After Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, a number of old books began to sell out. These were books that, (liberal) people hoped, might help explain what we experienced as unthinkable. George Orwell’s 1984 and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism both had a major surge in readers. Another, perhaps more surprising member of this company was the publication of the 1997 William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University, entitled Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, by the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. In academic circles, Rorty is best known as the author of the classic 1979 book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which argued against the notion that our thoughts correspond to reality as it “really is.” If this sort of thing seems an unlikely candidate for a best-seller, well—the Trump years bore stranger fruit.
As it turns out, Achieving Our Country—a decidedly more accessible work than Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—sold out not because of its philosophical acumen but because it had, in the minds of some, “predicted” Trump. In the book’s third lecture, “A Cultural Left,” Rorty argued that the so-called New Left’s exclusive focus on abstract theorization and culture-war sorties—while making American society kinder and more inclusive—would also lead to the virtual abandonment of the working class to the wiles of global corporate elites and, consequently, that this underclass would turn away from socialism or liberalism and toward a revanchist populism. Rorty prophesied that at the point at which working-class Americans realize their betrayal by the (sub)urban elite, “something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.” Whoops.
Less remarked on in the Rorty resurgence is that the book is not actually about prophecies. It’s not even really a screed against the “New Left,” who Rorty credits for saving the older “reformist Left” from the disastrous moral impasse of the Vietnam War. Rather, it is a call for a renewed national pride. In the same way that one of Rorty’s muses, the classical pragmatist William James, wrote “The Will to Believe” to justify the legitimacy of religious belief to a skeptical, modern audience, Rorty’s Achieving our Country seeks to justify the legitimacy of patriotic belief to a cynical contemporary readership. The book opens thus: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” A lack of national pride, Rorty argues, produces a “spirit of detached spectatorship” which makes concrete, melioristic social action impossible. “As long as the American Left remains incapable of national pride,” Rorty warns, “our country will have only a cultural Left, not a political one.”
Rorty was after what is sometimes known as liberal patriotism: a patriotism that was “compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way … and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho ignorance,” but that, nevertheless, could maintain a vision of social hope for the future, a patriotism that could offer, as did John Dewey’s and Walt Whitman’s, “a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilizing Americans as political agents” committed, at best, to a rhetoric “in which America is destined to become the first cooperative commonwealth, the first classless society.”
In our day, the dream of such a liberal patriotism, it seems, remains unrealized. I think it is fair to say that “patriotism” remains in the minds of most liberals and leftists something of a dirty word. Most of us to the left of center would likely reject Rorty’s contention that concrete social and political action requires national pride.
And yet, for some of us, a certain glow of feeling still remains. Growing up in a deep blue town in a deep red state, I never had the slightest use for patriotism. But as I got older and learned more about the nation’s history and landscape, its cultural tapestry and literary inheritance, something began to change for me. I began, despite myself, to take some pride in being a member of the nation of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Zora Neale Hurston, of Niagara Falls and the Sonoran Desert, of the bustling vitality of Chicago and the serene beauty of rural Maine, of political institutions that were, at least in theory, committed to the liberty of conscience and the protection of civil rights. What to do with this inescapable affection?
As an intellectual matter, the project of articulating and defending a liberal patriotism is alive and well. Last year, Steven B. Smith, a political theorist at Yale University, published a book entitled Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes. Toward the beginning of the book, Smith recounts a Fourth of July picnic with friends during which the hostess asked if they all felt “patriotic.” “This question,” Smith confesses, “created a moment of acute embarrassment; it seemed to have breached some unspoken rule of political correctness. Was it even appropriate to ask such a thing?” None of the guests at the picnic except the hostess had flown the flag in their childhood homes. “We then read the Declaration of Independence before tucking into our hamburgers and hot dogs,” Smith goes on, before reflecting on the strangeness of the interaction. “We were celebrating our national founding, and yet for several around the table, the meaning of this celebration was cloudy. It is not that they were unpatriotic but that the language of patriotism had become strangely foreign to them.”
