On Patriotism - Liberal Resistance

On Patriotism

Reflections on its Scope and Limits and the Priority of Justice
By Michael E. Berumen

Some years ago, I read something in the newspaper that Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt said about patriotism that has stuck with me. To paraphrase, he said that it was glib and facile to think patriotism merely means love of country, an easy and painless thing to do. By implication, therefore, patriotic exhortations, flag-waving, and standing hand-over-heart for the national anthem are not nearly enough to qualify as patriotic. He said one must also be willing to defend and support one’s country in exigent times. That, he believed, was what separated sunshine patriots from the real ones. He was specifically declaiming against some neo-conservatives who would consign youth to fight a faraway war (in Iraq) when they themselves were unwilling to do so when young and called upon to fight in other wars. As I recall, he was specifically referring to comments made by neo-conservative godfather, Norman Podhoretz. He took some shots at the late actor John Wayne, too, who spent decades cultivating an image of hyper-masculinity and of being a patriotic stalwart, but who nevertheless escaped military service in WWII with questionable draft classifications. Sound familiar?

Reinhardt quoted a standard lexical definition of patriotism that included the phrase defends one’s country, along with loving and supporting it. He was basically saying that elites who extol the virtues of patriotism often neglect its concomitant duties, finding it easier to delegate the demanding parts to the boys and girls of Main Street, rural America, and the inner cities, while simultaneously enshrouding themselves in the flag and decrying those who do not share their fervor for war as unpatriotic. By the same token, while Reinhardt did not state this explicitly, I think one could infer from his comments that it is equally patriotic to protest against the injustices inflicted by one’s country, including unjust wars, and particularly when such protests cause one to risk reputation or personal liberty, which is to say, when one is willing to suffer the consequences of one’s actions.

Let me get my own bona fides out of the way. I served in the military from 1969-1972. I was a teenager from a working-class family, barely seventeen, and I volunteered with my parents’ permission. I was interested in girls, rock ‘n roll, science, and mathematics, and I hadn’t a clue about the issues surrounding the war then raging in Southeast Asia. I had some feelings of patriotism, of course, but truthfully, I enlisted to get away from home and out of a sense of adventure. I was at once stupid and lucky. There was not much hazard to be found in cryptography, which is what I did in the military. While serving, I did become more familiar with current events and I gradually came to doubt the merits of our engagement in Vietnam. Soon after I was honorably discharged and back in college, I became politically active and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), becoming an officer of our local Bay Area chapter. Former Senator and Secretary of State, John Kerry, was one of the senior officers of the VVAW. Later, when he ran for the presidency, he would be unfairly “Swift-boated” by scurrilous Bush supporters for what they perceived as patriotic apostasy and opposition to the war, notwithstanding his personal heroism in combat, and in contrast to the coddled Bush, whose fulfillment of his military contract with the Texas Air National Guard was questionable.

I confess that I have a problem with those who avoided the draft in those days purely out of self-interest via privileged and sometimes bogus deferments, and who did not do so out of conscientious objection–––a noble reason to my mind, and one with which I have no issue–––but rather, who did so out of self-interest or cowardice. I am especially disdainful of those who explicitly supported the war, like the young Donald Trump, while simultaneously taking active measures to avoid military service themselves. Some of these same people, now old and out of harm’s way, are quick to counsel war or engage in bellicose chest-thumping at every turn, posturing as tough-guy alpha males, when their personal biography shows they are physical or moral cowards––or both. Political and business elites are replete with such people, and I have encountered many of them over the decades.

