Is patriotism a positive political force? In much of the world, the answer is no or a highly qualified maybe. In Britain, English patriotism verges on the comical (see the collected works of Rowan Atkinson for more details), while the United Kingdom, an array of feudal fiefdoms stretching from the Channel to the North Sea, is far too antiquated a structure to stir up much patriotic passion in anyone other than a far-rightist. Does the average cockney’s heart beat faster when contemplating the offshore bankers of Jersey or the noble fishermen of Shetland pressuring Brussels for more favorable cod quotas? Don’t make us larf!
In France, la patrie is a political concept, meaning that one’s view of it is a direct function of one’s place on the left-right spectrum. If you’re a Gaullist you may have some lingering attachment to la France profonde; if you’re a liberal, you want to see it subsumed under the EU, while if you’re among the 10 percent of the electorate that voted Trotskyist in the 2002 presidential elections, the very word smacks of Pétainism and the reactionary “integral” nationalism of Charles Maurras. In Germany, patriotism is controversial due to certain nationalist excesses of the mid-twentieth century, while in Italy it exists only on a local level. In Canada, no one quite knows what it means, for the simple reason that no one quite knows what Canada means other than that part of North America that looks like the United States but doesn’t believe in capital punishment, mass incarceration or the virtues of maintaining military bases in more than a hundred foreign countries.
Only in the United States does patriotism, among both liberals and conservatives, elicit an unqualified yes. Perhaps the most important reason has to do with the role of voluntarism in American constitutional thought. Despite being bound to the United States by countless laws and regulations, Americans cling to a concept of citizenship as a matter of choice. They are not Americans because they were born here or because economic necessity forced them to immigrate, supposedly, but because they want to be. Since the United States is not so much a nation as a calling, anyone wishing to participate in the American polity must make his or her loyalties clear. This is why politicians will launch into the most amazing bombast on a moment’s notice about the United States being “the best country ever created and still, as ever, the hope of humankind” (to quote the hapless Al Gore in August 2000). The more they want the people’s vote, the more they must trumpet their devotion. If patriotism is an unalloyed good, then more patriotism is better, while ultra-patriotism, the kind that equates the nation with the will of God, is best of all.
In his new book The Intellectuals and the Flag, Todd Gitlin uses patriotism to wallop the radical left, which he cannot forgive for being right about the direction of US military policy after 9/11, when he and other liberal intellectuals gathered around Dissent magazine were almost completely wrong. Living a mile north of the World Trade Center, Gitlin–a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, author of a well-known chronicle of 1960s radicalism (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage) and a member of the Dissent editorial board–got a stiff dose of patriotism as he watched the Twin Towers disintegrate in a cloud of smoke and debris. Overcome with emotion, he wandered downtown a few days later and joined a crowd of onlookers applauding dust-covered rescue workers emerging from the blast site.
“In those awful days,” Gitlin informs us, “I found people–and a people to whom I belonged.” Overcome with a feeling of oneness with all those shocked and horrified people in the street, he put up the Stars and Stripes to show where his sympathies lay. A few days later, when New York Times Metro columnist Clyde Haberman called seeking a comment about the American flags sprouting up all over the city, he mentioned that he happened to have one hanging from his apartment terrace. Haberman’s article made Gitlin into a minor patriotic hero.
But although Gitlin assumes in The Intellectuals and the Flag that it was natural to feel solidarity on that occasion on the basis of a common American identity, he could have felt solidarity on any number of bases–as a New Yorker, as a human being, as a secularist or as an anti-imperialist, to name just a few. Each mode implies a different form of politics, a different way of looking at the problem, and hence a different way of thinking about how to respond. The first, for example, might very well imply solidarity not only vis-à-vis Al Qaeda but vis-à-vis Texas oilmen whose view of compact, energy-efficient cities like New York is not much more benign. The second implies an ethical stance against the needless taking of human life by any actor in the conflict, while the third implies a condemnation of religious fanaticism in general, Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The fourth would almost certainly lead, among other things, to demands that Washington come clean about its dealings with militant fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, not to mention Israel and the American Bible Belt.
