Sunday, July 29, 2007

The hostile state & the love of country

Here is Brian Tamanaha, an American law professor, on patriotism:

For many reasons, I feel fortunate to have been born in the United States, but I don’t love my country. It has no love for any of us. A cold, manipulative, object of affection, the state fans patriotism, then asks those who love it deeply to prove their love by dying or sacrificing their limbs for it.

It will not happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to the day when states are no more.

From the conservative point of view this makes little sense. For us, nations are distinct peoples, so that a love of country means a love of one's people, and the land, culture and tradition associated with it.

However, liberals have rejected this connection between nation and people. So it's not surprising that Tamanaha should view nation or country as a particular political entity - as a state - instead.

Tamanaha, then, thinks of the nation as the state, finds that the state is hostile to the people, and therefore rejects the idea of love of nation.

Enter Roger Alford, another American law professor. Alford accepts Tamanaha's idea that the nation is the state, but differs by asserting that the state, rather than being hostile, is protective of the people, being concerned for their welfare. He writes:

The fundamental purpose of a democratic country like the United States is to serve you and your fellow citizens. Representative democracy means that our elected officials are trying (albeit imperfectly) to look out for your interests, your benefits, your needs, and your wants. Your country seeks to protect your safety, your economic well-being, your property, and your freedoms.

The state is the nation and it works on your behalf and therefore it is reasonable to love your nation and to be loyal to it:

So in response to Brian Tamanaha, I say that for many reasons I feel fortunate to have been born in the United States, and I do love my country. It is far from perfect. It is often demanding of its citizens. But it offers so much in return. For that, I am deeply grateful and I feel a strong sense of loyalty and allegiance.

Alford's position does, at least, defend the idea of patriotism. But can it hold the line? Is it an effective way to support the existence of nations?

I don't think so. Alford thinks of the nation as the state, and the state as the Constitution, and the Constitution as a set of values. Therefore, what really defines the nation are "values":

When a government official takes an oath of allegiance, the only oath he or she makes is to support and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. He doesn't swear allegiance to an abstract entity called the United States. He swears allegiance to the values embodied in the Constitution.

You can't defend an existing nation on this basis, for two basic reasons. First, if a nation is simply a set of values, then anyone can potentially be a member of the nation. It is no longer important that migrants can assimilate to the distinct character of a people, they merely need to be willing to sign on, as citizens, to a set of civic values. Therefore, there is no longer a principled reason to restrict immigration, and large scale population transfers are likely to transform the existing character of a country.

Second, if a nation is simply a set of values, then there is little, in principle, to restrict the merging of nations into larger, regional states such as the EU. If it is thought to be of economic advantage to do so, then why not merge the USA and Canada into a single entity, if all that matters is a compatibility of political values?

It's difficult to form deep attachments to an entity which is repeatedly subject to radical transformation. So I doubt if patriotism would survive in anything but a superficial form if Alford's view of the nation were to dominate in the long-term.

I'd like to finish by quoting a fellow traditionalist conservative, whose take on the Tamanaha and Alford debate is worth preserving:

... prior to the mid-20th century, Alford's answer to Tamanaha would have struck most Americans (certainly most non-intellectuals) as odd and a little alien. Prior to 1900, it would have struck almost everyone as such.

Because the universal commonsensical conception of loving one's country came from the simple fact that a country was a real thing with real, concrete attributes for one to love: the land, the people and the culture. And these things were not loved because they were held to be some kind of universal or Platonic "best way" for all humanity (the popular neocon conception of American or Western style liberty); they were loved because they were the norms, customs and mores of you, your family, and the attenuated, widely extended "family" of your ethny.

The love was, at least in large part, an ineffable and not rationally derived thing, again similar to the innate attachment that family ties exert. As you could look into the eyes of a brother and see elements of yourself staring back at you, one's countryman would reflect, in a lesser way, the same recognition of heritage, culture and values ...

This is what the creation of the modern "diverse," universalist nation has cost us. We are left, like Alford, to grasp for sad second-place straws about democracy as an abstract concept that somehow exhibits a sort of hollow, disembodied concern for us as protectees.

(by Russell W, who has temporarily closed his site whilst serving in the US military.)


  1. "It's difficult to form deep attachments to an entity which is repeatedly subject to radical transformation."

    Well said! It's also difficult to form such an attachment when the entity's only value is as a vehicle for some external principle, so the more its particular qualities change the better.

  2. "To love a thing is to know and love its nature." -- Ayn Rand

    Patriotism -- love of country -- is not exempt from this formulation. One cannot love a "people," for it has no enduring character -- no nature. Love for a geographically defined region, however large or small, is akin to the love of cherry pie or football: a trivialization of the word. Neither can one love a polity, which is only a set of institutions and procedures for the exercise of coercive power.