Like Rorty—whom he cites appreciatively—Smith seeks to chart a reasonable, enlightened form of patriotism. Smith sees patriotism as an Aristotelian “mean between two contending vices”: nationalism and cosmopolitanism (the latter being a term of reproach for Rorty as well). Nationalism, Smith says, “is about identity rather than aspiration.” It is “by definition exclusionary,” seeing “the world as a jungle full of deadly threats.” All of the bad, scary features that liberals associate with the word “patriotism” are, on this scheme, really components of its funhouse-mirror contortion, nationalism. Nationalism really is chauvinistic, imperialist, sadistic. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism—while less obviously ethically bankrupt—fails to consider crucial features about human nature and what makes human life significant. “The idea of a world citizen,” Smith argues, “is a contradiction in terms. … A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.” In a clever reversal, Smith claims that the cosmopolitan impulse to transcend the confines of nationality ironically presupposes and reproduces cultural imperialism. “There is nothing more parochial than a European (or an American) singing the praises of cosmopolitanism. It seems to run counter to the virtually universal experience of humankind that regards human identity as shaped by families, religious affiliations, communities, and other groupings.”
In place of either nationalism or cosmopolitanism, Smith recommends an “enlightened patriotism”—a patriotism that is “above all a form of loyalty.” Loyalty is, on Smith’s account, “an affective disposition that grounds our deepest commitments … a feature of moral character that cannot be fully exhausted by rational reflection alone, but is integral to the self.” This account of patriotism as loyalty bears a strong relation to the late nineteenth-century American philosopher Josiah Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty, in which loyalty is defined as the core virtue that guarantees a coherent moral identity to an individual and a reconciliation of the individual to the collective. This is rich, underexplored philosophical ground, and it is the strongest contribution of Smith’s book. In an age where confusion about personal identity is rife, thinking through the ways in which our concrete commitments and attachments shape personal and political identity is important work. This patriotic loyalty, Smith goes on, “is rooted in a rudimentary, even primordial love of one’s own; the customs, habits, manners, and traditions that make us who and what we are.”
What does this mean for Americans? American patriotism, Smith contends, is unique in that it is a “dual structure.” It includes both a cognitive/ideal and an emotional/embodied component. In the former case, Smith writes that “it is not sufficient in America to express loyalty to a tradition or to the ‘fatherland.’ One must be loyal to the set of ideas on which our traditions are based. … Ours is not an ethnic patriotism, born of fantasies of blood and soil, but a patriotism of ideas.” Instead, American patriotism, Smith writes, “requires commitment to the highest, most universal moral principles, including truth itself.” But, as Smith rightly notes, this heady form of patriotism is of a sort “that only a constitutional lawyer could love.” Patriotism “requires not only an understanding and appreciation for a set of abstract ideas, but also their embodiment in a particular history and tradition. … To love one’s country well is to love its founding principles but also the way of life in which those principles are embodied.” Smith’s “enlightened patriotism,” then, includes both a principled and aspirational loyalty to the liberal doctrines embodied in the Constitution, and an affective devotion to a shared way of life, a common ethos that links us Americans together as a common community.
It is here that Smith ties himself in the knot that so often constitutes liberal patriotism. Smith argues for an embrace of our shared ethos as Americans—but does such an ethos exist? America is a pluralistic country through and through. Do Americans really have in common, as Smith suggests, a set of “perceptions, feelings, and beliefs” or “body language, facial expressions, posture, and accent” in which we could all take pride? For Smith, an ethos is “the mix of moral and religious practices, habits, customs, and sentiments that makes a people who they are.” But Smith never considers that there might not be one shared way of life that unites all Americans. At the very least, he does not give due weight to the immensity of the cultural and social divides that cause different Americans to value such different things about their country.
Rorty presupposes that liberal patriotism means, narrowly, “national pride,” whereas Smith conceives of it as “loyalty” that transcends mere pride and “must always be coupled with modesty and humility.” The problem is that, in a truly multicultural and pluralist society, such loyalty would be dependent on some baseline agreement about the grounds of commonality—the ethos that we are loyal to—that has often seemed illusory. Rorty encounters a similar problem insofar as the America that he wants us to take pride in is a thoroughly secularized America that many Americans would not recognize as their own.
So if liberal patriotism is not just pride in secular futurity, as Rorty would have it, or loyalty to a shared ethos, as Smith thinks, can it be anything at all? I think so, but it seems to me that the best writer on the question is, oddly enough, the French religious writer and social theorist Simone Weil. Weil’s L’Enracinement, or in English, The Need for Roots, written in 1943 while she was working on behalf of the Free French in London during the height of World War II, articulates a totally novel theory of patriotism that lies at the opposite extreme of national pride and does not rely on idealistic notions of a common outlook or way of life. For Weil, in short, patriotism is not national pride, but rather national compassion.
