Neighbors and patriotism
By Paul J Cella Posted in Culture — Comments (42) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
The Sophist, an old and respected commenter, has returned to us after something of a hiatus; and is promptly falling into an old debate he and I have had over the nature and destiny of the American tradition. I’m going to touch on a few of his latest points. To get a full sense of the lineaments of this discussion, readers are advised to follow the comment thread link above.
(1) The question “who is my neighbor?” has informed an important part of our debate. In his latest comment, The Sophist writes that, in urban America, “What makes someone a neighbor is that you choose to interact with them, that you choose to care about them, and that you choose to include them in your ‘communion’ if you will (and vice versa), thereby creating community with them.” There is a great deal to be said in response to this. I will confine myself to two pointed questions: (a) What does this admission of “chosen” community leave for the idea of duty or obligation? If I may, at will, chose my community, chose who to care about, chose my loyalties, in what sense can they be said to be binding? May I not merely repudiate my choice when the inclination of my will shifts? If not, on what grounds do you say that a chosen loyalty can attain a compulsion deeper than the choice that made it? (b) What does this assertion that truly American “neighborliness” is fundamentally artificial leave for the idea of organic local democracy, which was, in the view of Tocqueville, part of the true greatness of American democracy and an indispensable bulwark against that tutelary despotism which would reduce democratic man into “nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”?
(2) The Sophist writes, “your point about weak and subjugated countries having real patriots is well-made. However, [it is] not that weak countries cannot have patriots, but that whether weak countries have patriots or not doesn’t matter. There may be staunch patriots of Lichtenstein, but... who cares?” These patriots of weak and conquered nations “will have no impact on world affairs one way or another — except perhaps as cute historico-cultural artifacts.” Or again: “I worry, Paul, that your approach of ‘let me be proud of America because she is mine’ will ultimately end up making us the global equivalent of the Amish.” I cannot share The Sophist’s confidence in the final irrelevance of the small patriot. He might recollect that Americans were once thought of as small and petty patriots — rebellious provincials of a great empire. “The North American colonists are jealous of their liberty? . . . who cares?” Or consider the anachronistic local patriotism of Robert E. Lee, who despite his intense dislike of slavery, turned down a commission in the Union army out of loyalty to his state; and this perplexing anachronism notwithstanding, went on to lead an army that won the admiration of the world.
But more broadly, this response of “who cares” misses the point. The point is not that the patriot of the weak nation is relevant; it is that his patriotism is real. It is real despite the fact that it can never be universal in the way The Sophist imagines American patriotism must be. And my argument is that this latter conception of patriotism — the patriotism of universality — is in an important sense unreal. It depends for force and vigor upon things outside of it, fleeting things; and, supposing those are by violence or decay removed, it will vanish. Under the siege of Lincoln’s “silent artillery of time” these universalist patriots will become but the “loud and troublesome insects of the hour” of Burke’s vivid scorn.
Now, I want to head off an error that may arise because of the character of my arguments. It may appear that I make too much of patriotism, that I turn it into a kind of hagiography of place. I assure the reader that I do not. Indeed, part of my problem with the universalist patriotism against which I am arguing, is that it infuses love of country with a kind of religious significance. This is a weight it cannot bear. The only true universalism is that of Christ, and Him crucified. All else is derivative. The Sophist has said, in a grand and admirable flourish of rhetoric, that “our way of life is superior, that it is good, and that it is the true state of being for all people everywhere.” Much as it attracts me, I cannot credit this statement; and I think that to pursue its implications will debase us. Like any love of things that are good, love of one’s country is just and true; but it must always stand beneath He that is the Source of all good. Calling our way of life “the true state of being" for all men, it seems to me, is pride of a particularly insidious variety.