This weekend is Memorial Day weekend.
This morning, on Bill Bennett’s nationally syndicated radio program, his substitute host exchanged reflections upon the significance of patriotism with a fellow from the Claremont Review of Books. I didn’t catch the latter’s name. In any event, though, it’s not relevant, for his view, as well as that of the host’s, is the prevailing view of patriotism.
We are all familiar with it: the American patriot loves his country because of the principles, the ideals, on which it was founded and for which it stands. The American soldier—the most heroic and admirable figure, from this perspective—fights first and foremost to protect and preserve the liberty of people everywhere.
To put it simply, American patriotism is primarily about defending, not the rights of Americans, but human rights. The American patriot, you see, is “a citizen of the world.” And the American soldier, as Ron Paul once said, is “the Universal Soldier.”
This account, however fashionable, faces insurmountable problems. It produces particularly acute problems for the self-avowed conservative.
First, since the American patriot’s is a devotion to principle, he may find himself obligated to side with other countries against his own! This will most certainly be the case if, at any given time, there are non-Americans throughout the world whose commitment to his ideals waxes as that of Americans appears to wane.
It is the universal principle that matters morally. That any country—including America—happens to affirm these principles is incidental.
Second, the popular view of patriotism is of a piece with a view of morality generally that, however common, fails spectacularly to resonate with us on a personal level.
If patriotism requires commitment to universal principles, this is because morality demands commitment to universal principles. Make no mistakes about it: this is exactly the understanding of morality underwriting the dominant position on patriotism. But if morality consists in the observance of universal principles like “human rights,” then one of two things follow.
Either the partiality that we have toward our spouses, our friends, and our families is beyond the moral realm altogether, or it is actually immoral. There is no way to avoid this conclusion. Any morality affirming universal principles requires impartiality. In glaring contrast, the intimate relationships from which we derive our identities—“the little platoons,” as Burke described them—require partiality.
Thus, either patriotism is a moral fiction or our “little platoons” are.
Finally, the most outspoken and impassioned defenders of the current view of patriotism are self-declared “conservatives.” As such, they talk tirelessly about “limited government,” “constitutionalism,” and liberty. But their understanding of American patriotism undercuts this talk.
The United States military is an organ of the federal government. Soldiers, then, are as much agents of the government as are tax collectors and politicians. However, as radio talk show host Dennis Prager—an unabashed proponent of the view of patriotism under discussion—has said often, “the larger the government, the smaller the citizen.”
A government—and military—that is expected to oversee the interests of 300-plus million American citizens must already be larger than any that the Founders could have envisioned. A government with a military that is expected to defend “the rights” of the globe’s six billion or so inhabitants is a monstrosity from which they would have recoiled in horror.
This Memorial Day weekend, let us rethink the prevailing orthodoxy regarding patriotism.