The following constitutes a collaborative work of WWwtW Contributors Paul J Cella and Jeff Martin. It makes no claim of dogmatic finality, but rather comprises an early entry into what we believe should be a carefully examined field of inquiry.
American public life wants for a serious examination of Patriotism. The irony is that patriotism is one of those elusive human things, which not only resist rigorous examination, but also diminish in the face of it. That is, patriotism in its true sense has some difficulty yielding a precise dialectical account of itself, and may be enervated by the attempt to force such an accounting. To drag something like patriotism before the bar of strict rationalism, even that High Rationalism which submits — as much of today’s rationalism does not — to the authority of truth, is to run the risk of enfeebling it. In short, patriotism does not suffer well the ministrations of the dialectician.
In our judgment, however, the pressing need in this case outweighs this potential cost. For nothing is more certain than that many of the ideas on patriotism in circulation today are grave and debilitating errors.
A functional definition of patriotism need not be complicated too excessively. We are content for now to define it thusly: Patriotism is that pull of affection and loyalty, which the normal man feels toward his home. “Home” is a term that should be broad enough to embrace whatever form of political arrangement is dominant in the time and place under consideration. Thus “home” for the ancient Greeks would manifestly refer to the city-state, and for the mediaeval Christian to the local province, while for modern man it refers most prominently to the territorially expansive nation-state that we often designate with the word country. The modern patriot is the man who feels affection, tenderness and loyalty for his country.
Here in the United States of the early twenty-first century, as any alert observer will realize at once, a specifically ideological content has been appended to this definition. It is therefore necessary to speak of IDEOLOGICAL PATRIOTISM. This variation is a powerful force indeed in American politics — in many cases powerful enough to crowd out the more primitive definition. IDEOLOGICAL PATRIOTISM is that view which holds that one becomes a loyal American not by being born here, or by submitting to an appointed regimen of discipline to attain citizenship, but by simply assenting to certain political ideas. In other words, it holds that one can only become American by conforming to an IDEOLOGY. The question of loyalty is replaced, at least in part, by the question of ideological commitment; and the question of affection is replaced, at least in part, by the question of political ideal.
The principle argument of the ideological patriots can be rendered as follows: American patriotism is, and should remain, in its true essence an ideological commitment, owing little to the particular character of the culture, people, communities that make up the country, but rather owing to the political ideas they profess. America is, therefore, a propositional nation, her identity forged by assent to a creed.
Almost no one denies that, in their abstract form, the propositions generally thought to constitute this ideology are noble ones, even, in their way, universal ones. Liberty, self-government, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, broadly distributed property, meritocracy: few will rebuke these ideas. Almost no one denies that the roots of these propositions are plainly contained in our founding documents, the influence of which on the course of American history can hardly be calculated. Moreover, the argument that there is a deep and abiding “creedal” aspect to American patriotism is certainly not something new under the sun. Even Chesterton, a “little Englander,” made it in his What I Saw in America. But the purpose of this essay is not to examine the ideas comprising ideological patriotism; by and large we have no quarrel with them. Our business is with the prior question of whether patriotism can be successfully formulated in ideological terms; whether an ideology, whatever its content, can form a sturdy and enduring foundation for a healthy republic. And our answer is a firm negative. On the contrary, there are few things more precarious upon which to ground the fidelity of citizens to their country than the shifting sands of fashionable political theory.
While we may all agree that there is such a thing as the American Creed, there will surely be some discord as to what basic propositions make up that Creed; and the agreement will almost certainly break down completely when the question of practical application is raised. How shall we secure and sustain self-government? How shall we protect the rule of law from the inevitable encroachments by assorted malcontents, mountebanks, plunderers, knaves and fools? How shall we reconcile liberty with equality? This is stuff of the human political condition, and everyone could conceivably agree on the value of certain propositions without agreeing in the first instance on how to answer these questions. We may all pledge loyalty unto death to our fair Creed — yet remain rent by dissension and bitterness in its application to the affairs of the world. How such a collection of disagreements, misapprehensions, blunders, disputes, insights, auguries as we will get from talking about the Creed, could somehow issue in a community bound by shared loyalty — in brief a nation organized for action in history — is the huge question over and above these questions of practice.
