FOR LOVE OF COUNTRY? – SEN, NUSSBAUM, WALZER…

forloveofcountry

I’ve read all sorts of crap pertaining to 9-11, from Bill Bennett’s rambling ranting to Ann Coulter’s foam spattered columns, not to mention the JDL leaflets Jonny hands out at the movie theaters. So it was long past time to check out a book
featuring well thought out arguments from smart people who aren’t
trying to grandstand their way onto “Crossfire.” Although this book was
initially released prior to 9-11, it has been re-released as a 9-11
book because it pertains to one of the central issues to have come up
since the attack. The topic is patriotism, which is one of the
refreshing things about the book. Most people still seem to think that
patriotism isn’t really an issue at all. Even the blindest, most crass
expressions of faith in the stars and stripes are widely applauded. As
a result, the flag has been marketed and exploited to the extent that
it’s the pet rock of 2002. The national mindset was summed up perfectly
by the transitional phase on fast food billboards during which they
went from “God Bless America” to “God Bless America/ Whopper, 99
Cents!”

So it’s high time to take a step back and think about
patriotism, and conveniently enough, you can go to a decent bookstore
and find a copy of this little collection of essays from many of the
biggest names in academia. Academics can be frustrating, of course, and
this book features many of the tendencies that can make reading
academic writing painful. There are several instances of the “you say
tomato/ I say tomato” arguments common among this bunch. There are a
few instances of writers taking pages to say what could be said in a
single sentence, especially Judith Butler, who writes like she’s
playing scrabble. These annoyances are sporadic, however, and the norm
is accessibility and insight. For Love of Country?
is even a bit of a page-turner if you read the chapters in the order of
who’s criticizing whom rather than the order in which they are
presented. I skipped to Sen’s chapter because he’s the man. Sen rips
into Bok and a couple of others so I had to read what they had said and
it just keept going from there. Then, of course, there’s the temptation
to skip to the end to see what Nussbaum says to all of her critics.

The book was launched by an essay on patriotism by Martha
Nussbaum. Everyone with a PhD wrote a response and the best responses
were put into the book, along with Nussbaum’s original essay and her
answer to her critics. Nussbaum’s view is roughly as follows. We
connect to and value people through a series of concentric circles
beginning with ourselves and radiating out to include the nuclear
family, friends, the extended family, communities and so on.
Patriotism, that is, a special bond and obligation to those in our own
country, may have it’s virtues, but given that the country in which a
person is born is essentially arbitrary, patriotism can be dangerous if
it throws those circles out of order. Those aspects of “patriotism”
that teach us to devalue other people on the basis of nationality
should be discarded because nationalistic chauvinism can lead us to
immoral disregard of the well being of the people of other countries
and cultures. Instead, we should emphasize a cosmopolitan outlook
according to which we see ourselves and others as primarily “citizens
of the world,” or members of the Kantian “kingdom of ends.” In other
words, the value of other people as moral agents should take precedence
over their national origin. So a lot of the discussion in the book
winds up being cosmopolitanism vs. Patriotism.

The responses are various and all at least worth reading. I can’t go
through all of them, but I can discuss some of the more common themes.
I believe every contributor recognizes that there are good aspects of
patriotism (although it’s a pretty vague word). For example, it is
pointed out that embracing what is good about one’s country is helps to
perpetuate those virtues. Some even argue that this form of patriotism
is the best basis for the cosmopolitan virtues favored by Nussbaum. For
example, the idea of individual rights as expressed in and learned from
the U.S. Constitution might be the basis for our condemnation of female
circumcision abroad.

One point on which Nussbaum is dead wrong, or perhaps just sloppy with
language, is her talk about the arbitrary nature of nationality, race,
gender and so forth. She sometimes speaks as though she believes (maybe
she does? too much Plato) that we are souls floating down from heaven
who might just as easily land in a female body in France as an male
body in Iran. It is much more likely, of course, that “you” are best
described as something like a mass of characteristics. If you were born
in Iran, of the opposite gender, with a higher IQ a different family a
different race and so on, you wouldn’t be you. “You” would be someone
else. Maybe a better point for Nussbaum’s point of view, is that there
is certainly someone in Iran who has a lot in common with you and to
whom you could relate much better than your next door neighbor.

