My Country, Right Or Wrong


As defenses of patriotism go, I tend to incline more toward Daniel Larison's rejoinder to George Kateb's essay than toward the response to Kateb offered by Walter Berns. Berns takes the view that "the decisive issue in an appropriate analysis of patriotism" is the sort of government that a patriot is asked to love. But I'm with Larison: It's a mistake to conflate a country and its regime, and a patriot who ceases to love his country because it happens to be governed by a despot is no patriot at all.

This doesn't mean that the patriot has to love the despot, or follow his commands. Love of country does not require absolute obedience to its government (indeed, it often requires the opposite), any more than love of family requires absolute obedience to one's parents, or absolute support for whatever one's children or siblings decide to do with themselves. This is what Chesterton meant with his famous dictum that "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" (Though I would add that if you read them slightly differently - as statements of abiding love in bad times, rather than blanket endorsements of bad conduct - "my country, right or wrong" and "my mother, drunk or sober" are potentially admirable sentiments.) And it's a distinction that's missing from both Kateb's and Berns's essays, both of which seem to assume that the regime is the country, and vice versa, and that to love one is to love the other.

The only complicating factor occurs in a case like the United States, where the character of the regime and the character of the people are bound together so tightly that it's hard to imagine one without the other. The government-country distinction is easier to make in countries where regimes change willy-nilly, and while obviously our regime isn't identical to the one founded in 1789, our democratic temper - both institutional and cultural - has endured through the transition from a decentralized republic to a mass democracy with a sizable administrative state. So whereas France would still be France if the current Republic were dissolved and a monarchy or a dictatorship took its place, there's a sense in which imagining an America governed by an emperor or a military junta is a little like imagining a France whose inhabitants no longer speak French.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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