It seems to me the social contract requires us to undertake certain obligations for the state, obligations implied by having accepted and benefited from the various rights and privileges bestowed by the society we inhabit. Among those obligations is the duty to defend one’s country. This is not an original argument. In fact, it is the essence of the Socratic view of civic responsibility––what is owed to the society that gives us sustenance and protection, a view delineated in Plato’s Crito over two thousand years ago. When the country is wrong, however, I think one is also duty-bound to assume moral opposition and take appropriate measures of protest and resistance and to endure the costs under the law (ignominy or even punishment) of doing so imposed by society. It is the latter reasoning, following the laws, which led Socrates to choose death over exile when given a choice and after being convicted for corrupting youth and denying the gods by the Athenian assembly. I would not propose such an extreme measure, but for similar reasons, I applaud those who were against the war and who had the courage of their convictions–––those who resisted the draft from conscience, protested, and then suffered consequences without fleeing to another country. They were right and courageous. That stands in contrast to physical and moral cowards like Trump.

With that said, I do not think the individual soldiers who did their duty by serving in the military were morally culpable for the war, any more than the millions of taxpayers who funded and therefore financed and enabled the war by paying their taxes were blameworthy. I am by no means excusing those few soldiers who violated military or international law and engaged in individual war crimes, such as the massacre at Mai Lai in 1968, among several other moral outrages and malefactions. However, the political leaders who initiated, led, continued, and continually misled the public about this unjust and costly war for over a decade surely were morally culpable.

For many years, now, I have struggled with the very concept of patriotism. Like most people, I have visceral and tribal feelings of fealty towards my country, and I feel proud when I consider some of the noble and remarkable things it has accomplished for its people and for the world as a whole. I can even bristle when it is criticized (not always unjustly) by outsiders. Like many, I, too, get chills from watching a 4th of July parade, seeing the majestic Lincoln monument when lit at night, hearing the Star Spangled Banner, or seeing the rows of headstones at a military cemetery and the mournful sound of Taps. At the same time, I am unable to forget that ours is a country founded to no small degree upon conquest—theft, genocide, kidnapping, slavery, and, moreover, that there are other ignoble things today and in our history, ranging from the endemic violence in our gun-ridden culture, Jim Crow, discriminating against LGBTQ peoples, unequal treatment of women, schemes to overthrow legitimate governments of other sovereign nations, sponsoring assassinations, unfair labor practices, economic privation, to initiating unjust and costly wars. It is impossible for me to reconcile these things with any simplistic version of patriotism. And while I can take pride in many of the things we have done as a country, and while I remain hopeful and optimistic about its future, I am unable to accept “American exceptionalism” as a doctrine that can stand on its own without also saying in equal measure that our nation has also committed evils of the highest order. Saying this, of course, among several other reasons, makes me highly unsuitable for political office, for one must be able to lie at least by omission with a straight face to get elected.

Aside from the historical problems associated with unvarnished patriotism, I have trouble rationally justifying loving or respecting abstract, disembodied entities when considered separately from their particular instances or the consequences of said entities. Thus, notwithstanding my tribal emotions, love of country is intellectually problematic to me given what I know about its history and that I am unable to ignore. Duty to country (or governments, etc.) is something I can understand and adopt as a matter of principle originating in the social contract, and, even more basically, just as a utilitarian means of survival. But countries, governments, humanity, political offices–––they are all essentially abstract entities or concepts, much like the concept of number or the logical concept of modus tollens. It is only in their particulars and in their effects that they take on substantive and non-trivial meanings. I can more easily love some of its people and some of its ideas and actions in the particular. Love of country strikes me as similar to loving a sports team or one’s alma mater. It is a primitive emotion and not one worthy of rational men and women as a raison d’être for their political outlook or as a basis of moral judgment.

Respect is even more problematic than the love of country, for that presumably does not arise from emotion, that is, unless engendered by fear or awe, and then it is not true respect, which ought to arise from ratiocination. But we sometimes employ the term in a way suggesting allegiance without due thought, especially when applied to empty abstractions. For example, I do not respect the “office of the Presidency” any more than I respect office furniture or a building. One often hears talk of respecting an office when people want to distance themselves from the occupant. It’s a weasel phrase. I may have duties that pertain to a particular position or rank, but that is a different matter, not one requiring my respect or love of the position or the person, but just doing my duty, which is to say, fulfilling legitimate obligations towards the officeholder by virtue of either an implicit or explicit agreement. In other words, I am really respecting a principle, an obligation. But there are limits to what I am obligated to do. For example, I am not obligated to respect unlawfulness or immoral acts. I am able to respect duty that arises only from a just principle–––and then, only because of its consequences, and not because of its being a summum bonum in and of itself. More on that in a moment.

