fellow citizens than to any other human beings on the face of the planet. Citizenship, it is alleged, is more often than not conferred through the arbitrary fact of birth. But since birthright citizenship is utterly random, an artifact of a genetic lottery, there are no special obligations attached to it.
Internationalists may feel themselves attached to such transnational organizations as human rights watch groups and social movements like Greenpeace, but never to one’s country. If the excess of patriotism is to judge others by a primitive identification of the good with one’s own, its defect is to judge one’s own by impossibly high standards of international justice.
Ours is a patriotism that contains elements of both moral universalism and a robust commitment to the specifically American way of life. The American regime was the first in history founded on universal principles articulated in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ours was the first nation founded on a “self-evident truth” and dedicated to “certain unalienable rights.” These principles were said to hold not just for Americans but for all human beings always and everywhere. It was precisely this kind of moral universalism that led Abraham Lincoln to praise Henry Clay as a man who “loved his country partly because it was his own country but mostly because it was a free country.”
At the same time American patriotism requires an understanding and appreciation of the Constitution and the way it has been interpreted, fought over, and transformed over the course of our history. Our regime is more than a catalogue of abstract rights: it is embedded in a set of particular moral, legal and political practices that distinguishes it from all other regimes.
To love one’s country is not to love it blindly or to be unaware of its flaws. It is to recognize that the Constitution and its liberties are, in the words of Edmund Burke, “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity.”
There is no good idea that cannot be abused, and this is certainly true of patriotism. If critics on the left have routinely disparaged any display of patriotism as tantamount to war-mongering chauvinism, bullies on the right have been quick to depict any questioning of America as somehow un-American. The recent effort by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to brand as “anti-American” statements made by students and professors after Sept. 11 is one such abuse of patriotism. It smacks too much of enemies lists and a kind of reverse political correctness.
But if patriotism can be harsh and punitive, it can also be elevating and ennobling. American patriotism at its best is not just indoctrination but a form of moral education inculcating not only virtues of civility, law-abidingness and respect for others, but also qualities like ambition, love of honor, loyalty and leadership.
Patriotism is not just a moral but an intellectual virtue. The proper love of country is something that must be taught and, as such, requires teachers. But where are such teachers to be found? In my own field, the social sciences, civic education has largely been replaced by game theory where students are taught to think of themselves not as citizens but as “rational actors.” I can think of no higher office for the University today than to return to our older tradition of civic education summarized on the Memorial Gate outside of Branford College: “For God, for Country, and for Yale.”
Steven Smith is Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and master of Branford College.