George Kateb is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, where he joined the faculty in 1987. He is well known for his writing on individualism, political life and American democracy, notably in his books Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (1984), The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (1992) and Emerson and Self-Reliance (1994). In Patriotism and Other Mistakes (2006), a collection that includes several essays written in the aftermath of 9/11, Kateb presented his fullest treatment yet of patriotism and nationalism as political, moral and aesthetic concepts. He has subsequently expanded on ideas first discussed there, including in a talk entitled “The Oddity of Patriotism” that was presented at the New School for Social Research in New York last October. Two weeks before the talk, in September 2019, we discussed what nation-states are for, why intellectuals should never endorse group identity, and how Kateb defends his claim that “patriotism is no virtue, except in disguise.”
Jon Baskin: You state in your book Patriotism and Other Mistakes (2006) that patriotism is a mistake twice over: 1) it is a grave moral error, and 2) its source is mental confusion. Can you say more about these two mistakes?
George Kateb: I say patriotism is a mistake because for patriots, it is a moral mistake. It is almost always the direct or indirect source of vice, wrongdoing, harm, the infliction of suffering and the endurance of suffering. It facilitates war and by facilitating wars, which are mostly unnecessary and unjustifiable according to historical record, increases the total amount of human suffering. War may have other advantages but the cost is always too great. If it’s said that some diseases could not be cured without the military research inspired by wartime, that doesn’t move me at all. (The research should have been there and probably was there. It didn’t grow out of nothing. War may have simply added more money to it and less time required to develop it. But that doesn’t justify war.)
The second mistake is an intellectual one. It assumes a country is a real object worthy of devotion, worthy of killing and dying for. It is an engine for wars. Could there be wars without abstractions? That’s the question. And I don’t think so. I think they require loyalty to something other than the people around oneself, and therefore always involve some kind of abstraction not known as abstraction but thought to be a real thing, a country, as if my country were just there as a fact of nature. That is, as opposed to being an incredible composite abstraction that has tremendous power over the minds of people. So, patriotism is a moral mistake and an intellectual mistake, a mistake twice over. We are all subject to it. We are all patriots before some of us detach ourselves sufficiently to look again at this phenomenon. And that’s what I mean by mistake.
JB: It’s interesting you say we’re all patriots before we detach ourselves because, if I read you correctly, you reject that it’s a natural attachment. So what do you mean that we’re attached to a country from birth? Is it because it’s passed down to us?
GK: Exactly. It’s common, almost universal, that it is inculcated into us generation after generation. Who started it? I don’t know. I don’t think Adam did, so maybe shortly after Adam. That love of country becomes entwined with ourselves and our egos. It is very hard to take a good look at it because it is so common, it is thought to be natural. If it’s natural then it is therefore often thought to be desirable, like love of other things. Love of country becomes like love of parents, partners, children, family and other objects. While many objects of love contain an abstraction to their very core, that is not true of love of person. That’s where eros really does its natural work.
JB: Reading your recent paper on patriotism [delivered at the New School in October 2019, as “The Oddity of Patriotism”], you mention patriotism is different than the love of family, which people often equate, but you want to make a real category distinction. That makes me wonder how the distinction is made.
GK: Well, love of family is the love of actual persons. I can’t go back to the base or find a way underneath the base. Either you love a person or you don’t. To be sure, some don’t like their parents or partners, divorce is proof of that, and children often dislike their siblings. I don’t deny that. But if that were the rule of life, there would be no life. For the most part we say that children love their parents, especially their mothers, I assume, though fathers do come in for a good bit of love because fathers extend a good share of parental love. It’s not only mothers who love their children. Walk around the streets of any town and you’ll see doting fathers taking care of their children, making sure they don’t cross the street at a red light, etc. This is not mechanical behavior, it comes out of some deep love. Yes, some fathers, if they happen to see a stranger’s child suddenly dart across the street, would intervene to call the kid back even though the kid is not his own, but generally the love of people is not a love of abstraction. I understand that Pascal did say that if friends knew what they said about each other there wouldn’t be four friends. Sure, friends beat up on each other behind their backs, but they still love one another. That goes also for domestic love and the love of children and parents.
So often as all human things are, they’re prone to deviation and ambiguity. There are always exceptions. With abandoned children, some are never loved, not even by their parents. But the preponderance of evidence is that love of persons exists and is genuine and is, as I say, ambivalent and sometimes even compromised, but it is still the love of something that is real. You can see it every day or have seen it every day or could see it again every day. To be sure, the law has its categories: this one is “my child” or “my uncle” and so on. No doubt about it, the law helped define objects of love, but it did not create them.