Instead, Gitlin responded as an American. Lots of other people in those fateful days did as well: Considering that Osama bin Laden had attacked Americans qua Americans, they found it difficult not to respond in kind. Nonetheless, responding as an American meant seeing 9/11 in essentially nationalist terms as a case of turbanned foreigners visiting evil on an innocent United States. When Katha Pollitt published a column in this magazine saying she would not fly the flag because it “stands for jingoism and vengeance and war,” he was therefore incensed. He fired back with an article in Mother Jones accusing certain unnamed leftists of “smugness, acrimony, even schadenfreude”–an especially incendiary charge in those super-heated times, since it implied that Pollitt and her co-thinkers derived pleasure from the suffering around them. After finishing with them, Gitlin attacked Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said for statements he regarded as foolish or disloyal, and then rounded on Indian novelist Arundhati Roy for daring to suggest that Osama bin Laden was Bush’s “dark doppelgänger” and that “the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable.” Today, with postinvasion deaths in Iraq outnumbering those in Lower Manhattan by better than thirty to one, Roy’s sentiments seem positively mild. Yet for Gitlin they were indicative of “a prejudice invulnerable to moral distinctions” because, presumably, they failed to recognize that Al Qaeda is fundamentally evil, while America, of course, is fundamentally good.
Still, it could have been worse. Around the same time that Gitlin was sounding off in Mother Jones, Dissent editor Michael Walzer published an article in that magazine (which Gitlin approvingly cites here) not only echoing the charge of schadenfreude but accusing the left of sympathizing with Al Qaeda on the grounds that “any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left.” National Security Administration wiretappers take note: Not only were leftists reveling in the bloodshed, they were plainly hoping for more.
With The Intellectuals and the Flag, Gitlin revisits the old battlefield, toning down his rhetoric somewhat but otherwise expanding on the theme that radicals must learn to love the flag and embrace patriotism if they wish to be effective. The first thing to be said about The Intellectuals and the Flag, a grab bag of essays touching on everything from postmodernism and cultural studies to the role of the universities in fostering intelligent political debate, is that it is a very bad book–badly written, badly argued and studded with non sequiturs and intellectual clichés. The second thing is that it is one of those bad books that nonetheless touch upon an important topic, even if it is a bit more complicated than the author apparently realizes.
As Gitlin sees it, leftists come in two varieties, the loyal kind and the more radical sort typified by his bêtes noires Chomsky and Said. The first group tries to understand America; when it criticizes America, it does so, more in sorrow than in anger, from within as a loyal member of the moral community. The second, on the other hand, is exclusively negative, carping and complaining about nearly everything America does, no matter how justified or well intended. When America tries to defend itself or use its power to prevent some grievous abuse abroad, the only thing the radicals can say, according to Gitlin, is that “the Empire Is Striking Back.” As he puts it: “In their eyes Bill Clinton’s interventions in behalf of the rights of Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims were as wicked as any and all other interventions.” Since everything America does is wicked, then America, from their perspective, must be wicked itself.
Never mind that Chomsky is actually a critical patriot who is on record as declaring that the United States is “the best country in the world” or that Said, rather than a leftist, was an old-fashioned liberal who happened to champion a national movement the pro-Israel editors at Dissent do not much like. With his ideology of “for us or against us,” Gitlin is impervious to such fine points. As he sees it, leftists have two choices: They can turn their backs on the United States on the grounds that it is hopelessly reactionary or pledge allegiance to the United States so as to become bona fide members of the American polity and work from within. “Democratic patriotism,” he says, does not mean mindless genuflection but recognition that the United States is complex and multihued, continually washed over by powerful crosscurrents from both the left and the right. Instead of condemning American power in toto, he maintains that leftists should “acknowledge–and wrestle with–the dualities of America: the liberty and arrogance twinned, the bullying and tolerance, myopia and energy, standardization and variety, ignorance and inventiveness, the awful dark heart of darkness and the self-reforming zeal.” One senses that Gitlin could go on in this pseudo-Whitmanesque fashion for pages at a time. Still, the bottom line seems to be that loving America is a must for leftists, but so is criticizing it, because that is what real love requires.
