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Patriotism and Other Mistakes

Patriotism and Other Mistakes

5.0 1
by George Kateb
From one of the most distinguished American political theorists comes this probing look at political life. Patriotism and Other Mistakes serves as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance against the erosion of our democratic rights, and shows how our commitment to ideals of religion, nation, ethnicity, manliness, and courage can too easily lead to immoral


From one of the most distinguished American political theorists comes this probing look at political life. Patriotism and Other Mistakes serves as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance against the erosion of our democratic rights, and shows how our commitment to ideals of religion, nation, ethnicity, manliness, and courage can too easily lead to immoral ends.

About the Author:
George Kateb is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, Princeton University

Editorial Reviews

William E. Connolly

“George Kateb is simultaneously a profound intellectual and an agent provocateur whose voice is urgently needed today. Wary of those who say that politics is governed simply by self-interest, principle, or some combination thereof, Kateb uncovers the aesthetic sensibilities inhabiting political interpretation, public vision and state action. He seeks to chasten the aesthetic, rather than to eliminate it. His critical forays into patriotism, state surveillance, fear and judgment inspire me, though others will draw just as much sustenance from his explorations into the Constitution, morality, and ideology. An indispensable book for our time.”—William E. Connolly, author of Pluralism

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Patriotism and Other Mistakes

Madness and Civility in an English Town

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 George Kateb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12049-3

Chapter One

Is Patriotism a Mistake?

Is patriotism a mistake? I think that it is a mistake twice over: it is typically a grave moral error and its source is typically a state of mental confusion. But the mistake of patriotism is an inevitable mistake. It cannot be avoided; almost no one can help being a patriot of some kind and to some degree. What is surprising and deplorable is that the mistake of patriotism is elaborated theoretically and promoted by people who should know better-that is, political theorists, moral philosophers, and theologians.

The defense of patriotism by some, perhaps many, thinkers is surprising. More surprisingly, however, that defense should probably not be so surprising. One of the most pronounced tendencies of contemporary intellectual life is the defense offered of what I fear I must call moral and mental obtuseness. I have in mind the general abandonment by intellectuals of a commitment to their own preconditions, which are some main values of the Enlightenment: independence of mind as an inspiration for all persons, rejection of fanaticism, and a fierce dislike of idolatry, especially group idolatry. I am not saying thatunless a philosopher follows the French philosophes in every particular, he or she betrays the Enlightenment. But there is a profound discrepancy between the values that make the thinking life possible and the values that some recent thinkers have espoused as good for others. If these others prevail, all thinkers would be threatened with persecution. Intellectual condescension would be repaid with anti-intellectual repression.

A defense of patriotism is an attack on the Enlightenment; a defense of all group phenomena related or analogous to patriotism is also an attack on the Enlightenment. Actually, the defense of patriotism is simply one part, though a major one, of a larger particularist tendency of thought, which honors membership in all groups that offer to help persons carry the burden of selfhood, of individual identity. The greatest part of the burden is the quest for meaningfulness, which is tantamount to receiving definition for the self. It is claimed that the most gratifying definition of self comes from the limits imposed and permissions granted by membership in cultural or identity groups. A large number of intellectuals have undertaken to defend the claims of group identity and affiliation as such, because the underlying idea is that only such identity and affiliation can bestow a coherent meaning on life (or establish a purpose for life). Only when life is thought to have such meaningfulness can life be endurable for people, especially for the great mass of nonintellectual people.

Therefore, I put to one side those cases where intellectuals directly or disguisedly defend their own particularism, be it based on religion, ethnicity, race, nationality, or language. That is a different kind of aberration from the one that occupies me in this paper.

Group membership and allegiance simplify life by tying the identity of each member to a structure of inclusion and exclusion, of questions and answers, of rites and ceremonies, of allowable and censurable fantasies. Supposedly, it is nonintellectual people, people who do not do their own thinking, who crave meaning the most and who must be given it by those who do their thinking for them. Thus, we find theoretical defenses of such group phenomena as religious fundamentalism, ethnic pride, and linguistic and ethnic separatism. Multiculturalism, the new name for cultural pluralism, is all the rage. And then, of course, there is patriotism, the most deadly form of group attachment, to which I will turn in short order.

One source of the defense of group attachment is postmodernism. Postmodern defenders of group-sustaining fictions don't usually tell their readers explicitly that they are defending beliefs that they could easily demolish. Rather, they are-sometimes unwittingly-faithful to the Straussian distinction between esoteric and exoteric writing, without having Strauss's courage in announcing that such a distinction exists. Strauss lets the cat out of the bag-not that he expects most people to notice. Postmodernists must think that all that the greater public will ever learn about them is, at most, their defense of group-sustaining beliefs, which are known only by the few to be fictitious, unwarranted beliefs.