JB: Why not think that “fellow citizens” is just an extension of that kind of love that then begets some kind of patriotism or a defense of one’s own which extends beyond the immediate family? There’s a certain kind of conservative—say, Alasdair MacIntyre, whom you’ve cited as an interlocutor—who would say the place where you come from is not an abstraction. The things local to us can be connected to us in ways we can’t be connected to people in other parts of the world.
GK: Well, I don’t know about that. Think of how many people emigrate. People move all around the surface of the globe. They change their country, their loyalties and affiliations. Many of us in this country are separated by only two or three generations from the country of our ancestors. And they move because they love something other than the country in which they were born. Some were reluctant but many couldn’t wait. Not only in the U.S. but some couldn’t breathe anymore or had to find places where they could work.
What is the country? In the U.S. there are 330 million people over a territory spanning three million square miles. There are also bases and acquired territory around the world. You don’t love the country. You might have loyalty to it, a preference for it over some other countries. But that is a separate issue, and I do try to take that issue up as well when I discuss the social contract in my recent writing. There are certain attachments and devotions to a just social contract, but love?
I don’t mean to suggest you should hate it. You can’t hate the country just like you can’t love it: you can hate policies, leaders, your state, the town you live in, you may dream of one day moving, maybe not to another country necessarily but that too. People can leave America just as well they can come here.
So, don’t love your country, but be attached to its constitution if it is good for you and your fellow citizens. Then you hope that by extension it will be good for people beyond the borders, as principles of a good constitution would dictate even if they are never followed beyond the borders. Justice need not be something personal and it is not the same thing as love. Devotion to a principle can be genuine as people do live and die for it. But it is not like devotion to someone whom you love and for whom you would be willing to die, as parents have had to do sometimes for their children’s sake.
That’s why I want to insist on the difference between love of person, love of principles and love of abstraction. By love of principles I mean devotion to principles, not love in any sense that Freud talked about, not eros or friendship but devotion. Then there’s commitment to an abstraction, not of principle but to an entity thought to be natural, something really there like a person is. It can’t be helped. You grow up as a child and hear the national anthem and patriotism is inculcated. This only scratches the surface, I understand. But I would make a lot out of the difference between people and abstractions like countries and religion. Maybe there are other examples we could give as well.
JB: You seem especially interested in the relationship of intellectuals to patriotism. You describe patriotism as an inevitable mistake for everyone, but you seem to think it’s particularly blameworthy for intellectuals to defend or justify patriotism. Why do you think that?
GK: I know it’s presumptuous to say so, but as someone who is 88 years old, I think I will not curb my usual presumptuousness anyway: I think if you think straight, you will avoid these confusions. But not only that, patriotism is partiality—it is love for what is one’s own and dislike of what is not. That’s fine in the family when everyone is doing it by necessity, it cancels each other out for the most part. But to think that the object of someone’s love has this abstract extension and is worthy of the word “love” strikes me as a mistake people often make but which you don’t expect intellectuals who are paid to think about life would make. We expect better of them.
I do take up this postmodern wish to justify people’s beliefs in what the postmodern intellectuals know themselves to be false. That’s probably the worst sin against the life of the intellect in recent times. Richard Rorty, a wonderful person and thinker, wrote to instill a sense of patriotism in our country. It is unworthy of him. I don’t mean to speak ill of the recently dead, and someone I respect and admire, but he didn’t know what he was doing. He should know a philosopher isn’t supposed to defend partiality because partiality is next door to injustice. It is self-preference, whether it is the personal self or your self enlarged by the absorption of other persons or by abstraction. You have to avoid the bloating of abstraction most of all. It seems to me that Rorty doesn’t question or avoid inflation. I don’t know what started him on that road.
JB: You’re referring to Achieving Our Country (1998), where Rorty talks about the political danger of the left turning against the idea of patriotism. I’d like to try to defend something he says in that book because I think it gets to the heart of the logic of liberal patriotism. Rorty says something that I think would resonate with people like my parents, who would identify as secular, Jewish, in some sense patriotic, liberal Americans. He says, roughly: I’m a patriot because I want my country to be better. He goes on to say that patriotism expresses itself in the desire to make the country better, that you have to have pride in something to commit to the kind of sacrifices it takes to make it better. I wonder what you think of the function of pride in country to inspire us to improve it.
GK: Well, I want this country to be better because I’m committed to its principles. I define “better” as fidelity to the principles which are moral and legal, moral being the real category. I want the country to approach, ever more closely, the best practicable moral principles. But the trouble is—and here I’m haunted by the adage that “for every advance there is a retreat”—there is constant advancement but also constant regression. When one aspect of American life improves, not all aspects improve at the same time or at the same rate. In the way I’ve just put it, you don’t have to incorporate “love of country” into what you say. You instead say you are committed to certain principles and the success of the country is owed in large to these principles. Anyone can adopt these principles and the country is good because of them. The principles are not good because they are the country’s principles. That’s just the natural tendency to say because it’s mine it has to be good. That’s what a patriot is always thinking: this country is mine so it has to be good. That would be to love the country more than its principles, or to maintain that the principles are good because they’re the country’s. Love of principles directly, that’s what a philosopher can do. I don’t want intellectuals to backslide, as they’re wont to do.
