Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Patriotism Redux

by Jeff Polet

Nine years ago I wrote an essay on patriotism, highlighted by my son’s exceedingly American golf shirt. I present an abridged version of it here, as I think it contrasts well with my other essay today.

As our nation – what? sprints? strides? stumbles? limps? – toward its 238th birthday, we prepare once again for our great patriotic festivities. To do so well, however, requires we have some sort of understanding of patriotism. This is a dangerous venture, for one tends to inquire into feelings only when those feelings have become tenuous. …

Patriotism connotes a mode of love, or as Pericles put it in his canonical “Funeral Oration,” in being “lovers of the city.” In Pericles’ case this meant, of course, loving a city and its culture, its ideas, its principles, its distinctive features. Nowadays we are likely to think of patriotic love as attaching to one’s country. 

This probably inverts the order of things. Burke noted that love properly begins in its “little platoons” and gradually moves its way upward and outward, but loses its heat and ardor as it so moves. A little noted consequence of Burke’s thinking is that persons who cannot be taught to love their little platoons can neither be taught to love, to love truly, anything larger. A person who cannot love a city can hardly be counted on to love his or her country, not in any serious sense of the term. Likewise those who would attenuate such local affections, be they educators or ambitious politicians, are, according to Burke, “traitors.”

Tocqueville, on his visit to America, observed the Burkean ordering of habit and love in operation:

It is incontestably true that the love and the habits of republican government in the United States were engendered in the townships and in the provincial assemblies. In a small State, like that of Connecticut for instance, where cutting a canal or laying down a road is a momentous political question, where the State has no army to pay and no wars to carry on, and where much wealth and much honor cannot be bestowed upon the chief citizens, no form of government can be more natural or more appropriate than that of a republic. But it is this same republican spirit, it is these manners and customs of a free people, which are engendered and nurtured in the different States, to be afterwards applied to the country at large. The public spirit of the Union is, so to speak, nothing more than an abstract of the patriotic zeal of the provinces. Every citizen of the United States transfuses his attachment to his little republic in the common store of American patriotism. [emphasis added]

Likewise, Burke noted that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” There is much about contemporary America that is not lovely: the culture wars; the ever-mounting debt; the constant meddling of the nanny state; the breakdown of family life; rampant hedonistic libertarianism; dysfunctional educational institutions; wars and rumors of wars; an economy predicated on unlimited growth, with mass consumption and production at its core; looming environmental problems; backward agricultural policies and practices; an increasingly sclerotic political system. I could go on. At the macro level, America as a bloated imperial military power may seem to some as attractive as Falstaff without the humor.

At the micro level there is still much to love. Towns and villages where people know and care for one another. Church communities that rally around their own when a family or an individual faces a time of crisis. Colleges where thoughtful students still come by your office to discuss what a life well-lived might be like, to ask for extra reading, or to discuss ideas. Families bound together in mutual love and respect. Friends and neighbors picnicking, sharing the goods from their kitchen gardens, caring for each other’s children. … The political and cultural world looks healthier and more beautiful when viewed through a microscope rather than a telescope. …

Defenders of Republican government have long held to the view that empires can never be objects of love. It was for this reason that Washington had Joseph Addison’s Cato performed regularly for the troops at Valley Forge: to teach the soldiers that Caesar’s quest for glory was “ignobly vain, and impotently great,” purchased with injustice and tyranny, and contrasted to the temperate soul of Cato, defender of liberty and lover of a Rome of “humble virtues, and a rural life.” The lust for dominion creates a civil discord that “shakes our country with alarms/And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms/Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife/And robs the guilty world of Cato’s life.”

An empire has no capacity for reciprocal love. Its basic principle is power. Its essential mode is war. It demands sacrifice but offers nothing in return. It demands loyalty but cares not for the lives and aspirations of the individuals whose energies are required to feed its ambitions. And it operates with deep dishonesty: it will always attempt to appear to its subjects as other than it really is. Such deception contravenes love.

Nor can it be militarism, with its brutality and coarseness. The patriots of ’76 feared the possibility of a “standing army” not only because it was a threat to liberty and an invitation to onerous taxation and debt, but also because it corrupted morals. An army “will inevitably sow the seeds of corruption and the depravity of manners. Indolence will increase … the springs of honesty will generally grow lax, and chaste and severe manners be succeeded by those that are dissolute and vicious.”