This is a familiar argument, but not a coherent one. Although The Intellectuals and the Flag never makes it clear exactly why leftists should love their country, a number of possibilities present themselves. There is the tactical argument, for one, which holds that leftists should conform to local custom and profess patriotism because that is the only way to enter “the mainstream.” There is the practical argument that leftists should wake up and recognize that internationalism has failed and that the nation-state is the only remaining democratic arena. Instead of denigrating America, they should be more supportive. And then there is the emotional argument, the idea that we all hold dear some concept of a homeland–Heimat, in German–because, to quote Brecht, “the bread tastes better there, the air smells better, voices sound stronger, the sky is higher, the ground is easier to walk on.” Since we live in the land of hot dogs, baseball and apple pie, it’s only natural to be loyal to it.
Yet none of these positions really holds water. The trouble with the tactical argument is that it rings with insincerity. Love is not something one expresses in order to gain political advantage; rather, love has to be heartfelt to be real. The practical argument is not persuasive, simply because the nation-state’s record has been so obviously negative over the past century or so. The United Nations, the European Union, not to mention the former Soviet-sponsored Comecon (i.e., the East European Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) and indeed the former USSR itself, all arose out of the belief that the nation-state was an outmoded form that could only lead to stepped-up war and repression and that it had to be replaced with something newer and more expansive. Although some have tried to fudge the difference by arguing that patriotism is permissible as part of an international community of peace-minded patries, the fit between patriotism and internationalism has never been a comfortable one.
The emotional argument founders simply because the nation-state does not necessarily equate with Heimat. America is a country torn by cultural warfare. There is no reason for a liberal New Yorker or Californian to feel more at home in, say, Texas than in Toronto or Paris, even though these cities lie outside the confines of the legal entity known as the United States. “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” said Edmund Burke. Yet “lovely” is the last word many Americans would use to describe “their” country, with its strip malls, evangelical churches and right-wing talk-radio.
And, finally, there is the moral-ideological argument that America is superior to other nations–fairer, more just and more democratic–and that it is hence entitled to our special admiration and respect. But this is actually a very dangerous one from a patriotic point of view. After all, one can’t merely assert that one’s country is morally superior. One must prove it, which implies not only a common international standard to measure it against but also the possibility that, once the sifting and winnowing is over, the nation in question will stand exposed as no better than other nations in its class and maybe even worse. If the former is the case, then it is not entitled to any special regard, while if it’s the latter, then it is actually entitled to less. If we agree that political morality is to be the final determinant, then we must agree that one should not be loyal to one’s country as a matter of course.
The notion of a common international standard implies something else: the importance of an international perspective. Patriotism “privileges” one viewpoint above all others, the view from within the fishbowl as opposed to those from without. This is true for any form of patriotism, but it is especially the case for the United States, the oldest republic on the face of the earth, the most insular and the most powerful (despite the deepening disaster in Iraq). By encouraging Americans to turn inward, patriotism allows them to turn their backs on the outside world, something all too easy in a nation of 300 million people bounded, as it has been said, by insignificant military powers to the north and south and by fish to the east and west. Yet the result, paradoxically, is not to disengage from the world at large but to strike out in an increasingly brutal and erratic fashion.
This is what made 9/11 such a turning point. Previously, Americans paid little attention as the government unleashed reactionary violence on faraway countries they knew little about. But when forces fueled and financed by Washington turned on their erstwhile sponsor and unleashed frightening violence within the United States, their reaction was one of rage and panic. Instead of reassessing their international role, Americans immediately responded by demanding that defenses be reinforced and the great American bubble be restored. With remarkable rapidity, Americans fell into line as Washington began lashing out at an array of enemies from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East. Stepped-up patriotism led to a breakdown in democracy not only by encouraging an atmosphere of wartime authoritarianism but by discouraging anything by way of an objective international comparison that would enable Americans to see how far they had fallen. Patriotism robs people of perspective. By requiring them to turn their gaze inward, it encourages them in the view that their country is sui generis, a case apart, and therefore not to be judged on the same basis as other countries. While “democratic patriotism” may leave some room for criticism of specific conditions, it shields the nation as a whole by turning it into an object of veneration at exactly the moment when unsparing criticism from top to bottom is most required.
