venerdì 21 ottobre 2011

Patriotism is a mistake

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
H.L. Mencken

Brian (not wanting to be a messiah): you don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!
Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”


The purpose of the following essay is to demonstrate that, when it takes a political form, patriotism is dangerous because certain objectionable attitudes that make unquestioning acquiescence and violence more likely, such as for instance the fetishism of intrinsic value, the objectification of human beings, and the subordination of rational means to irrational ends, usually come in the same package with patriotism. I offer a political-anthropological reflection on the mechanisms through which: (a) patriotism becomes naturalized and taken for granted as the ideal alternative to leaving people at the mercy of their (it is assumed) wicked and egotistic impulses; (b) patriots reorient the meaning of the phrase “autonomous citizenry” in order to produce an emotional bond (usually pride and sense of belonging) between citizens and a given political community and to promote the belief that there is such a thing as a single, common will and national interest.

It has long been a matter of common knowledge that because modern, democratic societies need trust, cohesion, solidarity, and long term civic loyalty to function and to be societies in a significant sense, citizens must develop an emotional attachment to the country they live in. According to this accredited belief, in times of spiritual voids waiting to be filled, when there is a comparably low level of demand for the available religions, a shared national/patriotic identity, a feeling of belonging, of being part of something larger than oneself – i.e. a “deep” community, a Gemeinschaft writ large, a community of destiny (Schicksalsgemeinschaft) –, will provide bonds of shared values, affection, and concerns. These are needed in order to avert the danger of social alienation and mass atomisation and to foster real human fulfilment and a common understanding of the human good. The argument usually goes that the homeland (patria) should be the ‘primary focus of identification’, that citizens should be willing to make sacrifices for “their” polity, identify themselves with it, have an emotional investment in it, set aside their own private interests and take care of it, responsibly, and improve it, making it more just, with benevolent dedication, as they do with their families and communities. In doing so, they surely build more than one fence, but as the saying goes, “good fences make good neighbours,” and, at the end of the day, human beings are naturally inclined to feel territorial and tribal attachments: to deny these communal identities is tantamount to gainsay one’s own identity. There are no “citizens of the world.”
This is dangerous ground to tread. How much cohesion is really needed? Are not liberal, plural democracies supposed to be based on the free play of conflicting opinions and human diversities? Granting that the amount of diversity suitable to a democracy is not unlimited, how do we prevent the state from gradually being given a superior moral status and from becoming an ethical state, namely an overarching source of morality? Moreover, how effective really is patriotism in overcoming other, more localistic and private loyalties and in producing widespread allegiance, trust, and solidarity? Is it not perhaps the case that it simply adds a further exclusionist boundary without substantially weakening the others? US citizens have been patriotic (and nationalist) for a very long time, but it is hard to deny that sexism, racism, localism, religious fundamentalism and gross inequity in the distribution of wealth and services are still commonplace in American society. Ultimately, patriotisms and civil religions are misguided in that they presume that individuals are too flawed, too ignorant, too unreasonable, too selfish and wicked to lead a dignified and undisruptive social life and to control their own destinies, without the guidance of gurus, customs, and institutions that are by necessity beyond reproach. Patria is all too often regarded as “innocence itself” and this may justify the unacceptable in the pursuit of a vicarious sacredness and of the common weal, absolving people from their responsibilities and validating the existing order and the obtaining epistemologies of truth. People are far too easily led to believe that, because they are inherently good, decent and law-abiding, they cannot possibly commit something morally wrong. We don’t need patriotism and civil religion to strengthen their conviction that, if they perpetrate a vile act, they are following their conscience.

