Monday, July 04, 2005

Thoughts on Patriotism and Virtuous Concertgoing

Since today is the 4th of July, I cannot help but reflect on a year's worth of my own rumination on "patriotism," that bedrock of politically-correct thinking. When I was a kid, I loved symbols of patriotism: the songs, the flag, etc. I think it was partly the feeling of belonging that these symbols gave me. Over the years, I reconciled any doubts I had about patriotism, defined in the dictionary as "love of and devotion to one's country," by interpreting patriotism either as believing in high ideals such as democracy and justice, or working for the good of the country as a whole.

But as time goes on, I find it harder and harder to simply accept patriotism as an unquestionably good thing. No matter how we try to redefine what it means--and I applaud such efforts to a point--it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to defend from an ethical point of view. Why should we care more about people in our country than people elsewhere? In our heart of hearts, where our deepest values reside, how can we defend drawing moral lines at political borders? In Robert Jensen's words, perhaps we need to say
"goodbye to patriotism" in order to really serve the ideals and good we seek.

A slogan that many good people put on signs a few years ago said, "Peace is Patriotic." I can see the point, and I agree that our country is better off if we pursue peace rather than war. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that peace doesn't need patriotism to legitimate itself. Several months ago, I decided that "peace is peace"...totally defensible on its own as something worth striving for. Tacking on "patriotism" may be a good PR move, but it is ultimately meaningless. Or, in another sense, it is worse than meaningless because it further reinforces the notion that favoring the U.S. and Americans in our moral calculations is a good thing. It might seem pragmatic in the short term to invoke patriotism to stop a war (although, truth be told, it didn't seem to convince very many people at the time), but in the long run we must look to express deeper and more defensible values.

I attribute a large part of my discomfort with patriotism to my Christian faith. That may sound strange given that so many people link "God and country" in such promiscuous ways, despite the utter lack of Biblical or theological grounding for it...and the predominance of hyper-patriotic expressions among Christians visible in the public sphere. However, it really comes from deep within my spiritual and faith life to question patriotism. If we really have faith in Jesus Christ and his message, we must be willing to put our Christianity above any allegiance to one country or another. Christ's message is universal and does not belong in any way, shape, or form to Americans alone...I cannot imagine having "faith" in my country in the same way that I have faith in God and Christ. (Maybe that's why having an American flag in our church sanctuary really bothers me.)

To be sure, I am grateful to live in a country that allows the free exercise of religion, but I refuse to believe that being a good Christian means always supporting American policies or actions. In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite. We Christians are called to scrutinize our country from the position of our deeply-held values, just as any other citizens in a free, democratic society should. So today I celebrate the ideals our country was founded on and its continued flourishing, for sure, but also hope and pray for all other peoples of the world at the same time.

Okay, now about the "virtuous concertgoing" part...this is really unrelated to the patriotism theme, except that this particular weekend Philadelphia (where I live) has hosted not just the usual Fourth of July celebration but also the U.S. site of the "Live 8" concert a few days ago. Now I am in total agreement with the goal of the Live 8 organizers that we should forgive the debt of the poorest countries in the world. What concerns me about this event are two things: First, I am disturbed supporters of the movement are not being sufficiently open and critical about efforts to attach various conditions to the debt cancellation on the part of elite interests in the wealthy countries. In the name of "accountability," provisions that keep poor countries poor (perhaps akin to what is often called structural adjustment) are apparently being forced on countries that receive debt relief (if I am wrong about this, someone please correct me). We may end up entrenching poverty as much as we help alleviate it. Read this for someone else's more extended discussion of these issues.

Second, I have mixed feelings about rich celebrities and the wealthiest countries in the world are throwing parties for themselves in order to draw attention to global poverty. To be sure, there were some good messages thrown in during the concert, alongside advertisements for corporate sponsors, etc. But in observing the people going to and from the concert here (and reading quotes in the local newspaper), it seemed that most people were just having a fun day of free entertainment outside. If anything, they could imagine that they were doing something about poverty (a weird kind of moral safety valve) while they were having fun. The way the newspaper reported it, the story was all about how successful the event was in terms of logistics and promoting the city. The only visible complaint was that some people didn't like having to wait "40 minutes" for a train home afterwards. (To be sure, some people may have waited longer, but then don't you expect a transit system suddenly swamped with a million people at the same time to experience a little congestion?) I'm sure that actual poor people in various parts of the world will be glad that so many Americans (and Canadians, Japanese, Brits, Italians, etc.) had such a nice day out in the sun and fully sympathize with their travails.

I do hope that this event has mobilized people to care about alleviating global poverty--and perhaps even motivate them to ask some critical questions about the conditions our elite representatives are imposing--but I fear from my own observations that Live 8 may not have done it. Any other thoughts?


Ambivalent_Maybe said...

When I was growing up I sometimes dreamed about a global government, in which petty national differences would be disolved, where disputes between peoples could be justly adjudicated without resort to war. There would be no nationalism, no jingoistic bragging--patriotism would give way to a more inclusive universalism. It's still a nice idea, I admit. But these days, I think patriotism is a great thing--an important bulwark of liberty and democracy. Not the 'my country right or wrong' type of patriotism, which is little more than a modern form of herd instinct. But the Thomas Paine patriotism of robust individuality, that's something we need more of. Global government decreases the power of individuals to decide for themselves the laws that govern them. The borders of the nation are moral boundaries because they mark the limits of the power of my ballot. Governments, international organizations and corporations have together conspired to blur the boundaries of nation-states, creating vast power structures with little or no accountability to voters in any nation. Paineite Patriotism reasserts the importance of the nation-state--it calls for the people of the various nations to be able to govern themselves in the ways they deem best, for other nations to mind their own business.
This does not answer the moral question of why one should care more for the people of one country than another. As a question of human ethics, one should not; but the political representative that I voted for (or against) should care more about what I think than what someone in another country thinks. Conversely, my political representative should not be making laws to control how someone in another country behaves.

christian_left said...

I like Thomas Paine and the long-standing American tradition of democratic republicanism. However, I have a hard time figuring out what "patriotism of robust individuality" means. By its common meaning, patriotism asks for devotion to country not the individual. (To be sure, some countries such as the USA have a strong emphasis on individual freedom in their political cultures, but that is a contingent not a necessary feature of patriotism, and one that is all too easily cast aside at times when public invocations of "patriotism" are at high tide, such as during wars...) What you are describing sounds to me like good democratic citizenship, not patriotism.

I admire your attempt to rescue "patriotism," but it seems to me like a phrase tacked on to ideals that are easily defensible on their own grounds. That said, I appreciate you and others muddying the waters about what patriotism means, because it makes it more difficult for right-wing zealots to use it for their own pernicious goals. Interestingly, The Nation just published a nice (if varied) collection of musings on "patriotism":

I share your concern with "global governments" that exercise power over people undemocratically. As you have noted in your post, however, certain forms of global governance are already here, such as multinational corporations and international trade authorities. In the years ahead, the people of the world desperately need to embrace some form of universalist vision of world citizenship in order to construct democratic counterbalances to the global power of capital. Clinging to the sanctity of the nation-state (which itself is fairly distant from local democratic decision-making) may be useful in certain instances to fight for economic populist issues, but in the long run it will not be sufficient to fight the global power of capital. So what we seek is not global government, but global democracy to fight global elite power, so that we can continue to exercise meaningful democratic governance at the local and regional levels.