Hilary Putnam argues that liberal-types often pick out
religion and nationalism as causes of barbarity when they are really
only pretexts. I have to zero in on this point because it is also very
wrong, although it seems plausible at first. Joe may indeed have
barbaric impulses, but religion in particular can do much more than
serve as a pretext for carrying them out. It can nourish and condone
those impulses and, in his mind, remove the consequences of acting on
them. There’s a world of difference between an angry young male and an
angry young male who thinks that the people across the street are
enemies of God and that, if he dies in the act of murdering them, he
will go to heaven.

Nationalism is less effective, but can function similarly. Many felt
and feel that men of draft age should have fought in Vietnam to “honor
their country,” even if they thought that the war effort was morally
wrong. Many of those who killed and died there were hardly jumping on a
pretext to fulfill their natural impulses. I’d imagine that most would
have preferred to stay home but felt that they were acting out of
national duty, or for the sake of honor – “fighting for their country.”
Putnam’s stickier follow up point is that atrocities seem to happen
even without traditional nationalism and religion, as in the USSR. But
this misses the more fundamental point that a necessary condition for
most large-scale atrocities is an “us versus them” mentality. Nussbaum
thinks that we should attempt to minimize that sort of thinking
regardless of whether the us and them are Christians and the damned,
Americans and towel–heads, or Communists and enemies of the working
class. Such thinking may be impossible to eradicate, but she hopes that
by promoting a more cosmopolitan outlook, it can be curtailed.

Nussbaum’s argument reminds me of what Studs Turkel said about the
effectiveness of that famous photo of a naked Vietnemese child running
from napalm in a state of total terror. Looking at the photo, we are
able to see her as our daughter, or perhaps as a neighbor. Part of the
reason for the “failure” of that war was the availability of images
like that one that broke through nationalist abstractions. This
cross-national point of connection is precisely the sort of thing
Nussbaum is arguing for.

The most conservative contributor to the book is probably Michael W.
McConnell, who argues that cosmopolitism is the “by product of an
effective moral education in a great tradition,” namely a religious and
national tradition. He feels that teaching morality outside of these
traditions will lead to something approaching nihilism, arguing that if
children can’t appreciate the achievements of their own culture that
they won’t appreciate those of others. Duh. I think Nussbaum’s point is
that children ought to be able to appreciate both. His broader point is
that, without the sort of patriotic and religious grounding he favors,
“cosmopolitanism” becomes a love of abstract, unattainable principles
rather than of real traditions and real people.

Richard Falk and a couple of others think that Nussbaum has missed the
boat. The forces of consumerism and capital have already discarded
nationalism where it counts. The issue we face in the world today is
not cosmopolitism versus patriotism, but what kind of cosmopolitanism
will prevail: one dictated by corporate interests and unchecked market
forces or one of democracy and human rights. Falk’s points are
interesting, but I found myself wondering if he follows the news much.
Palestinians, Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis, Serbs and Croats, to name
a few, would have something to say about the thesis that national
differences are not significant. More broadly, however, Falk may have a
point in that these conflicts are in some ways minor compared to those
of the World Wars and the Cold War. Perhaps many issues that seem tied
to patriotism are actually more about the conflict Falk discusses and,
if the struggle he outlines really is the more fundamental one, the
patriotic/cosmopolitan distinction becomes scrambled. For example, he
worries that Sweden can no longer be Sweden, as market pressures force
a rollback of the Swedish welfare state in the name of competition. So
one thing at stake is the autonomy of Sweden and other countries. At
the same time, that restriction in autonomy is may be a barrier to
Nussbaum’s ideals for cosmopolitanism, as governments are unable to
ensure rights and privileges that their populations may want or, in
some cases, be morally entitled to.

So in the end, it seems like we wind up with some pretty old lessons
and values, mainly the virtue of moderation. Nussbaum’s ultimate goal
is to promote the idea of humanity as a Kantian “kingdom of ends.”
Patriotism can aid this goal to the extent that incorporating laudable
principles into national identity helps to promote them. So, for
example, we have something like “we Americans believe in freedom of
speech.” If you are too anti-patriotic, you risk loosing these ideals.
But too much patriotism leads the other way: “we Americans believe in
freedom of speech and you Arabs don’t, therefore it’s ok to kill you.”
So the here are some of the next set of questions: where is your
society on the spectrum and what measures ought to be taken to situate
it at an ideal point on the spectrum? At what point does clinging to
our national values lead to insularity and chauvinism? How do these
issues change in the face of globalization? And a lot more. The book
deals with most of these questions and covers a lot of territory in
around 200 pages. Buying a copy is sufficient penance for any of you
who have purchased Ann Coulter’s book.

About Plexico Gingrich

Plexico likes to gamble. He writes for a boxing site which you can visit: here
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