Patriotism and Civil Religion

The term religion is generally derived from two Latin verbs: religàre, meaning “to bind,” and religere which, like the Greek verb alégein, means ”to care for, to be concerned about.” By extension, religion can be defined as the “careful observance of a binding divine rule.” “Civil religion” is the bond that unites a people under the same laws and rules and provides a sense of inclusion, belonging, identity, unity and structure, worth, confidence, transcendence, and purpose. It is the ethos of a society and it may be so compelling that citizens are driven to sacrifice their lives for what purports to be the common good, and sometimes really is but a figment of the imagination. The nature of civil religions can be best understood by considering the distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, which roughly translate as “society” and “community”. Gesellschaft is the “artificial”, heterogeneous, and competitive social milieu of modern urban society in which ties between individuals are loose and personal interest, instrumental rationality, and the law are the glue that holds a society together. Gemeinschaft is the “natural,” organic model of society prevailing in rural areas, which are typified by cultural homogeneousness, cohesion, enforced harmony, common objectives, and emotional bonds.
As anticipated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in chapter 8 (“De la Religion Civile”), book 4 of “Du Contrat Social” (1762), civil religions, with their quasi-religious rituals, liturgies, collective narratives, holidays, myths, heroes, symbols, and sacred places, as well as their empowering and galvanizing images, slogans, and principles, are widely regarded as the cement of modern societies. Their function is to preserve “community” alongside “society.” They mobilize people around key issues and common concerns and goals, while at the same time conferring a religious significance, and thus giving legitimacy, to the dominant cultural practices, rules, value orientations and institutions. Civic religions are alternative ways in which people may express their religiosity, and they generate that “collective effervescence” enabling a society to venerate itself. The cult of secular institutions is sometimes at variance with the orthodoxy of metaphysical religions, while at other times it becomes exceedingly difficult to draw a boundary line between civil religions and politicized faiths.
People may be more or less aware of the existence of a civil religion, but there are circumstances, like September 11, 2001, when its presence is overwhelming, and principles such as gratuity, generosity, solidarity, and reciprocity intensify a drift toward a sort of ecstatic communal worship, calling for virtue and moral excellence and offering in return spiritual reassurance and fulfillment. In extreme cases, civil religions may lead to the glorification and sacralization of nations and their political leaderships and to the repudiation of the distinction between the public and the private sphere. During the Depression and the Second World War, in Europe as in Japan, fascist and crypto-fascist governments were given full powers and states were treated as moral entities. With the convergence of religious and political authority, the cult of sacralized collectivities supplanted the liberal democratic emphasis on individual rights. Through its commitment to uphold the good and the righteous society, the Japanese State acquired a strong ethical foundation and was entitled to give moral guidance in public life and see that citizens didn’t swerve from the right path. Because there was no transcendent source of moral authority outside the emperor, there followed that Japanese could not rely on an independent standard of justice, fairness and moral conduct, and nobody would dare to challenge the emperor’s decisions. Soldiers were enjoined to obey their superior officers as they would obey the orders of the emperor himself. But because the emperor was infallible, then dutiful soldiers and officers would always be right, no matter how vicious their war tactics and behaviour towards civilians and POWs. That would exclude them from moral responsibility and would assuage feelings of guilt and fear of retribution. Consequently, historical, political, economic necessities, infused with a religious zeal, overruled any legal constraints and alternative moral views. The Japanese empire was held to be the mundane embodiment of all that was pure, true, good and beautiful. The belief in the ultimate infallibility of the leadership provided a considerable measure of ontological security. Like today’s Islamic fundamentalism and Christian radicalism, Kokka Shintô, the local version of civil religion, rejected modern secularism, which extolled the value of personal freedom and the inherent worth of the individual over religious faith and collective duties, labeling it a source of incoherent liberal values leading to social fragmentation and atomization, a watered-down religiousness, and political decline. Its militant advocates believed that an uncontaminated cultural and moral authenticity could be preserved in the context