Patriotism of a Higher Order

Wednesday, October 30, 2002
Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

“To make us love our country,” Edmund Burke wrote, “our country ought to be lovely.” Burke’s point is that we typically love our countries for the same reason that we love our children—because they are ours. Some people have kids who are intrinsically unlovable, but they love them anyway. This partiality that we all show for our own seems to be part of our tribal nature. But Burke implies that this is not the highest kind of patriotism. In the movie The Patriot, the hero, played by Mel Gibson, refuses to fight for America until his son is killed and his home is burned to the ground. Despite its great battle scenes, the film conveys the message that patriotism is a kind of selfishness. This would not seem to be the noblest form of patriotism, which calls us to look beyond private interests to the public benefit. As Burke suggests, the genuine patriot loves his country not only because it is his but also because it is good.

Now, more than ever, we need this higher kind of patriotism, and it is by necessity a patriotism of the reflective sort. Reflection was not in evidence when, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, an Arizona resident named Frank Roque fired three bullets into a Sikh gas station attendant, killing him. When the police arrived, Roque explained his actions: “I am an American.” Actually, so was the man he killed, Guru Khalsa. Roque apparently thought Khalsa was a Muslim from an Arab country. Wrong man, wrong country, wrong religion. This was a rare incident, but even so it is such brutish exhibitions of nativism that convince some thoughtful people, such as philosopher Martha Nussbaum, that attachment to any tribe or nationality is dangerous and that our moral allegiance should be to “the community of all human beings.”

If the only possible patriotism were based on “my country, right or wrong,” then Nussbaum would be correct. If patriotism were inevitably to degenerate into the kind of blind hatred that motivated Roque, then we are better off without it. But one can make a distinction between nativism, which is based on resentment, and patriotism, which is based on love. The former is objectionable, but the latter is indispensable. Certainly America requires it now and will require it even more in the foreseeable future. Even when our initial anger toward our enemies has cooled, we still need an enduring attachment to our country to see it through the long trials ahead. America desperately needs the love of its citizens, for what it is and for what it might become.

A patriotism of this sort—a thoughtful and affirming patriotism—must necessarily be based on an examination of first principles. The need for this approach was illustrated by an American radio show host who recently erupted, “I don’t know why those crazy Muslims want to fight with us. They believe in Allah this, and Allah that, and they don’t realize that we don’t give a damn. So why can’t we just agree to disagree?” The reason, of course, is that agreeing to disagree is a liberal principle and that it is liberalism itself that is being disputed here. The procedural liberalism that we are so used to invoking—which presupposes that liberal mechanisms like free speech and equal rights are the best way of organizing society—is ineffective against those who do not believe that these are self-evident goods and who insist that religious truth and virtue have higher claims. We have to show why our society is a moral improvement on theirs, which is neither an obvious nor an easy task.

I feel that I am in a unique position to write about this subject. I am a native of India who grew up in Bombay and came to the United States as an exchange student in the late 1970s. Since I spent the first part of my life in a different society, I am able to see the United States from the outside and to identify unique aspects of American society that seem completely unremarkable to the natives. This may be called the “Tocqueville advantage,” although, in invoking it, I am by no means comparing myself to Tocqueville. Visiting America in the 1830s, Tocqueville declared that he had encountered “a distinct species of mankind.” Tocqueville was especially struck by the average American’s “inordinate love of material gratification.” At the same time, Tocqueville detected a restlessness of soul that afflicted even the most fortunate and prosperous families. Tocqueville observed that, by contrast with Europeans, Americans exhibited a high degree of civic activism and religious fervor. Tocqueville further remarked that Americans were fierce egalitarians who, despite differences of income and status, refused to bow and scrape before anybody.

These are perceptive observations, and most of them are true today. But a great deal has also changed since Tocqueville came here, and the United States displays some new distinguishing characteristics. I am impressed that Americans cannot fight a war and say they are doing it for strategic advantage or for oil; they have to be convinced, or to convince themselves, that they are fighting to expel a tyrant or to secure democracy or to ensure human rights. In other societies there are multiple measures of social recognition, such as family background, education, caste, and so on; in the United States, it pretty much comes down to how much money you have. Even so, “old money” carries very little prestige in America: all it means is that your grandfather was a robber baron or a bootlegger. As a frequent speaker at American companies, I am struck by the ease with which Palestinians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Turks and Armenians, all work together in apparent disregard of the bitter historical grievances that have shattered their communities of origin.

Another reason I feel especially qualified to write about this subject is that I have the background and credentials to evaluate the various accusations that are launched against the United States and the West. Having been raised in a country that was colonized by the West for several hundred years, I have a good vantage point from which to assess how Western civilization has harmed or helped the peoples of the non-Western world. As a “person of color” who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, and who has devoted a decade to studying issues of race and ethnicity, I am competent to address such questions as, what it is like to be a nonwhite person in America? what does this country owe its indigenous minorities? and can immigrants maintain their ethnic identity and still “become American?”

I became a U.S. citizen in 1991. I took the oath that fateful day, and over the years my identification with America has deepened to the point that I truly feel that I have “become an American.” This phrase has become common enough that we don’t give it a thought, and yet it is fraught with meaning. An American could come to India and stay for 40 years, perhaps even taking Indian citizenship, but he could not “become Indian.” Indians would not consider such a person Indian, nor would it be possible for him to think of himself in that way. The reason is that being Indian, like being German or Swedish or Iranian, is entirely a matter of birth and blood. You become Indian by having Indian parents.

In America, by contrast, millions of people come from all over the world, and over time most of them come to think of themselves as Americans. Sometimes their children and grandchildren forget where they came from or stop caring. Whatever their origins, these people have somehow, like me, “become American.” Their experience suggests that becoming American is less a function of birth or blood and more a function of embracing a set of ideas. It is only for this reason that terms like “un-American” and “anti-American” make sense. You could not accuse someone of being “un-German” or “un-Pakistani.” They would not know what you were talking about.

I believe that over the years I have developed an understanding of what makes America great; also I have seen the greatness of America reflected in my life. At the same time I take seriously the issues raised by the critics of America. In recent years my enthusiasm about America has been shaken by the experience of parenthood. As the father of a seven-year-old girl, I have come to realize how much more difficult it is to raise her well in America than it would be for me and my wife to raise her in India. We are constantly battling to shield our daughter from toxic influences in American culture that threaten to destroy her innocence. And even as I seek to insulate her from those influences, I am not sure that I can. This is a battle that I know I might lose. Why, I sometimes ask myself, do I stay in America?

I thus feel the force of the arguments for and against America because they play out in my own life. The harshest critics of America and the West, however, are ultimately wrong. They are missing something of great significance about Western civilization and about the American way of life. So for all my qualms, I will not be returning to India. I know that my daughter will have a better life if I stay. I don’t mean just that she will be better off; I mean that her life is likely to have greater depth, meaning, and fulfillment in the United States than it would in any other country. There is truly something great and noble about America.