    Like it or not, what one loves about a country is the ideals it embodies. Its citizens and governments may wax and wane in fidelity to those ideals, but no other attribute of a country approaches the characterizing power required to evoke love.

    In the case of the United States, those ideals are liberty and justice. God forbid that it should ever come to pass, but if America were to disavow those ideals, it would cease to deserve anyone's love.

    Americans who disavow love for America don't feel the same way about those ideals, or the ways in which we practice and safeguard them, as the rest of us. No more need be said.

  3. Jim, thanks.

    Francis, we have a disagreement here.

    You write that one cannot love a people as a people has no enduring character or nature.

    Yet it is common to find this love of one's own people. The Japanese love their existence as a people, so too until recent times did the English.

    We identify with our own people. We feel connected, in a particular way, to people with whom we share ties of ancestry, and of a common history, language, culture and faith.

  4. Francis, there's a further problem in suggesting liberty and justice as ideals on which to base a love of country.

    These values are given specific meaning by the way a society understands the nature of the individual and the purpose of life.

    In modern Western societies this means that liberty and justice are understood in terms of liberal autonomy theory.

    The individual is held to be human according to his ability to be self-defining or self-determining.

    Therefore, the goal of life is to be radically autonomous. We are to remain independent and to be "liberated" from inherited identities or inborn aspects of our nature.

    In this context, "justice" means, for instance, liberating women from motherhood and family life in order to pursue careers (as this is thought to be a more independent and self-defining role).

    If we propose liberty or justice as ideals, then, given the liberal orthodoxy of our times, the measure of justice and the nature of liberty will be understood in liberal terms - and will likely prove to be destructive in effect.

  5. Francis, one last point. You write that what one loves about a country are the ideals it embodies.

    Given that most people throughout history have loved their country, and that countries have held to very different ideals, this must mean that there are a wide range of ideals which could do the job - which could inspire love of country.

    Yet, when you speak of the United States, you suggest that only liberty and justice can serve the purpose. You write "if America were to disavow those ideals, it would cease to deserve anyone's love."

    So must countries have liberty and justice as primary ideals to evoke a deserved love? If so, what explains the patriotism felt in countries with very different values? If not, why couldn't the US inspire patriotic love with different ideals?

  6. Right away Mr. Porretto gives away the game: he's quoting Ayn Rand. I gather from Mr. Porretto's comment that he is a typically deracinated Westerner condescending to lecture us benighted localists and traditionalists about what is really true about patriotism.

    Mr. Porretto, you do not understand this, but I love Virginia. Since I don't live there, every day I feel keenly the exile.

  7. Took the words right out of my mouth Jazz,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d like to recount a story I heard about the love of country:

    President Lincoln asked General Lee to lead the Union troops in the pending war with the South, but when Virginia voted on joining the Confederacy, something Lee himself was against, Lee wrote back to the President, declining the offer on the grounds that he could not ‘raise his sword against his country’, or words to the effect. He then lead the Confederate troops against the Union which he wasn’t keen on ceding from in the first place.

    This had nothing to do with geography or socio-political ideals, rather, something else altogether much more profound .

    There are plenty of aspects of my people that I love, the culture that’s shared like a mem down the generations, the attitudes and idiosyncrasies that aren’t necessarily biological or geographical, but, something that Ayn Rand wouldn’t understand even if threatened with the gulag.

  8. kilroy,

    A lot of Southerners did believe that they were defending their homeland from "foreigners." At the dawn of the Civil War, Yankees had grown very much apart from Southerners. The slavery question was the biggest divider, but there were others: the South was agrarian and tradition-bound, the North was industrial and progressive. The South was settled largely by the fiercely independent Scots-Irish, fleeing English Cavaliers and later fleeing Scots Jacobites (Flora McDonald herself lived in North Carolina for about 10 years), and many of the Highlanders who were "cleared" during the Highland Clearances -- the North was settled by Puritans, Quakers and East Anglians still itching for a fight with the English aristocracy hundreds of years after the Wat Tyler rebellion. A fascinating book called "Albion's Seed" lays out how the original American colonies were influenced by the different British cultural groups that settled in each one. Note that the Confederate battle flag has a Cross of St. Andrews in it and that tells you a lot about the cultural background of the South. In fact in the 1950s university researchers found Scots Gaelic-speakers in the more remote hill areas of Tennessee. The Confederates were stubborn Scotsmen who simply would not walk away from a fight they probably knew they couldn't win.