of modernity. Culturalism (bunkashugi), as part and parcel of a broader process of redefining what it means to be Japanese through an emphasis on self-affirmation and authenticity, would enable the Japanese to acquire the “modern” without acquiring “the West” as well, and especially the inquisitive “democratic frame of mind” characteristic of an autonomous citizenry. In this way, the Japanese “closed society” would be eternalized and the Japanese would be subsumed by the organic state and submerged by a collective, hyper-ritualized religious practice. The voluntary dissolution of the self to serve the public (messhi hōkō) would secure the attainment of a perfect sense of spiritual integration. At the same time, the institutional indifference to individual circumstances and interests, and the fear of personal liberties, which is so typical of organic conceptions of society, fostered a self-righteous worldview stamped by intolerance and violence, and the crystallization of differences as timeless essences. This justified killing, mass murder, and the clash of civilizations, for those who did not belong to the divine, racially and culturally superior Yamato ethno-religious community – i.e. the jama gedō, “unruly heathens” – were impure and corrupted sub-humans. These tenets also disposed thousands of Japanese soldiers to self-sacrifice for the sake of Japan’s rebirth, for if their destiny was to follow the imperial dictates to the letter, then their duty was to eagerly embrace their own death and the death of those who opposed the emperor’s plans. Japanese soldiers would look at themselves through the eyes of the imperial propaganda and of Japanese society and see their deeds and choices as inevitable and transcending good and evil. As a result, decisions concerning the life and death of civilians were morally indifferent, as witnessed by the atrocities committed by desensitized Japanese soldiers during the war, and especially at Nanking, in 1937, when as many as 350,000 Chinese civilians were remorselessly tortured and murdered.
The fascist civil religion blended pedagogic moralism, collective responsibility, social utility and regimentation, with the repudiation of the materialist, decadent, atomized, bourgeois, and democratic West. It conferred an almost numinous quality and eschatological dimension to the policy-making process, and reinscribed emotional attachment, spiritual yearning, and an idealistic sense of citizenship in a society in which individuals were expected to put their own interests after the interests of society at large. In the words of Joseph Goebbels, “It hardly matters what we believe in, so long as we believe in something.” This radical version of civil religion promised an alternative, re-moralized modernity which would lead to a collective, mundane salvation and to the redemption of the national community from an alleged fallen state. National Socialists were particularly successful in injecting “magic”, “sublime” and “epic” into a society awaiting its regeneration. Indeed, as Hitler himself remarked, “those who see in National Socialism nothing more than a political movement know scarcely anything of it. It is even more than a religion: it is the will to create mankind anew”.
Adolf Eichmann is the embodiment of the one-dimensional man shaped by the radicalization of patriotism. A man who images groups too vividly and hence loses sight of himself and his individuality. Because of that, he willingly cooperated in the victimization of other ordinary persons. Shortly before his execution, Adolf Eichmann announced: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” In the end, when the time for his execution arrived, he added: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” Hannah Arendt could not take seriously a man who addressed the witnesses to his execution by expressing his belief in life after death, when he himself had stated that he was a Gottgläubiger, that is, not a Christian. She assumed that it was a glaring contradiction, for only Christians would believe in the afterlife. Not so. Everyone must struggle to reconcile the reality of one’s mortal body and the hope (or faith) in the immortality of the spirit in order to affirm one’s significance in a seemingly absurd universe (“absurd” in a Camusian/existentialist sense). In the words of anthropologist Ernest Becker, “what man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance.” National Socialism helped Germans deny their finitude by persuading them that they were part of a transcendental entity (the Aryan Race) committed to a millenarian project, i.e. the immortality project called “the Third Reich”. This is how ordinary Germans gained a sense of vicarious divinity and could drastically devalue the life of Untermenschen in the larger scheme of things. And this is also why they fought to the point of self-destruction. Sacrifice and annihilation of the enemy became the German single survival strategy, in the sense that the sacralized German Reich, which through its eternal existence would assure the perpetuation of its members, was engaged in a struggle over truth, immortality, and the ultimate, imperishable meaning of life. Defeat was identical with extinction. It would not be necessary to impose the imperative of cosmic heroism: joining one’s destiny to the Third Reich was a shared patriotic and racial responsibility, which would assuage the anxiety over one’s physical vulnerability and, above all, break the spell of the absurd through self-transcendence.