Objections to Creedal Patriotism:
The Creed itself only arose out of a particular historical matrix of thought and practice, specific to the unique conditions of:
(1) English colonists in the New World;
(2) Refugees of a Continent torn asunder by religious conflict, some specifically fleeing a religious orthodoxy intolerable to them;
(3) Thinkers infused, in varying degrees, by the new ideas of what is called the Enlightenment, but — and this is crucial to understand — separated from its force and continued development by the distance an enormous ocean;
(4) Rebels against the Crown who, in outrage against various punitive actions taken by Parliament against them, declared, fought for, and achieved independence;
(5) Philosophers and statesmen who, upon achieving independence, soberly set themselves to the task of constructing a republic, and in the process repudiated (a) much of their former radicalism and (b) some of the more radical implications of the Enlightenment itself;
(6) Later arrivals whose duty it was — as the great force of the mores and traditions and public orthodoxy of the Republic made abundantly clear — to renounce all former loyalties and assimilate; but whose privilege it was to contribute their own particularities to the Republic.
Thus, even if the Creed may justly lay claim to an abstract universality, it cannot possibly be considered in pure abstraction from history. It is perfectly incomprehensible bereft of its historical particularity.
Given that this Creed must be, in Michael Oakshott’s phrase, an abbreviation of a living tradition, it follows that the abbreviation lends itself to misuse and misrepresentation. Our second objection, then, concerns the profound danger of giving patriotism over to the empire of the ideologists and intellectuals.
An ideology’s resiliency and abstraction from history make it malleable in the hands of its custodians: the ideology can be gradually disfigured by the complacency of the negligent or the innovations of the interested; such that, eventually, it becomes unrecognizable.
Our political world is suffused with lawless and ruinous ideological fashions, from multiculturalism to globalism. Some of the men and women who now disseminate the propositions embraced by the Creed are, by and large, charlatans of these fashions. They will reason men into giving up their nation, by arguing that the nation compasses the world; they will sing a siren’s song of universality, and crush the particular that made possible the universal. They will set prosperity above all other things, and thereby reduce us to a servile, though perhaps extremely rich, people.
It is also important to recognize that any ideology, no matter how admirable at its outset, can be captured and subverted; and moreover, to recognize that when thus subverted it is very likely that those inebriated by it, and thus committed to its propagation, will not recover from their stupor, but will rather fall deeper into its narcotic effect. In short, a successful ideology will breed suspect interests all around it.
In sum, we live in a dangerously ideological age. In our own lifetimes millions have perished at the hands of ideologists. Prudence counsels that we make our most resolute effort, not to reform the ideologies that swirl menacingly around, but to protect the good things of our inheritance from that threatening cloud.
Our third objection concerns the nature of patriotism itself, and amounts to this: ideological patriotism can only, in the end, be a falsification. Patriotism is at base not really about ideas or Platonic “forms” at all; it is about sentiment, human attachment, feelings of warmth and familiarity. It derives from habit and custom, from real feelings about real places, from a tender sense of home and hearth, from smells imperceptible but unforgettable, from a thousand attachments subconscious but fierce. It is resistant to precise articulation, and does not require precise articulation to carry its power. Grown men do not grow teary-eyed at the chords of “America the Beautiful” because they have been argued into a love of their country.
To say otherwise is like saying that a man only loves his mother if he also proclaims her cooking as the best in the world; or that a child only loves his toys because they are the biggest and shiniest in the neighborhood. In the formulation of this patriotism of supremacy, the American patriot cannot comprehend a Spanish patriot, because Spain has grown feeble and irrelevant, or a Serb patriot, because Serbia is oppressed and defeated and compromised. He knows nothing of that wild subjugated patriotism of the Poles, which Rousseau spoke of so powerfully in his On the Government of Poland, and which saved Christendom on at least three separate occasions (Mongols, Turks and Communist).
There is also this, which we will only touch on very briefly: At bottom, patriotism inevitably contemplates tragedy, for only profoundly deluded men imagine that their country is eternal. Wise patriots are intensely aware of the precariousness of their home that they love. There is sorrow in their efforts — and, if they be God-fearing-men, there is also that joy in the limited work of limited human hands; there is that joy of duty discharged, even in a lost cause, which is liberty. The patriot is often drawn in his heart as much to stories of honorable defeat as to grand victory. Often patriotism has been intimately connected with the idea of the “lost cause.” There is more tragedy in patriotism than triumph.
Therefore IDEOLOGICAL PATRIOTISM, while appealing to aspects of true American patriotism, and drawing from some features of the American tradition, is in fact an alien and illegitimate perversion of the real things, a derailment of an authentic tradition, and a perilous heresy which threatens the integrity and prosperity of the Nation. We take our stand against it.