A Little More Mystic Nationalism

December 4th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Will Wilkinson.

Jonah Goldberg has posted further thoughts on patriotism and nationalism. I think we agree that, in the American context, the distinction between nationalism and patriotism doesn’t come to much. And Jonah agrees that patriotism can be dangerous, but says that the poison is in the dose. I don’t disagree. Our disagreement then is over the point past which a therapeutic dose becomes toxic. My contention is that American patriotism is barely distinguishable from militarism and has been a necessary element in the choice to invade and occupy Iraq, in public support for the unjust imprisonment and state-sanctioned torture of foreigners, and in the erosion of domestic civil rights under the aegis of an imaginary “global war on terror.”

Jonah’s argument goes something like this. Non-rational love is both natural and necessary. It binds people to one another and to shared institutions. Without “a little mystic nationalism,” our rights and liberties would be endangered, perhaps even gone altogether. In particular,  Jonah says “Wilkinson’s mockery wouldn’t be possible if thousands of Americans hadn’t died in an effort to defend his right to mock.”

I hear this argument over and over, and every time it smacks of theft over honest toil.

In the counterfactual world in which the U.S. never entered World Wars I and II, are we less free? Jonah doesn’t know and neither do I. In the counterfactual world in which the American colonies remained in the orbit of the British Empire, are we less free? In the counterfactual world in which the North seceded from the South, as some abolitionists recommended, was emancipation accelerated or delayed?  We do not know. I am fairly confident that all those who died fighting in Vietnam and Iraq did little or nothing to secure our rights to mock. Jonah I’m sure disagrees. But this gets to the heart of our larger disagreement. Where I see an outrageous, repulsive waste of life, Jonah is inclined to see a valiant and tragically necessary defense of the uniquely excellent American way of life. Where I see dangerously toxic patriotic truculence, Jonah is inclined to see the doughty fighting fiber that kept the Huns from our shores.

In any case, it is easy to concede the point that our freedom was bought with blood without conceding that the blood of every fallen American airman, seaman, soldier, and marine bought freedom. Indeed, I can concede the point while continuing to maintain that (a) war generally is disgusting organized mass murder prettified by the majesty of politics and elevated by stirring nationalist appeals, that (b) patriotism tends to makes citizens unthinkingly docile in the face of their state’s calls to war, and that (c) war is the health of the state and among the greatest of all threats to freedom.

As Jonah suggests, tribalism is natural and probably inevitable. Which is why more than a little encouragement is more than enough. The value of liberal rights and a liberal order are clear enough that free people do not need more than a dram of nationalist fortification to rise to liberty’s defense. Liberty is best loved when it is loved because it is good — because it makes possible a rightful order. Liberty is neglected when it is loved merely because it’s what we, the folks in these parts, happen to tell each other we love. An ongoing culture of liberty certainly makes us readier to grasp liberty’s real worth. But a culture in which the love of freedom is too easily confused with an admiration of martial virtue is a culture likely to find itself sooner or later at war with some imagined enemy and its own liberal values.

To say that the love of one’s own can be dangerous, even when liberal values happen to be one’s own, is not to ask of people an inhuman detachment from the meaningful concrete commitments of everyday life. It is simply to note that in a truly civil society, free people act collectively on the basis of public reasons, not shared prejudices. If American blood courses with patriotism beyond the therapeutic dose, life and liberty both are at risk. To brush off such concerns as so much Frenchified abstraction is to put conservative identity politics before liberty and life. I leave it to the patriots to consider which concern is more authentically “American.”

Jonah found my reply to his original post “vile.” For my part, I find the death of tens of thousands in illegitimate wars unspeakably vile. It is a duty to vehemently oppose and discourage them. Here are some questions I have for Jonah: (1) Had American patriotism been rather more subdued in the months and years following 9/11, do you think the invasion of Iraq would have occurred? (2) In what way has the occupation of Iraq made the rights of Americans more secure? (3) Do you agree that the practice of draping the coffins of soldiers killed at war with the national flag makes it more rather than less likely that young men and women will choose to risk death as a soldier? That it makes it more rather than less likely that citizens will see these as noble and necessary deaths, whatever the legitimacy, aim, and consequences of the war?

[Read the original at Will Wilkinson (2009-12-04)...]

I’m Prepared To Give My Life For This Or Any Country

January 31st, 2009

From Curtis Stalbank in The Onion:

As a true patriot, I would gladly die in battle defending my homeland. I love my country more than my own life. But I would also be more than willing to give my last breath in the name of, say, Mexico, Panama, Japan, or the Czech Republic. The most honorable thing a man can do is lay down his life for his country. Or another country. The important thing is that it’s a country.

Like those heroes who spilled their blood fighting for independence against the British Empire, I, too, would forfeit everything to win for my countrymen the right to be governed by politicians in our own capital instead of in a capital located further away. Nothing is more profound or more sacred than to die for one’s country, an adjacent country, or some other, foreign country.

The truth is, there are a lot of countries, each of which is the most noble cause possible to die for. I only regret that I have but one life to lose for but one country.

I would not hesitate to give my life for or against any other noble nation. Come to think of it, I would even die for a neutral third party caught in the crossfire during a heroic peacekeeping effort, just so long as my death would be in some way related to a country of some kind. That’s how committed I am to the concept of nationalism.

The bottom line is that the current boundaries of a nation are worth protecting at all costs. Otherwise, what would so many brave and patriotic souls have lost their lives for?


Without nationalism, our deaths in the countless wars we constantly wage to defend our own nations against others defending their own nations against us would seem arbitrary, almost meaningless. But as long as we have a higher purpose—the love of whatever country we happen to be fighting for—we will always know we did not lose our lives in vain.

Curtis Stalbank, The Onion (2007-03-28): I’m Prepared To Give My Life For This Or Any Country