Obviously, historical and political factors, status anxiety, power relations, and economic competition, all play a major role in human life, but the fact remains, as Albert Camus has so definitely and persuasively argued in his L’Homme Révolté, that the self-imposed servitude to a “mortality-denying system” is the greatest threat to individual liberty. Eichmann and the other perpetrators of the Holocaust believed that they were taking part in a cathartic event which would purify German society and German souls once and for all. Their millenarian mélange of Arcadian and utopian sentiments translated into contempt for the present, the hallmark of those people who feel that they are born too early or too late, and whose emotional attachments and loyalties have been best described by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “higher than love of one’s neighbor is love for the remote and for the future.”
When pursued to its extremes, this logic generates a cultic milieu where everything must be experienced in an all-or-nothing basis and which is highly likely to veer towards dystopian developments, as with National Socialism. The worldview of an Eichmann completely neutralizes the relevance of human agency and turns back the clock of history to a time prior to the breach of order, to an age of primordial harmony and reassuring moral discipline where each would find the right place in the order of things. This shared imaginative (and sedative) vision provides ontological security and soothes personal anxieties. This probably also explains why millenarian movements generally resurface during times of perceived national crisis, when they are regarded as vehicles of world-rejecting purification, enabling people to feel that they are more effectively in control of their own destinies.
Where monistic beliefs prevail over negotiations, compromises, and public debates, the consequences can be entirely different. Most German physicians and nurses who took part in the execution of thousands of mentally sick people did not realise that their justifications (and their self-definition as principled individuals) could only be deemed acceptable in a world ruled by their country. The most unpleasant truth we confront is that, in the performance of their duties, perpetrators were cognitively and morally one-dimensional, conformist, and uncritical but their inner life was probably no more inarticulate or impoverished than the inner life of the average person. They were ordinary people who did not see themselves as monsters, but as diligent and conscientious professionals. Like Eichmann, they never doubted that the principle of their volition could be the basis of general legislation. The problem was that in Nazi Germany the Kantian imperative was rephrased as follows: “act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your actions, would approve it”. In “Personal responsibility under dictatorship”, Hannah Arendt notes that most German people, “regardless of party affiliation and direct implication, believed in the new order of things for no other reason than that was the way things were”. The totalist scenario in which they operated triggered a process of cognitive redefinition of the morality of their actions, and many of them most certainly believed that they had compelling reasons to act consistently as they did.
Moral agency is far more dramatically affected by circumstances and external pressure than we would like to believe. Moral choices are to a large extent shaped by the context, i.e. the social network of interactions, roles, expectations, obligations, etc. In other words, the morality of a society generally reflects its power structure. As a consequence, just men and women do not necessarily build just societies and individuals with advanced cognitive skills are just as likely to forfeit freedom of thinking and moral decency in a highly paternalistic and ideologized milieu, especially if they perceive that a command, however morally questionably it may be, comes from a legitimate authority. Groups give people the strength necessary to resist oppression and oppose evil-doing, but group dynamics also generate the kind of diffusion of responsibility that may lead ordinary people to commit atrocities.
Ultimately, while in the short term the achievement of social cohesion and social justice may benefit from a vibrant civil religion, citizens should remain vigilant to the risk that, in times of dislocation and crisis, civil religion itself might justify the belief that individuals exist for the state and the community, and not vice versa. Like any other religion, civil religion is not immune from the temptation to portray history as a perpetual battle between good and evil, to urge believers to prove their faith and commitment, and to underplay the question of the inherent worth of individuals.

