Against Patriotism

Independence Day generally involves an outpouring of emotion usually described as “patriotism.” In the U.S., this generally involves a characteristic confusion between love of country and love of the principles the country is supposed to embody. I’ve just read George Kateb’s brilliant essay, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?,” from his collection of essays Patriotism and Other Mistakes (the lead essay alone is worth the price of the whole book.) What better time to cast aspersion on unthinking patriotism?

A country is not a discernible collection of discernible individuals like a team or a faculty or a local chapter of a voluntary association. Of course a country is a delimited territory. It is also a place, a setting, a geography; it has a landscape, cityscapes, perhaps seascapes; it has old buildings as well as new ones; it has historical sights; it has a light, an air, an atmosphere; it has a special look. But it is also constructed out of transmitted memories true and false; a history usually mostly falsely sanitized or falsely heroized; a sense of kinship of a largely invented purity; and social ties that are largely invisible or impersonal, indeed, abstract, yet by an act of insistent or of dream-like imagination made visible and personal. 

What, then, is patriotism really? It is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend. Patriotism, then, is a readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a figment of the imagination. For this figment, one commits oneself to a militarized and continuously politicized conception of life, a conception that is entirely masculinist.


I ask us to notice that an abstraction of the sort I say patriotism is, is not the same thing as a principle. There is a very sharp contrast between a readiness to die and kill for an abstraction and a readiness to do the same for a principle. A principle must be universal, but an abstraction can have any scope. To embrace a principle, which is of course abstract in some sense, is to pledge oneself to a rule to guide one’s perception of the world and, if one has sufficient integrity, to guide one’s conduct in it. A moral principle … governs one’s conduct toward others, and the expectations one had to the conduct of others. A moral principle must be conceived as universalist, and asks for consistent application; and it aims at respect for persons or individuals, not abstract entities of imagination. There is also a sharp contrast between an abstraction like patriotism and a tangible interest like being protected or preserved in one’s rights of life, liberty, and property, for which purpose it may also sometimes be thought necessary to risk death and to kill.


The highest moral principles teach restraint of self-preference, whether the self is oneself or a group-self; while, on the other hand, a person’s basic rights and tangible self-interest, in a tolerable society, are supposed to be practiced or achieved without morally cognizable harm to the same rights and interests of others. In contrast, patriotism is self-idealization; it is group narcissism without any self-restraint except for a frequently unreliable prudence, and carried to death-dealing lengths. Patriotism is one of the more radical forms of group-thinking, or group identity and affiliation. Being armed is what makes it radical.

We all are touched with what Yi-Fu Tuan calls “topophilia,” a sentimental connection to place, and cannot avoid indulging in it. But we can avoid making an overriding ideal of it. Indepedence Day ought not be a celebration of this place, America, its imaginary history, and the imaginary solidarity of its people. It ought to be a celebration of the universal ideal of a society in which all are equally without right to rule one another and equally invested with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — a celebration of the ideals of the Declaration. Yes, you will enjoy your potato salad, your apple pie. Perhaps you’ll enjoy fireworks and tiny American flags. You may even catch yourself enjoying Lee Greenwood. But be sure to take a minute to enjoy the abundant happiness you have caught and the liberty that made it possible. And do consider how wonderful it would be if everyone, American and not, had it so good.  

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center