The kerfuffle over Barack Obama’s pastor is in large part about whether the man is patriotic enough. Other data: he doesn’t wear a Stars & Stripes lapel pin; his wife found herself proud of America for the first time a little too recently. This sort of thing may well be deadly to his candidacy. He may be obliterated by John “No Glory but Service to the State” McCain’s thorough and unimpeachable Americanism, a cult of fake history, hubristic exceptionalism, tacky iconography, and aggression. But Obama’s inferior patriotism makes me like him more rather than less because I agree with George Kateb that patriotism is hardly worth the blood it is designed to spill.
Kateb’s reply today in Cato Unbound to Walter Berns’ and Bill Galston’s sophisticated civics class apologies for patriotism is strong. He is completely dogged in his insistence that patriotism is good for little more than readying people to kill and die for the state. He implies something that I believe to be correct: the proud and enthusiastic patriotism of Americans bears a large measure of responsibility for the immoral and failed war in Iraq. This administration’s war would have been impossible had our mindless love of country not made the public rather too ready. As Kateb writes:
I am not writing from a pacifist basis. I believe in the right of self-defense, by violence if need be. The trouble is that most democratic wars are not fought to preserve the lives, liberties, and goods of the people, but are fought, instead, for grandiose and often insincere ideals and for limitless augmentation. If patriotism — devotion to the country and obedience to its state for the wrong reasons — has to exist, it should be defensive in temperament and parsimonious in the expenditure of life, including the lives of its enemies, and not mobilize the energies of self-defense and transmute them into the energies of expansion and imperialism. In truth, if strict self-defense were ever at stake, patriotism would be unnecessary: people would not require any inflated passion to defend what was not an inflated purpose.
Barack Obama should be proud that he is no great patriot. Of course, in America it is political suicide to appear to be anything less than besotted with the purple mountains’ majesty, so of course he gives his speech explaining the meaning of “god damn America” in front of a de rigeur rank of flags, which testify silently, garishly, to his devotion to true religion.