Like Smith, Weil wants to discuss patriotism in the context of general human flourishing. According to Weil, there are certain “needs of the soul” that are independent of cultural or historical context. The foremost of these required goods is the need for “rootedness.” “To be rooted,” Weil explains, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” In other words, Weil agrees with Smith (and Royce before him) that human beings are fundamentally social animals, whose lives are (ideally) situated in the context of thick attachments and commitments. We are all formed to some extent by our birthplaces, our local communities and our cultural inheritances; and so to degrade or destroy these links, these potential sites of loyalty, through imperialism or the stampede of unbridled capitalism is to violate something fundamental about human life and to bring on the “disease of uprootedness.”
Weil goes on to tell a story about the way the structure of human attachments has changed over the course of modern European history. The key fact in this narrative is the total usurpation by the nation-state of all smaller forms of political affiliation and identification. “For a long time now,” Weil argues, “the single nation has played the part which constitutes the supreme mission of society towards the individual human being, namely, maintaining throughout the present the links with the past and the future. In this sense, one may say that it is the only form of collectivity existing in the world at the present time.” Weil’s history of the rise of the nation-state, too complex to reproduce here, is compelling. The culmination of this tale is what she sees to be the dilemma of her age: the state, which has overthrown all smaller objects of political loyalty and attachment, is distant, and impersonal. Even if it were clear that one should love one’s nation, it is hard to see how one could. “The State is a cold concern which cannot inspire love, but itself kills, suppresses everything that might be loved,” Weil writes, “so one is forced to love it, because there is nothing else. That is the moral torment to which all of us today are exposed.”
Weil, a deeply religious thinker, felt strongly that absolute fealty to the nation-state was a form of idolatry. And yet, humans need collectivities to impart to them their cultural inheritance and to provide sites of loyalty and attachment. In the 1940s, Weil felt, the nation was the only viable collectivity of this sort. This was the great dilemma of modernity, the reason Weil was writing in exile in London and not in France. Weil believed—again, like Smith—that patriotism would exist whether one liked it or not. The question was what form it would take. Weil lamented that the “patriotism” of her day was essentially fascist. She sought to articulate a new ground of patriotism that was anti-imperialist and anti-fascist. “As for a remedy” to the bad sort of patriotism, Weil argued, “there is only one: to give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”
At the start, Weil restates her fundamental conviction that the genuine collective—in this case the nation—is a “vital medium” whose sole good lies in preserving the cultural inheritance of the past and transmitting it to the future. Because human beings are the social beings we are, to destroy a culture (which a nation preserves) “is equivalent to … physical mutilation.” But just this conception of the nation as “vital medium,” far from reinforcing fascism, actually allows for a more flexible, anti-imperialist patriotism. Weil writes:
In defining one’s native country as a certain particular vital medium, one avoids the contradictions and lies which corrode the idea of patriotism. There is one’s own particular vital medium; but there are others besides. It has been produced by a network of causes in which good and evil, justice and injustice have been mixed up together, and so it cannot be the best possible one. It may have arisen at the expense of some other combination richer in vital properties, and if such has been the case, it would be right to regret the fact; but past events are over and done with; the particular medium happens to be in existence, and, such as it is, deserves to be guarded like a treasure for the good it contains.
For Weil, then, this patriotism of the vital medium overcomes the evils of exclusivism and imperialism. This is one way to avoid making the state into an idol. But the idolatry of the state is not just intellectual; it is also affective, and the foremost sentiment of idolatry is that of pride. Patriotism cannot, Weil thinks, primarily entail national pride. Weil admits that pride has been the greatest prod to patriotism in the past, the strongest emotional tie most people have to their country. But she does not think this connection between pride and patriotism is inevitable. Instead of national pride, she contends, we must have pity for our country—national compassion. “This poignantly tender feeling for some beautiful, precious, fragile and perishable object has a warmth about it which the sentiment of national grandeur altogether lacks,” Weil writes. “Isn’t a man easily capable of acts of heroism to protect his children, or his aged parents? And yet no vestige of grandeur is attached to these.”
One advantage of reconceiving of patriotism as national compassion rather than national pride is that it allows one to face realistically the nation’s crimes. National pride too often leads to an acceptance of “my country right or wrong.” Such a conception could not be further from Weil’s point of view. “Such a love,” she believes, “can keep its eyes open on injustices, cruelties, mistakes, falsehoods, crimes and scandals contained in the country’s past, its present and in its ambitions in general, quite openly and fearlessly, and without being thereby diminished; the love being only rendered thereby more painful. Where compassion is concerned, crime itself provides a reason, not for withdrawing oneself, but for approaching, not with the object of sharing the guilt, but the shame.”