When patriotism goes awry

Even though postmodernism has defected from the Enlightenment universalist principles, the weight of the empirical evidence is on the side of the philosophes and cosmopolitanism. For all the communitarian rhetoric about preserving the organic unity of individuals and communities in order to cut crime, suicide and divorce rates, most suicides occur in social environments where norms are too tight and people are more easily crushed by the pressure to conform. By contrast, societies with a high level of social capital are by and large the most individualistic and vice versa: “in societies where individuals are more autonomous and seemingly liberated from social bonds, the same individuals are also more inclined to form voluntary associations and to trust each other and to have a certain kind of public spirit.” Evidence shows that when people manage to relieve themselves from feelings of guilt and shame imposed from the outside (submission, ‘constricted’ personality), that is, when they see themselves in control of their own lives, they enjoy greater self-esteem, subjective well-being, and develop an ‘expansive’ personality, more trusting, tolerant and more open to new experiences. They also become more optimistic, less aggressive and more effective at negotiation, and are more ready to accept responsibility (ethical agency). In other words, high levels of fear, guilt and shame correlate with lower levels of moral reasoning and higher levels of compliance and submissiveness. As a result, individualism is, rather paradoxically, the necessary condition for the building and maintenance of social cohesion, economic development, mutual trust, co-operation, and social inclusion.
This sounds encouraging, but there is another side to it. As Emile Durkheim and Erich Fromm have predicted, the more individuals feel liberated the more they risk to feel ill at ease with their individuality, which may cause them to feel the urge to sacrifice it to whomever or whatever promises to put an end to their sense of alienation and isolation. That is, the new social bonds may turn out to be more inhibiting than protective and likely to bring people to grow even more dependent on society. Instead of the pursuit of the institutionalization of conflict and diversity, a self-interested, opaque, and unaccountable ruling elite will maintain a democratic but not liberal tradition of institutional consensus (the general will) leading, inevitably, to the increasing colonization of the “life-world” of civil society on the part of the state and, possibly, to the moral castration and critical self-lobotomisation of citizens.
This is what generally occurs in those societies that are engaged in a rather brisk transition to liberal democracy and respond in “Rousseauesque” ways to the challenge of Renaissance humanism, “rootless” Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, and the universalistic pluralism driving the human rights agenda. These societies share in common a seemingly incongruous blend of strong egalitarian communalism and libertarian paternalism (we might want to call it “atomistic communitarianism” or “individualist statism”) which possibly arises from the ideological constraints of a freedom-loving and authoritarian peasantry. While for Kant “a universal cosmopolitan existence” was the “highest purpose of nature”, faced with the challenges of globalization, instead of embracing change, these “enclave societies” often opt for the domestication of the foreign to immunize themselves from the “shallowness” of cosmopolitanism. This outlook tends to undermine efforts to establish a modern, pluralistic, open civil society as a collection of intermediate, freely chosen bodies between the State and the citizens. Historically, in Britain, Northern France and Benelux, and in the Canadian and American East Coast a cosmopolitan mindset was far more widespread. In my opinion these societies are the yardstick against which we should compare the performance of other countries in terms of their commitment to liberal democracy – meaning “rule by the people”, where people is understood as demos (individual citizens), not as ethnos (ethnic majority) – and to the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that is, to the culture of human rights. These seafaring, open societies traditionally welcomed immigrants and religious and political refugees and have been virtually immune to fascism, eugenic legislation, and racial hygiene. Anti-Semitism has also been less strong there than anywhere else in Europe and North America. Prior to WWII, the further one moved from these core areas, the more insufficient the grasp of the humanist and liberal cosmopolitan values was, and the greater the prejudice against vulnerable minorities, women, and democratic institutions.
Because the way a society treats its minorities is an important indication of its level of “civility” and “enlightenment”, it is no accident that France and the Benelux are high on the list of “Righteous among the Nations”. Together with Italy and Denmark (two countries with an important tradition of maritime trade), they had the highest rate of Jewish survival. With an important exception: 75% of the Dutch-Jewish population was annihilated. Of 144,000 Jews, only about 35,000 survived the war. Thousands of Dutch turned into “Jew bounty hunters”, while Dutch Jews did not realise that placing their trust in the state government and complying with its rules is not always safe. This raises a question that cannot be answered: How many Jews did not leave their countries or defy the law and died in the Holocaust because of their patriotism? Hamburg is another remarkable case-study: possibly the most cosmopolitan and tolerant German city, it was also the most eager to deport or sterilize “antisocial individuals” and to send its Jews to the extermination camps. How do we explain this puzzling contradiction? And then there are the Danes, so law-abiding and patriotic that about two hundred German functionaries were sufficient to secure the shipment of food supplies to Nazi Germany. At the same time, around 80% of Italian Jews survived the war, despite the Axis alliance, Mussolini’s anti-Semitic segregationist laws and the fascist aggressive warfare. Why did so many Italian officers and rank and file soldiers become rescuers, at the risk of being court-martialed for treason? The Nazi rounding up of Jews for their extermination was the Grenzsituation, the ultimate boundary-situation that drew hundreds of Italians into civil disobedience. By taking advantage of the painstaking German legal/bureaucratic procedures and turning them against the Nazis themselves Italian officials and functionaries, unpatriotically and inadvertently, put into practice Thoreau’s dictum that “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice” and the wise words of Emerson that “good men must not obey the laws too well.”