JB: That’s helpful. So you can stand up for these principles, but the tendency to make it about your country, that by advancing the country you advance the principles, is where you run into trouble.
GK: Yes, and when the principles are added you don’t worry too much about abandonment.
JB: So to introduce another, older defense of intellectual patriotism, there’s also the Socratic view. As represented by Plato, Socrates makes a lot of the fact that the intellectual owes something to the society that educated him. From this point of view, there’s a piety or loyalty the intellectual ought to have toward their society, precisely because it is his and played some part in making the philosopher a philosopher. One form that loyalty can take is either to be a patriot or support patriotism.
GK: Well, I’m appalled by the way Plato cynically uses Socrates in the Crito especially. That’s the key text in which he defends treating your country as if it were your parents. He says you must love it for the fact that it gave your parents the ability to become parents by defining marriage and childhood through law and so on. Therefore you must love your city and be prepared to die for it? Well, no. Because once you say that, you can be sure people will take advantage of that sentiment and ensure the country will have occasion to take your lives or the lives of others, as if that’s what they existed for.
The same goes for, as I wrote in a previous paper, William James and the blood debt that individuals owe their society. This is even worse than what is in Crito. Shame on William James. James is usually a careful thinker worthy of our reading, but in his Moral Equivalent of War (1910) he defends peace in such a way as to make war more attractive. He talks about blood debt and the debt of one’s life to one’s country. That makes us all instrumental to God knows what. Certainly abstraction with abstract purposes engineered by particular officeholders. This is not good.
Yes, any discussion of patriotism should begin with Crito. Though I don’t think it’s very Greek anyway. When the Greeks gave their lives to the city, they were not doing it for their parent city, they were dying because that was what men were supposed to do. It was an aspect of masculinity.
JB: There’s yet another sort of justification that intellectuals give for patriotism which goes back to MacIntyre and can be seen today in many of the Catholic nonliberal intellectuals. This is where what you call the “aesthetic” dimension comes into play. For some intellectuals, the nation-state, or at least attachment to groups, whether religion or local ways of life, is part of a way of being that they see as tied to a defense of pluralism and wanting to protect difference from a liberal universalizing tendency. They seem to see this universalizing tendency as not only dangerous (i.e. potentially totalitarian), but also as ugly, as in aesthetically undesirable.
GK: I’m skeptical. I believe there’s a great kind of pluralism, which is the distinctiveness of each individual even in the same society with similar mores and language. Having the same morals and language tends to homogenize but won’t if there is something which inspires particular individuals to individuate themselves. What you have before you is a continuing demonstration of the unpredictability of human beings based on their reservoir of potentiality, which in many circumstances is inexhaustible and unpredictable. Life is a continuous confluence of surprise because individuals have certain resources they were unaware of and find themselves doing things they didn’t rehearse or plan to do. There is such a thing as spontaneity. This is true of individuals and therefore it’s individual pluralism that demands my respect above other kinds.
Concerning the pluralism of countries, in Perpetual Peace (1795) Kant talks about language and religion as the main sources of human differentiation. That’s group differentiation. You can travel from New York to Chicago and, even there, there’s big differences despite the fact that Chicago resembles New York and every other city in American society. Yet it’s different in so many respects. What we want is Chicago and New York to be different, we want pluralism within society on a group basis and between countries despite homogenizing effects. Why do we want this? Above all, because it shows the human capacity to do what is different and unpredictable, follow many paths, travel many roads, in a concerted effort, with others. That’s what makes it wonderful to go from New York to Chicago and from New York to London. From London to Paris. And Paris to Rome. Rome to Athens.
Guided by Kant, language and religion make a big difference in differentiation on a larger scale. It is wonderful to the eye, nourishing to the spirit. But above all, and this is forgotten, pluralism doesn’t matter unless it shows human potentiality, which is the basis of human capacity. It is the undefeatable human ability to create and to surprise. In that respect, we are not like any other species. I insist on human distinctiveness and I always have. From the human perspective, there are enormous differences between Chicago and New York, Athens and Rome, the United States and Canada. Not to mention the United States and Mexico or Mexico and Japan. Or Japan and Thailand. There are cooperative and coordinated group differences. The pluralism of groups is nothing I would belittle. But above all it is individual pluralism that I would want to defend, especially when it seems to be overpowered by the various phenomena of group pluralism.