It is worth pausing here to consider how radical this idea is. In our current conversation, the misdeeds of the United States are only ever considered reason to reject or despise it. American nationalists do not concede that America’s origins lie in corruption, but state that we should love it anyway; sometimes they deny that much serious wrongdoing was ever committed. But Weil argues that when we have a genuine affection for something (or someone), its crimes are incapable of negating that love. A parent who loves their son does not stop loving the child even if he has committed murder; but the love becomes tragic, “painful.” Affection and shame stand side by side, and part of the affection indeed entails bearing the shame.
What’s more, Weil believes that such a conception of patriotism actually “gives the poorest part of the population a privileged moral position.” Many today consider patriotism as chiefly a tool of the powerful for subjugating the lower classes. Weil’s patriotism favors those who understand at first hand the country’s abuses and cruelties. Only they can really love the country, for only they have suffered on its behalf. “For the people have a monopoly of a certain sort of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, that of the reality of misfortune; and for that very reason, they feel all the more keenly the preciousness of those things which deserve to be protected from it, and how incumbent it is on each of us to cherish and protect them.”
This idea runs dangerously close to the notion that the oppressed should simply accept their suffering out of pity for a state that does not really wish to include them. But Weil is not counseling quietism or resignation. Rather, she advises a sort of active love, a love that transforms suffering and pain into concrete social action through the attachment of oneself to the collective. I think that Weil would agree with Rorty that social hope presupposes such a commitment, since one is unlikely to want to reform that with which one does not identify.
Weil’s patriotism of compassion seems to me to be applicable to the contemporary American moment precisely insofar as it does not presuppose a specific, embodied way of life shared by all inhabitants of a nation. Weil recognized that the modern nation-state often contains and absorbs numerous smaller groupings. All that is necessary for Weil’s patriotism of compassion is to share a nation with a particular history. We Americans may not share a dialect, or a cuisine, or a musical taste; but nevertheless, insofar as we are Americans, we are members of a nation with a mixed and contradictory inheritance. All of us can feel pity and love for our country’s sorrows and wounds.
“In the atmosphere of anguish, confusion, solitude, uprootedness in which the French find themselves,” Weil wrote, “all loyalties, all attachments are worth preserving like treasures of infinite value and rarity, worth tending like the most delicate plants.” Perhaps this is going too far. Some loyalties are indeed not worth having. But Weil’s message remains one we ought to try to hear. We, like her, live in a time of detachment and uprootedness, in which “community” is, for many, more a buzzword than a reality. Whether or not one sees the value in an “enlightened patriotism,” as Smith has it, or Weil’s patriotism of compassion, the picture of the good human life as a one of wise loyalties and thick attachments that these thinkers proffer is a valuable one.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, commentators both in and outside of the academy have wrung their hands over the linkage between reactionary nativism and the sentiment of patriotism. It is now more or less commonplace to encounter in liberal-leaning magazines, newspapers and blogs calls for a renewed commitment to liberal nationalism or patriotism, often on the grounds that this is necessary for liberals to win elections. Take, for example, the headline of a 2018 Politico article, “Liberals Need a Version of Patriotism,” in which Yascha Mounk argued that “there is nothing inevitable about nationalism’s destructive potential—and much to be gained from finding ways to harness its power instead of pretending it can be put to rest for good.”
This is, I think, true as far as it goes. But such utilitarian language misses that patriotism is not in the first place a political strategy but a feeling. Yes, it is a feeling that may be “harnessed” for various political ends. But it is difficult to recommend to disaffected liberals that they should feel a certain way in order to win elections.
For many of us, though—for me—the feeling of love for country does exist. There is a genuine, if chastened, affection that I cannot help but feel when I think of my country—my home. I feel it when I wander around the Smithsonian museums in Washington; when I drive through the sweeping cornfields of the rural Midwest or the strange emptiness of the desert southwest; and when I sit at home and read Moby-Dick or Invisible Man. I feel it when a candidate I support is elected to office and I feel it more painfully when with a wearying regularity the failures and injustices of every American day filter onto my screen. Weil’s term “compassion” better captures this feeling than the word “pride”—though admittedly, a little pride once in a while enters into it. It is, at least, a pride that leaves room for pity.