Historian Jonathan Steinberg has argued that Italians and Germans “inhabited different moral universes”. I agree with Steinberg and with his view that many, but still a tiny minority of Italians, understood that civic duty and patriotism, with their cumbersome baggage of strong ideals of incontrovertible good and evil, should never be placed above human compassion and moral courage. Still, we need to locate the source of this fundamental cleavage. For centuries, the Mediterranean, Latin and Western liberal traditions have been cosmopolitan. They have been civilizations for exportation, for it was commonly assumed that culture and civilitas transformed people. By contrast, the fate of the heroes of Nordic/Germanic sagas was sealed from their birth: their lot was decreed by their genealogy. Correspondingly, Nordic Lutheranism calls the original sin arvsynd, which, like its German equivalent Erbsünde, conveys the idea of the heritability of sins. This belief translated in the doctrine of Ahnenerbe (‘ancestral inheritance’), which described individual life as the epiphenomenon of perpetual bloodlines, and was deployed by Heinrich Himmler to justify his plans for a New European Order. Traces of this erroneous understanding of genealogies in terms of genetic continuity, that is, of a combination of Eternal Recurrence – human beings as expressions of the immortal germ-plasm – and a natural teleology of history – biology as destiny –, were evident in the writings of many German-speaking popularisers of evolutionary theory. Instead, law-makers in Holland, Britain, New England and Latin Rim countries objected to selective breeding, involuntary sterilization, the assault on the notion of free will, and the linear extension of natural laws into the social sphere. Eugenics, genetic fatalism, and the marriage between bureaucratic rationality and scientism did not evidently resonate with every Western repertoire of values and symbols.
Dutch nationalism followed the liberal-constitutional pattern but perhaps many Dutch civil servants and policemen had not developed a sufficient degree of ego-independence, which would have allowed them to resist the “lust” for submission and compliance. This would be in agreement with Kateb’s contention that “all this energy and commitment emanating from love of country strengthens some of the worst aspects of modern political life and, in itself, this love, this patriotism, sacrifices universal moral principle in worship of a false god. Patriotism is not only disguised self-worship, not only eager self-abjection, not only voluntary self-exploitation; above all it is idolatry.” It would also confirm Durkheim’s and Fromm’s intuition that the threat of collectivism is always present, especially when penalties for breaking protocols are very high. In this sense Alfred North Whitehead’s statement that “it is a profoundly erroneous truism…that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them,” is just as accurate as it is alarming. It intimates that the complexities of modern society can only be dealt with effectively if a large chunk of the population is prepared to disown individuality for the sake of their country, à la Eichmann, and to shun solitude, the only condition in which someone can detach himself from the crowd and explore one’s inner ocean. The outcome is the worst kind of utilitarianism: it justifies anything.
The history of eugenics provides the clearest demonstration of this. By the early 1930s, sterilisation programmes were in full swing on the North American West Coast, in Central Europe and in the Nordic Countries. Following the moral panic generated by the Great Depression, few families were prepared to put up with the social protection of what was perceived to be a disproportionate number of dependent people. Some prominent Scandinavian, North American and German jurists argued that, under exceptional circumstances, basic rights could be withheld and that social services should only be provided to those whose social usefulness and biological capability were beyond dispute. The state was the source of a morality more in line with the demands of modernity, and therefore was not necessarily bound by constitutional principles and norms: personal rights were not inalienable, for they really were culturally and historically relative legal fictions or superstitions, their existence being, to a large extent, contingent on the majority’s willingness to uphold them, that is, on considerations of general welfare and public utility. Instead of protecting the citizens, laws legitimized the persecution of certain categories of people, purportedly unable to enjoy freedom and to pursue happiness, by gradually stripping them of their rights and legal protections. Such policies were described as politically necessary and ethically indisputable. In a tragic reversal of roles, according to the dominant “discourse of truth,” those who violated the physical integrity of other citizens were fulfilling a constitutionally sanctioned civic duty, while the victims of involuntary sterilization and confinement were a social threat and, as such, they should be subject to legally mandated sterilization or confinement “for the good of society”. This is how patriotism, in concert with technocratic fanaticism, made it easier to strip away citizens’ fundamental rights with a clear conscience. Enlightened governments, like good shepherds, would foster virtues and restrict personal rights for the sake of communal rights and civic responsibility, that is, in the name of the homeland.