JB: Do you feel that between 2000, when you wrote that first piece, to now, the emphasis on groups on the left and right has grown?
GK: It keeps coming and when it appears to be gone, it’s never gone. It takes different forms, perhaps different entities. America has always been a groupish society. Tocqueville is a keen analyst of this. He saw it as the strength of democracy; he feared the isolation of individualism, of involuntary group membership.
JB: Right, and there are many of these critics today who think individualism is the problem.
GK: That’s generally because they equate individualism with economic selfishness and there is more to individualism than that: there’s Emerson, Whitman, James, Thoreau; the American practice and encouragement of individuals. It is a question that will always be asked without a satisfactory answer: What is the nature of this pluralism, the nature of the individual? Is it genuine individuality that we have or is it an imitation? And how about the groups that are formed: Is it gregariousness, against isolation as Tocqueville thought, or are the groups too a form of individual self-expression?
JB: Do you think Emerson or Thoreau would describe themselves as patriotic?
GK: I end the essay “Is Patriotism a Mistake?” with a quotation from Thoreau to the effect that “patriotism is a maggot in their heads.” I think what he meant is that it’s a distraction from our concern with ourselves as moral beings. Did he want the U.S. to be defeated in a war? Well, yes and no. He wanted us to be defeated in the Mexican-American War, which he thought was an abhorrent operation done with slave power and Northern cooperation to extend slave territory. He wanted the U.S. to never have gone to war, or to lose once they entered.
JB: As an alternative to patriotism, you reject cosmopolitanism. Instead, you suggest “worldliness.” What’s the difference?
GK: I associate worldliness with Hannah Arendt, whose writings have meant a great deal to me over time. Worldliness is a commitment to the sheer pluralism of societies, exemplifying human creativity, never fully realized but never fully suppressed. To be worldly is to take an interest in what is not oneself or one’s own. You don’t have to travel a lot to be worldly. Worldly people won’t be too shocked by the change in the surface of life. It matters when holding to moral principles that those don’t change. To a worldly person, the surface of life, if it changes, interests and attaches them more firmly to life. A worldly person enjoys the world and is eager to see differences on the surface. These aren’t likely to be group differences. Just take a walk on Addison or Fifth or Nassau here at Princeton and you see different human beings who walk differently and relate to each other in different ways.
JB: I was happy to hear you note the difference between economic selfishness and the individualism of Emerson and Thoreau, which often gets lost in the way intellectuals talk about individualism on both the left and the right. One thing I would still want to know is whether you acknowledge the threat or danger to groups when there’s no protection in place for group pluralism, that we would see less individual differentiation when groups cannot be sustained and differentiated.
GK: That’s a good question and a difficult one: Does group differentiation contribute to individual differentiation? One thing I can say is that it’s possible individual difference is simply small changes in the group with no application outside it. Sometimes there’s a religious movement inside an organized religion and that changes their belief. Okay, that shows individuation, that shows creativity: it came out of who knows where. But the reform of a religion is not the same thing as an individual doing something with their life. They’re different phenomena. I like the notion of an open road. Of moving around on an individual basis. Your question is a good one and I really haven’t made adequate room for the thought that in group life, there is constant tendency to change and fissure.
JB: And group life might in some way provide protection from homogenizing. The criticism, from the left and right, of a liberal-capitalist culture is that there’s this tendency to homogenize. I wonder how you protect the diversity of individual ways of life when you have these powerful systems in place.
GK: Notice the individuality of the group depends on the homogeneity of those in the group. If you have five groups and each group is different than the other four, but within each group people are more or less the same, what is the advantage?
JB: The topic of the symposium is “What are nation-states for?” I’m wondering what you think the answer is. You say a lot of things you think the nation-state is not for, but do you see things it is good for besides being a necessary evil?
GK: I don’t know. There’s a positive good with the attachment of many evils. The positive good is that it makes a worthy social contract possible. Like how Kant believed in an international federation of republics. But each republic would be distinct and have its own constitution that conforms to the same principles. Yet language and religion would still be where differentiation happened. What a nation-state is for is to make genuine and real a just social contract because the globe is not yet a place where there can be one just social contract, one contract of justice. Therefore the greatness of the U.S. lies in its constitution, not in its military prowess.
JB: Would you say the ideal would be for the globe to have one social contract?
GK: A federation of contracts would be good. Would there be one global constitutional authority? I don’t know. Nations can disintegrate into warring factions and that’s the trouble. The question you’re asking has no answer I can provide. It’s so hard a question I can’t think of something which would satisfy me.
This interview is part of our new issue 22 symposium, “What are nation-states for?” Subscribe now with the code NATION for 25% off to receive issue 22 and two more issues of The Point.