Yet rather than calling for less veneration, Gitlin is calling for more. This would seem to make no sense, but perhaps that is the point. As the title of his new book suggests, Gitlin aims his argument at American intellectuals, a group he never attempts to define although at times he seems to regard it as synonymous with the left. In seeking to advance a deliberately incoherent argument, perhaps he is seeking to de-intellectualize the intelligentsia, to somehow pressure it–and, by extension, Americans in general–into thinking less. This, after all, is what authoritarianism does: By inducing people to worship artificial totems, it encourages them to switch off their critical faculties. The result is greater compliance and less independent thought, a win-win situation for the right.
Not surprisingly, The Intellectuals and the Flag fairly abounds with political misjudgment regarding other topics as well. Nearly as angry at the Bush Administration these days as he is at those to his left, Gitlin writes that the mindless “repetition of stock phrases–‘war on terror,’ ‘axis of evil,’ ‘root causes'”–is somehow impeding “public discussion of how this state of affairs came to pass and what can be done about it.” Those trying to figure out why the attack on the World Trade Center occurred are thus no better than those who insist that Al Qaeda did it because “they hate our freedoms.”
Gitlin insists that “patriotism has no quarrel with robust dissent,” a statement that is little short of stunning considering not only the decline in political debate since 9/11 but his own role in squelching it. He argues that patriotism can serve as a useful basis for mobilization against Bushonomics and corporate ripoffs: “Americans did not take much reminding that when the skyscrapers were on fire, they needed fire fighters and police officers, not Enron hustlers or Arthur Andersen accountants. Yet we confront an administration that gaily passes out tax largesse to the plutocracy, whose idea of sacrifice is that somebody in a blue collar should perform it for low wages.” But as he should know from his history books, populism and patriotism can make for an explosive combination. Nationalist anger at un-American plutocrats in corporate boardrooms can lead all too easily to nationalist anger at un-American intellectuals in the universities and the press.
Gitlin also offers a halfhearted defense of the war in Iraq. While complaining that Bush’s reasons for going to war were “shabby, sloppy, and evasive,” he insists that “the other powers’ approach” was also deficient and that overthrowing the Iraqi Baathists was not without its “virtues.” Like Thomas Friedman, he evidently regards Iraq as the right war fought for the wrong reasons. Citing his fellow Dissent-nik Paul Berman, Gitlin bravely inveighs against Islamic fundamentalism as “a poisonous, nihilist, totalitarian creed allied, in its ideological DNA, to fascism and communism.” But he neglects to explain why, if Islamic fundamentalism and Soviet Communism are ideological brothers, they would fight a war to the death in Afghanistan and why the United States would provide the Afghan mujahedeen with billions of dollars in military aid. After all, ideological kin are more often allies than enemies. He also writes that “for a century…there has been no more murderous force in the world than totalist ideologies” such as Stalinism, Maoism and the radical peasant autarchy of the Khmer Rouge. This is a common sentiment these days, but what about democracy, socialism and science? They are equally “totalist,” yet have been immensely liberating. Pace Gitlin, it is impossible to change society from top to bottom without a theory as to how it functions as a totality.
Finally, making a show of progressive politics, Gitlin criticizes America’s runaway energy appetite. “Oil makes the United States grovel before Saudi tyrants,” he declares. “Oil lubricated the disastrous U.S. support for the brutal shah of Iran…. Oil floated the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.” True enough, dubious grammar notwithstanding. But oil as a motivating force behind Bush’s invasion of Iraq? Forget about it. Gitlin doesn’t even mention the possibility, presumably because it runs counter to his thesis that the war was a well-intentioned, if badly executed, attempt to rid the world of a noxious tyrant. He is apparently one of those naïve souls who, to quote the dreaded Noam Chomsky, believe that the United States “would have invaded Iraq if it was an island in the Indian Ocean and its main export was pickles, not petroleum.”
One could go on, but why bother? The Intellectuals and the Flag is yet more evidence that the incompetence that has led to the greatest foreign-policy disaster in memory is not limited to Congress or the White House but extends across the entire foreign-policy establishment, from the on the right to Dissent on the left. In surrendering to the ecstasies of flag-worship, Gitlin and his co-thinkers turned off their critical faculties at exactly the moment they should have been turning them up to the maximum. The consequences have not been pretty in America or Iraq, and they look as if they’re only going to get worse.