The militarization of America was feared by no less a patriot than Patrick Henry, who saw in public support for an army and a navy only a desire for “a great and mighty empire,” the preference for a “splendid government” over “a simple one,” the latter which alone had liberty as its “primary object.” …

 Ideas still matter in this world, and they can generate great enthusiasm. These ideas can operate on their own level, functioning as guiding principles for political activity, or they can serve as expressions of a deeper sense of religious purpose. … Religious believers generally don’t love dogma, however. They recognize its importance, but what they love is the reality for which the dogma provides descriptive parameters. Either idea or dogma would serve the important function of directing Americans to a common end, doubly important when our internal politics are increasingly dominated by the absence of shared ends. …

Tocqueville noted that democratic countries were inclined toward a particular type of patriotism. Because individuals believed in the ideas and rhetoric of self-governance, they identified the achievements of the nation as their own achievements. The active principle of participation, however deformed in practice, creates the sense that public success is private success. This is the reason why Americans are always so insistent that they are … pick your superlative: the best country, the freest country, the richest country, the most powerful country. Generally, number one. This identification makes patriotism prideful rather than a kind of genuine love. This pride has all sorts of destructive consequences: from ill-conceived wars to foolish policies, and a kind of arrogance that people in other countries find off-putting. This was the context in which Tocqueville famously said

“Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A stranger may be very well inclined to praise many of the institutions of their country, but he begs permission to blame some of the peculiarities which he observes—a permission which is, however, inexorably refused. America is therefore a free country, in which, lest anybody should be hurt by your remarks, you are not allowed to speak freely of private individuals, or of the State, of the citizens or of the authorities, of public or of private undertakings, or, in short, of anything at all, except it be of the climate and the soil; and even then Americans will be found ready to defend either the one or the other, as if they had been contrived by the inhabitants of the country.”

It is the reason why failure distresses Americans more than it does citizens in mature nations who recognize that contingency, tragedy, irony, and failure are part of governing. Our surprise at failure demonstrates the enormous energy contained in such feelings: it is why we put a man on the moon and had 11,000+ men die in Vietnam in the same year. It explains why we could put the space shuttle Columbia up there in the first place, and then be shocked that it disintegrated during the mathematically difficult process of re-entry. Part of what makes America so interesting is that failure is never embraced, but is typically explained away. It doesn’t change our character. …

Tocqueville and Burke rightly emphasize a patriotism that stresses a love of the place of one’s birth. They emphasized the primacy of particular localities, in attachment, in ability to participate, and in the nurturing of patriotic love in honest and non-coercive ways. Opponents of these ideas despise the smallness, the meanness, the accidental nature of such love. They would have us aspire instead to an anonymous love: toward abstract ideas, toward bigness, toward a comprehensive system that absorbs all particularity with its potential for division within itself.

There is no program to overcome contingency which does not result in the attenuation of the freedom Americans purport to love. Patriotism ought to stress our enmeshment in particular communities and commitment to particular places that alone can give value to our efforts without diffusing them, and see such commitments as the backbone of a good nation worthy of our respect, perhaps even of our veneration. As Tocqueville said, a nation cannot be strong where each person in it is individually weak. To strengthen citizens requires enlarging them by shrinking the scale of political life. It recognizes, as Russell Kirk said, the principle of variety by which citizens “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

A healthy patriotism starts locally and radiates out. Wendell Berry wrote that he loved Port Royal more than Kentucky and Kentucky more than the USA. I’d say the same about my relationship between Holland/Michigan/America, although I’d add that I love my family and friends more than any of those. Berry went on to say that he doesn’t, however, love America more than the world. That never made a whole lot of sense to me, either logically or as a matter of principle. …

When I travel elsewhere and “foreigners” criticize America, I feel an instinctive need to defend it. Sometimes it needs defense against its internal critics as well. One need not believe America is “the last best hope for mankind,” “an almost chosen people,” or a “redeemer nation” in order to have affection for it. And one can with gratitude reflect on some of the good things the military has done. I recently read a dispatch my grandfather wrote from Winnipeg back to his native Fryslan, wherein he discussed attending a service for dead Canadian soldiers “who gave their life for our liberation. Our entire family went to show our appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice these young men made. WE WILL REMEMBER ALWAYS.” [Caps in original] …

Look around the world. We enjoy remarkable levels of personal freedom. We pay inordinate attention to the goods associated with human personhood. We can be self-correcting in surprising ways. We are generous and blessed with humor and material abundance. We are friendly and hospitable. There are still reasons for a well-placed pride, as well as reasons for concern. Perhaps Berry simply meant that America as he sees it isn’t lovely enough to be loved. Then we ought to try to make it so.

Discussion questions:

  1. E.M. Forster once wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Discuss this statement and whether he is correct, and if not, why not.
  2. If patriotic feelings are not taught in the small platoons, where and how will they get taught, if at all?
  3. What role does military ritual and service play in patriotic feeling? How can those feelings be duplicated without the cost of war?

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