When is Patriotism a Virtue


As promises yesterday, a post on patriotism, nationalism, left and right. Now it's true that you have some people on the left -- and some people on the libertarian right -- who adhere to genuinely post-national cosmpolitan views, but I think that's pretty rare. I was going to go through a whole elaborate introduction of new conceptual distinctions to say what I think separates mainstream liberals from mainstream conservatives, but I actually think you can break it down with a pretty simple analogy.

There were two kinds of Knicks fans in New York when I was a kid. On the one hand, you had people who wanted the Knicks to win, who therefore found Michael Jordan's global fame somewhat annoying, who and who learned, watching Knicks game after Knicks game, to appreciate what there is to appreciate about grind-it-out defense-oriented physical basketball. On the other hand you had crazy people who would insist that Patrick Ewing was the best center in the game, that Michael Jordan only seemed good because he got superstar calls, and were, generally speaking, completely out of touch with reality. The attitude toward America that conservatives like to champion is like this latter batch of Knicks fans -- not people animated by a special concern for our fellow-citizens and a special appreciation for our country's virtues, but by a deep emotional investment in a certain kind of national hagiography and myth-making.

The sort of investment in national mythos oftentimes has little-to-no relationship to actual concern for the nation's citizens. Normally, a country's best interests are served by facing up to basic realities that nationalists mythic narratives -- the Turkish nationalist idea that there was no Armenian genocide, the Israeli nationalist myth that there's no such thing as a Palestinian, etc. -- are committed to denying. Patriotism, by contrast, is about trying to genuinely look out for the best interests of one's country. The "dissent is patriotic" business often plays as a dodge, sometimes because it is, but the basic point is that if you care about your country, you'll want your country to avoid making mistakes, not step blindly behind whatever happens to be going on. Most of all, it means you need to see the world as it is. The Wizards defense is bad. No actual Arabs believe that American efforts at military domination of the Persian Gulf region are driven by a desire to spread the blessings of liberal democracy.

At any rate, Anatol Lieven's not an American at all, so he's neither an American patriot nor an American nationalist of any sort, but his book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism is very interesting on the subject.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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