Liberal democracies have no use for the mystique of patriotism and civil religion

Wilton Sekzer, a retired NYPD officer, lost his son on 9/11. Seeking revenge, he e-mailed the Pentagon and the Army to have his son’s name painted on a bomb to be dropped in Iraq. The bomb, with inscribed the dedication “In loving memory of Jason Sekzer”, fell on the Iraqis. Sekzer was later to find out through a televised press conference by George W. Bush that there was no connection between Iraq and the terrorist attacks on American soil.
It is most unfortunate that those communitarians who condemn the alleged “social monism” of cosmopolitan liberalism and advocate primordial memberships do not seem to have fully thought through the actual implications of their contentions in the light of the historical precedents. Primary civic virtues such as obedience, loyalty, discipline, harmony, self-restraint, duty, respect, group cohesion, which are indispensable to maintain the larger social system, are also potentially harmful, and even deadly, in so many ways. One only has to think of the worrisome results of the experiments carried out by Asch, Sherif, Milgram, Zimbardo, etc. on group influence, conformity to social role, obedience, the stifling of dissent and their disastrous consequences in terms of judgment and decision-making. The sad truth is that people in crowds behave like sheep or ants, blindly following their leaders who, in turn, cannot help but submit to the herding instinct of the shepherd dog set on the salvation of the flock (pastoral power). In so doing, they ignore new and more promising options. But even a single dissenter can make a difference in the moral reasoning of the other members of a group. It is not that individuals make better decisions than groups, for countless tests prove the opposite, what we should avoid is group polarization through a norm of openness and dialogue and a strong emphasis on individual autonomy, universality and generality. This is precisely why cosmopolitan liberalism is irreconcilable with patriotism and civil religions. Cosmopolitan liberalism is likely to increase the number of potential dissenters because it is not premised on the “ethics of community” but on the “ethics of autonomy”, that is, on the Kantian/Kohlbergian assumption that: (a) moral maturity comes down to moral autonomy; (b) morality should be based on individual rights rather than on social duties (post-conventional morality) and entails acting in a way that is in accordance with universal standards of justice; and, finally, (c) rational autonomy is empowering, for it enables citizens to make up their own minds and decide the kind of life they wish for themselves (ethical agency).
Ultimately, the most infuriating vice of humanity is not egotism (which is bad enough already) but conformism, which is often accompanied by a sense of cosmic determinism and by our willing subjugation to an oppressive sociality, and to myths and other abstractions such as an idealised past and an ideal future. These traits function as powerful mobilizing forces causing people to believe that asserting one’s personality and individuality is intrinsically wrong, even though “the ordinary self is not so impoverished as to acquire substance only through intense adherence to a group pattern.”
Once again, wouldn’t we all be better off if human beings only loved living beings, instead of perverting the very nature of love by extending this feeling to things and figments of the imagination, like “homeland” and “common will”? A related question is whether the aim of policy-making is to preserve certain institutions or instead to pursue the welfare of human beings? In other words, does the Italian constitution deserve my love, indulgence or reverence, as if it were Sacred Scripture, or rather my respect and appreciation for what it stands for, namely the notion that human beings have worth as human beings, and only secondarily as members of some category or other? If the latter is true, then “constitutional patriotism” is indeed an oxymoron (Kateb, 2008).


After the spectacular failure of conventional (communitarian) morality during the past century, unconditional and unreflective identifications are extremely problematic. It is, in my opinion, rather preposterous to argue that it is possible to teach patriotism without instilling jingoism, for patriotism is not a natural sentiment in large scale state societies. It is an invention, an artificial construction, unlike our membership in the human species, and needs to be relentlessly mobilized, also through the language of moral obligation, to the extent that one is recognized as a dutiful citizen and moral agent only as a patriot. This mobilization demands an emotional investment that constitutional patriotism as such cannot possibly trigger – hence the unavoidable nationalistic overtones – and implies that there is a “correct” way of relating to one’s country. In this sense, patriotism can only be idolatrous and the heartland, or Heimat, is apt to be seen as a natural entity, an inherited commitment from which one can hardly tear himself away, rather than a “territory of the imagination.”
Furthermore, there is no such thing as an intellectually objective patriot promoting some sort of “benign, progressive patriotism”. Someone’s patriot is another one’s nationalist. Patriotism, a variety of tribalism that becomes more conspicuous in times of increased rootlessness, far from erasing otherness, magnifies it and thus cannot be the vehicle of a deeper affection for human beings. We should instead question any settled sense of ‘we’ identification and strive to develop ‘post-conventional identities’ in what Habermas has termed ‘post-traditional society’. A truly cosmopolitan culture is the universal acid that will eventually eat through all ascribed group identities which depersonalize individuals, disable their critical faculties and independence of thought, and ultimately prevent them from pursuing a more subjective idea of the ‘good life’, in a socially responsible manner.


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