Hail to the bright shining lie

The Truth about Patriotism

November 30, 2007

I have never loved a people or a collective," argued Hannah Arendt. "The only kind of love I know of and believe in," she continues, "is the love of persons." Such a sentiment neatly sums up the problem with patriotism. But what if the individuals you love happen to be fellow citizens whose culture and language is under threat from an external enemy? At that point, is not the security of those individuals intimately bound up with the preparedness of the collective to fight and die for their country?

Such a belief that patriotism is the foundation for and ultimate protector of democracy is a recurring theme in the Western imagery. It is in Pericles' funeral oration, it is in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and it can be discerned in countless speeches by Western leaders after 9/11. A willingness to lay down one's life for the nation's cause, especially when that cause is just, is deeply ingrained in the idea of the citizen as patriot.

In the past decade or so, the intellectual Left in America has sought to recapture patriotism for the project of democratic renewal. Martha Nussbaum's 1996 collection For Love of Country and Richard Rorty's 1998 work Achieving Our Country are the principal texts to have embarked on this mission. Steven Johnston's The Truth about Patriotism seeks to repudiate this project by revealing the animosity and narcissism underpinning the cult of patriotism.

Economically put, his argument runs like this. Patriotism generates a cycle of war and conflict - it is addicted to death. Patriotism legitimates US-led wars of aggression and at the same time it silences voices of dissent. And, prescriptively, Johnston rather elliptically suggests that democratic renewal depends on the emergence of alternative narratives of civic life and becoming.

What is original about the work is not the critique of patriotism per se, but the creative manner in which the author broadens the discussion, moving away from political texts to include forms of cultural production such as film, music and the architecture of memorials and statues. He engages with epics from Ancient Greece as well as the meaning of contemporary music such as Bruce Springsteen's recent album The Rising , probing what they might mean for America's reinvention after 9/11.

This diversity of disciplinary resources in The Truth about Patriotism is arguably both a strength and a weakness. While the literary and cultural genres Johnston relies on are good at teasing out metaphors and openings from films and novels, the author's own field of politics is more resistant to this textual eclecticism, and for good reason in my view. Johnston tell us that Saving Private Ryan should be situated four-square in the civic canon of American cinema. But is Steven Spielberg's film more intriguing for thinking about pride and tragic loss than the life stories of countless victims of US military engagements?

A 21-year-old US Army corporal named Nathan Hubbard died in August 2007 in a helicopter crash near Kirkuk, Iraq. He enlisted only to honour the memory of his brother who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004. A third brother, Jason Hubbard, has been permitted to return home under the US military's "sole survivor" policy that formed the backdrop to Saving Private Ryan . Contrary to much of the continental political thought that informs Johnston's work, it would seem that life imitates life, not art.

Despite the loss of two sons, the soldier's father said: "We just want people to support the nation and what it's trying to get accomplished by making the world a better place."

In November 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Lydia Bixby after learning her five sons were killed in action in the Civil War. The sombre letter sought to console the mother by reminding her of "the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom".

Lincoln's sentiments and those of today's patriotic fathers grieving for their lost sons are conventionally understood as being the foundations of civic virtue. Johnston's book mounts a powerful challenge to such patriotic ideals. In today's world, brave soldiers are not only being asked to die for the love of their own country but increasingly to die for distant strangers. Rather than providing an account of what this cosmopolitan patriotism might look like, Johnston prefers absolute closure. For him, undying loyalty ultimately kills the thing it purports to love.

Tim Dunne is professor of international relations, Exeter University.

The Truth about Patriotism

Author - Steven Johnsto
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 296pp
Price - £48.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 9780822341109

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