Well, Even Scoundrels Deserve a Last Refuge, Don't They?

It is always a pleasure to be critiqued by Daniel Larison, and he rightly chides me for conflating entities that ought not to be conflated. Clearly, one can be a patriot and oppose the regime that rules one’s country – even oppose the entire political system. Indeed, sometimes one can only properly express patriotism by going into such opposition; certainly that’s the way we feel these days about, say, Germans who opposed the Nazi regime.

I’m less clear, though, that one can be a patriot while radically critiquing the very definition of one’s country’s polity. I’m going to try to explore the question, as I often do, through cases.

1. Can one hold that both Marsall Petain and General de Gaulle were French patriots?

I think the answer to this one has to be “yes.” You can’t hold that both were right, but you can believe that both were acting sincerely out of patriotic motives – that both were doing what they felt was best for France as France. That still leaves open plenty of room to criticize – and punish – collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, as well as, for that matter, obeisance on the part of some partisans to the Politburo against the interests of France. But on the biggest picture question of “do we fight on” or “do we surrender and try to salvage what we can of our country” there has to be room to say that both perspectives can be understood to be patriotic, albeit one or the other must, ultimately, be proven wrong by events.

2. Can one consider both President de Gaulle and the “quarteron de généraux en retraite” who plotted the 1961 coup attempt against him to have been French patriots?

This is by no means an easy case. I defined patriotic action in passing above as action motivated by the desire for what was best for one’s country as one’s country. But what if the question at hand is not merely “what is best?” but “how is one’s country defined?” Algeria was, in law, an integral part of France, not a colony. The generals who staged their coup were aware that Paris was already negotiating with the political arm of the FLN, and that the end result of negotiations would inevitably be the severing of Algeria from France. De Gaulle was far from forthright about his determination to accept Algerian independence until very late in the game, but his actions make clear that from very close to the beginning (that is to say, 1958) he saw Algerian independence as inevitable, and, indeed, necessary to preserve France. But the generals, presumably, saw the facts differently, and saw de Gaulle’s action as leading to the dismemberment of their country – indeed, the severing of their pays from their patrie. I want very much to say that the coup plotters were the opposite of patriotic, but I can’t see how to get there; I feel forced to conclude that they were wrong, stupid, deluded and criminal, but not unpatriotic in their motives.

3. Can one consider René Lévesque to be a Canadian patriot?

This, by contrast, has to be an easy case. The answer has to be, “no.” Lévesque is clearly a Québécois patriot, but if your political program is independence from Canada and a sovereign Québécois state, you can’t be a Canadian patriot. In liberal democracies, of course, we don’t demand patriotism of all political actors – there is a great deal of space between patriotism and treason, and one can perfectly well peacefully and openly advocate for secession without being treasonous. But I can’t see how you can call such a person a patriot. Even if Lévesque believed that separation was best for Anglo Canada as well, and therefore “best for Canada” – he could not possibly believe it was best for Canada “as Canada” but rather that it were best for Canada to be redefined as something other than it was by separation from Quebec. More to the point, he is plainly putting an allegiance to Quebec above any allegiance to Canada. I can’t see how you can call someone who does that a Canadian patriot.

4. Can one consider Sir John Clerk, Second Baronet of Penicuik, to be a Scottish patriot? A patriot of any sort?

That’s an interesting one! Clerk was a Scottish politician and a leading advocate of the Acts of Union that created the United Kingdom. The Acts were extremely unpopular in Scotland at the time, and the process of gaining approval for union with England through the Scottish Parliament far from “clean,” but neither of these is sufficient to impugn the motives of someone who supported the union as the best thing for Scotland – and let us assume that Clerk had such honorable motives. Can one patriotically vote for an end to national sovereignty, and submersion in a larger political entity? Could one support the Acts of Union because they were the best for Scotland as Scotland? I think the answer should be, “yes”- certainly I hope so, for otherwise “patriotism” is dead as a concept in Europe, and I think patriotism is on the whole a “good thing.” But it’s not obvious to me how we get to “yes” given that, once one has created something called the United Kingdom of Great Britain, patriotism will be defined with reference to that polity; one will talk of British patriots; of Scottish patriots not so much (and of English patriots not at all) – even though “Scotland” and “Scotsmen” will continue to exist, with a substantially distinct identity, while “Britain” will remain to some degree a “nationalist” abstraction.

5. So where does this leave us with respect to Mr. Kennan?

This whole discussion started with the question: if one’s critique of America as it is gets so fundamental that one winds up saying that America should cease to exist as a polity, then in what sense can one consider oneself a patriot – or, let’s say, an American patriot (presumably one could still be a patriotic Vermonter or Texan or what-have-you). Patriotism means “love of country” – the land, the language, the customs, the people, the history, the traditions, the ethos: any and all of these are a reasonable basis for love, but the object is a country. What one’s country is, how it is defined, can be contested – is, in different ways and to different degrees, in all of the examples I gave above. But if you say, “America has gotten too big for its own good; the best thing for Americans, and for those things that I love about America and Americans, would be for the country to be broken up into a dozen smaller states” that is as much as to say, “America has gotten too big for its own good; it will die, one way or another. Better we kill it ourselves, by splitting it up, and preserve much of what we love about America and Americans in new and smaller polities, than see it die by turning into a corrupt and decadent empire empty of those virtues for which I most love it.” The latter sentiment is a sentiment born of love; I can even say that what is loved is America, the posited speaker’s country. But it is still really strange to call it a patriotic sentiment. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

Over to you, Daniel.