I also think it is silly to say I “love” all my countrymen or humanity. I, for one, do not love all of them, singly or collectively, and I do not think others really do, either. I am acquainted with a few thousand people, at most–––and most of them through my travels and former occupation. I do love some of them, to be sure. But I also dislike what many people say and do, and there are many more people who I most certainly do not love. In fact, there are some I do not even like and I do not pretend to like. I do not respect all of them, either. For example, I do not respect or like people who support Donald Trump. I respect and even like many with whom I disagree on political matters. But I will not and I cannot respect or like fascism, misogyny, or racism, all inherent features of Trumpism; therefore, I cannot respect or like those adhering to such views, notwithstanding their other qualities or merely because they are human or even likable in other respects. The foregoing depredations “trump” the other characteristics. What is more, I see no real virtue in loving or respecting humanity. Humanity is yet another abstraction, one useful only for rhetorical flourishes and too unwieldy to have much meaning beyond ornamental oratory from pulpits. I say this notwithstanding the famous statement of my philosophical hero, Bertrand Russell, who said, “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” I don’t think he either believed or practiced that, really, especially the part about forgetting the rest. I have duties towards human beings, however, and that includes every human being in the particular–––human beings who have moral rights (firstly) and legal rights (secondarily), and that is true whether or not I respect or like or love them.

I simply do not buy the Christian “love your neighbor” business, or the idea that I ought to respect everyone. People say those things to say them because they think it sounds polite, pious, or lofty–––or it is an ex cathedra prescription that no one really follows. It is unctuously disingenuous to me, such as, the “love the sinner hate the sin” nonsense one hears from some insincere Christians in reference to homosexuals, who while loving them also smugly believe they will get their just recompense in Hell. Some love. I doubt the sincerity of anyone who says that they love or respect everyone. What I do respect is the fact that my neighbor has rights, even if I do not love or respect him, personally, and that strikes me as a more important and substantive thing than just having a feeling towards them. What is more, I believe it is my moral duty to not violate those rights and to uphold them, notwithstanding any negative sentiments towards him. I cannot help but note that there are many––and especially those of certain religious sects––who pretend to love and respect others, but who most certainly do not respect their rights, whether it is marrying the person they love, having equal rights under the law, or being able to control one’s own reproductive system.

I neither begrudge people their feelings of patriotism or their love for the multifarious symbols and shibboleths that attend it, nor would I try to dissuade people from having what appear to be intrinsic properties of our most rudimentary social and tribal natures. I remain mindful, however, of old Sam Johnson’s admonition that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Am I patriotic? Yes, but not without qualification. I do not confuse this feeling with virtue. I shall continue my skepticism, for patriotic zeal often leads to overlooking or even violating justice, both rights and the concomitant duties that emanate from them, which in their non-juridical forms originate from overarching moral principles, and have precedence over all countries, institutions, laws, offices, symbols, and sentiments. In a just society, the law must attempt to overlap and encompass these moral principles, and institutions ought to be charged with applying them impartially and equally. Bu morality is to law what a constitution is to statutes in its order of precedence. The ultimate objective of government is to create and preserve a just society, after all, and it is justice that deserves our highest loyalty and respect. Now, that would be exceptional–––love and respect for justice because of what it can do for us all, and not for its own sake as some disembodied philosophical abstraction. That is something that I can get behind without any mental reservation.




Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness on health insurance reform. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He still takes on speaking engagements, but on a limited basis. www.cogitoservices.com and www.michaelberumen.academia.edu/