George Kateb vs. Patriotism

I've recently become a big fan of the eminent political theorist George Kateb (I'm actually pretty baffled about how it could be that I didn't know of him until late last year), so I'm pretty thrilled he agreed to write the lead essay for this month's Cato Unbound on the value of patriotism. A thoroughgoing individualist, he doesn't find much value in it. Here is an especially fine passage:

The brute fact of patriotism is made brute by the inveterate inclination in men to associate virility with the exertion involved in killing and risking death. No theory can ever defeat or discredit this inclination, which helps to engender the fantasy that the competition of political units is the highest kind of team sports. Men love teams, love to live in a world where they are called on to back or play for their team against other teams, even though the sport of war is soaked in blood. Socratic notions of gratitude or Jamesian notions of infinite indebtedness are not necessary for this love. In the sport, where aristocrats used to play their games, elites now mobilize groups or masses to slaughter each other. Men can become peace-loving for a while, but not forever. The women who love them encourage their inclination to see team sports as the essence of their masculinity, and to call patriotic this inclination when it is projected into politics. The pity is that men lend their energies to a state that sooner or later embarks on an inherently unjust imperialist career and thus gets constantly engaged in policies that are deliberated in secrecy, and sustained by secrecy and propaganda, and removed from meaningful public deliberation. Patriotism is indispensable for sustaining this career of anti-democracy.

Now, I know a lot of folks think there is a kind of benign patriotism that is centered on the celebration of the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution and the culture that values them. Maybe. But go to GOPAC and tell me that the patriotism of liberal principles, and not the vulgar “highest kind of team sports” eagles and bunting and wiretaps version, is the most salient incarnation of patriotism in America.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center