Now, if one oddity is that postmodern intellectuals defend anti-intellectual social phenomena, the further oddity is that many of these intellectual defenders are convinced that there is no transcendent meaning or purpose in life and that all values are arbitrary or subjective. We find that many, though by no means all, of the defenders of tight group life (of one kind or another) are postmodernists or are sympathetic to postmodernism. That means that these thinkers combine a see-through-it-all radicalism with an accept-it-all permissiveness; they combine scepticism or atheism for themselves with a defense of orthodoxy or fundamentalism for others, with special favor naturally conferred on those groups whose beliefs give the self a shape by giving life a meaning, any meaning, preferably a system of meaning, and because of it, a coherence. I am not saying that political theorists, moral philosophers, and theologians originate these beliefs-although sometimes they do. Many of the beliefs are inherited, of course. Rather, these kinds of thinkers provide comfort and encouragement, provide rationalization, for subscribing to belief, for indulging the will to believe, for uniting a wish to have truth and a disinclination to make a serious effort to ascertain it.

The postmodernists take away with one hand what they give with another. They deconstruct the attempted meaning of intellectual systems and of some rationalist aspects of culture, but they simultaneously endorse the craving for confident meaning. They convey the message, but not in so many words, that it is better not to try to tell people the truth that there is no truth, of the sorts people want, to tell; instead, it is better for intellectuals to defend and promote fictions that these intellectuals know to be fictions and to do so because people need fictions and would languish or perish without them. The people naturally hold their fictions as truths, whereas many intellectuals see through them and still promote them. These intellectuals may not believe in the possibility of systematic truth, but they surely appear not to believe in truthfulness or honesty, either. The program of Nietzsche as Lawgiver-the pathetic and least valuable Nietzsche-is carried out, but without his compunction, and without the total candor he establishes with his readers. Notice that what is involved is not the immemorial practice of defending beliefs that thinkers know are fictions because they fear the subversive effects on morality of exploded fictions, religious or metaphysical. To the contrary, the beliefs that many contemporary thinkers want to defend conduce to immorality (by the thinkers' own standard), and these thinkers knowingly defend them anyway. And the postmodern relativism of some of these thinkers makes it all too easy to disseminate ideas that work with immoral effects. Emerson complains in "The American Scholar" that "too often, the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege" (p. 54). There is abundant reason these days to echo that complaint. Group-based meaningfulness gives solace to people, undeniably; it helps to give closure to personal identity. But if intellectuals cannot supply honest and truthful meaning, they should not supply or defend meaning they know to be unwarrantable. Perhaps, it would be best for them to remain silent, if they decided that they simply could not deprive people of solace.

I grant that theoretical support for group identity and affiliation and for the beliefs that sustain it does not come from only postmodern unbelief; it may also come from a somewhat more complicated mental condition. My point pertains especially to religious and metaphysical beliefs. I mean that some writers go through motions, hoping that the result will be their own adherence or conversion, and they recommend the process to others, especially to other thinkers. They seem to be saying to themselves: "Let us write as if we believe, and thus imitate those who, as genuine believers, maintained the tradition we now, in the face of our own unbelief, want to keep going. Let us forget or put to one side or blur what we once knew to be true, and contribute to the perpetuation of what we want to be true and what we feel we do not know enough to call false. We shall practice the traditional modes of thinking, even though they necessarily lack their old solidity. We construct simulacra that we hope will pass for, or pass into, the real thing. We will confuse ourselves and others into clarity." But this mental complication (or slow philosophical suicide) leads only to the return of once tragic constructions as farcical: farcical because flimsy. Going through these motions is not exactly covering a genuine despair with a simulated hopefulness; it is more like showing misplaced solicitude for others and the wrong kind of care for oneself. This tendency is, however, less prominent than postmodernist connivance with superstition.

There is one more oddity. I have noticed a recent tendency among some thinkers, who are non- or anti-postmodern, to defend intensity of passion or emotion. These thinkers do so because of a fear that contemporary life is shallow, that the people around us are averse to commitment and loyalty, have lost the ability to care deeply about anything outside themselves, and care about wrong, superficial things in regard to themselves. There is a growing-shall we call it-moral archaism or conservatism, fairly continuous with communitarianism, but conceptually separable from it, that values strong feelings of any sort or passionate commitment or attachment as such. Not all defenders of the passions advocate individual attachment to groups, but some do so explicitly. This way of mourning the perceived loss of depth is guided by the unexpressed surmise, I believe, that people have depth only when they have strong fathers, that depth goes only with patriarchy reinforced by patriotism and monotheism (one divinity, and pictured as father). For these conservatives, however, the newly assertive religiousness is not likely to resurrect the father and with him, depth of psyche. I call this development odd because conservatives blame the ironizing and sceptical elements in postmodernism for justifying the supposed loss of passion and commitment. Despite the overt hostility, there is thus an unrecognized alliance between some postmodernists and some of their enemies. Postmodernists offer an untruthful defense of dogma; the moral conservatives offer a sometimes insincere defense of devotion.

The difference between these two camps is this: the moral conservatives talk others and perhaps themselves into commitments, whereas the postmodernists solely defend the commitments of others. The conservatives see the corrosiveness inherent in postmodernism, but fail to observe the support lent by some postmodernists to the passionate commitments held sincerely by various groups. The conservatives also fail to see their own hollowness, even as they complain about the shallowness of the people around them. I mean that the project of urging passion, of willing passion, on oneself and others must result in an amazing self-deception. The sources of such passion in contrivance and deliberate effort is forgotten. If the postmodernists consecrate the sincere espousal by others of commitments that the postmodernists know are unjustifiable, the postmodernists are at least free, for the most part, of self-deception. That is an advantage, I suppose. But judged from the perspective of truth as well as the perspective of morality, both the particular group commitments defended by many postmodernists and the idea of group commitment as such defended by some moral conservatives are deserving of serious scrutiny and, I believe, of our reproach.

To turn specifically to patriotism as a form of group identity and affiliation: Why really do I think that patriotism in itself is a mistake? First, let us ask, What is patriotism? It is love of one's country. How is patriotism most importantly shown? Let us not mince words. The answer is that it is most importantly shown in a readiness, whether reluctant or matter-of-fact, social or zealous, to die and to kill for one's country. These two answers constitute the most common understanding of patriotism. What is one's country? Here the answer I give is not the one lodged in common understanding, which understanding would repel the answer I propose. My answer is that one's country-any country-is best understood as an abstraction, for it is a compound of a few actual and many imaginary ingredients. If the word imaginary is too disdainful, then substitute imaginative or aesthetically induced. A country is not a discernible collection of discernible individuals like a team or a faculty or a local chapter of a voluntary association. Of course a country is a delimited territory. It is also a place, a setting, a geography; it has landscape, cityscapes, perhaps seascapes; it has old buildings as well as new ones; it has historical sites; it has a light, an air, an atmosphere; it has a special look. But it is also constructed out of transmitted memories true and false; a history usually mostly falsely sanitized or falsely heroized; a sense of kinship of a largely invented purity; and social ties that are largely invisible or impersonal, indeed abstract, yet by an act of insistent or of dream-like imagination made visible and personal.

What, then, is patriotism, really? It is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend. Patriotism, then, is a readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a figment of the imagination. For this figment, one commits oneself to a militarized and continuously politicized conception of life, a conception that is entirely masculinist. Patriotism is, from its nature, a commitment to the system of premature, violent death, inflicted and accepted, in whatever spirit that suits one's temperament or that is current in one's time and place, and with victories and defeats coming as they do. The deathly passion of patriotism attained an almost parodic form not so long ago when in the country of Georgia an official (Mrs. Shevardnadze, in fact) tried to block the adoption of Georgian orphans by U.S. citizens. According to New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley, Mrs. Shevardnadze said, "All the Georgian people are suffering hardship.... Let our children suffer, too." As Stanley said, "she casts the issue as one of national identity" (NYT, 6/29/97, pp. 1, 12). Such candor about the bond between patriotism and death is uncommon these days. In a whole book of defenses of patriotism against Martha Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism, there is scarcely any reference to the necessary connection between patriotism and militarized death. Anthony Appiah appears to endorse his father's belief that Ghana is worthy dying for. And Elaine Scarry touches on international conflict occasioned by tribal national feelings. That is all.

I ask us to notice that an abstraction of the sort that I say patriotism is, is not the same thing as a principle. There is a very sharp contrast between a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction and a readiness to do the same for a principle. A principle must be universal, but an abstraction can have any scope. To embrace a principle, which is of course abstract in some sense, is to pledge oneself to a rule to guide one's perception of the world and, if one has sufficient integrity, to guide one's conduct in it. A moral principle, even if a person usually lacks sufficient integrity to remain actively faithful to it in all the most tempting or desperate circumstances, governs one's conduct toward others, and the expectations one has of the conduct of others. A moral principle must be conceived as universalist, and asks for consistent application; and it aims at respect for persons or individuals, not abstract entities of the imagination. There is also a sharp contrast, on the other hand, between an abstraction like patriotism and a tangible personal interest like being protected or preserved in one's rights of life, liberty, and property, for which purpose it may also sometimes be thought necessary to risk death and to kill.


Excerpted from Patriotism and Other Mistakes by GEORGE KATEB Copyright © 2006 by George Kateb. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

George Kateb is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, Princeton University. He lives in Princeton, NJ.

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Guest More than 1 year ago
I was fortunate enough to have Professor Kateb as my thesis advisor in college, and have never met such a thoughtful and profound man. His intellectual depth is staggering, and his love of the philosophical method and its use in exploring the persistant questions of our place in society and society's place in our lives was (and is) evident in every word he writes. Any work by this man is more than worth reading.