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Crude Alternatives

by Stephen Nathanson

Martha Nussbaum thinks we must decide between patriotism and cosmopolitanism, and urges that we choose the cosmopolitan alternative and teach it to our children. Unfortunately, while only an extreme chauvinist would dismiss the humane motivations underlying her argument, the view she endorses plays into the hands of the extreme patriots she opposes and offers little by way of a real alternative.

Many of the commentators on Nussbaum's essay claim that she unfairly equates patriotism with an extreme version of it -- the "We're number one," "my country, right or wrong" variety. I agree with them that this is a mistake, and in Patriotism, Morality, and Peace (Rowman and Littlefield), I have proposed an account of the nature of extreme patriotism and why it is an evil. In addition, like many of the commentators, I argue that extreme patriotism is not the only kind of patriotism, and I describe a "moderate" form that is not chauvinistic, militaristic, or hostile to dissent. In brief, if we see the essence of patriotism as love of one's own country, it is clear that one can love one's country without hating other countries, being an enthusiast about war, limiting one's concerns to one's own country, or believing in mindless obedience and support. A moderate patriot is not a cosmopolitan in Nussbaum's sense, but such a person could well possess at least some of the virtues Nussbaum wants to promote.

In fairness to Nussbaum and against her critics, it needs to be said that this kind of humane patriotism -- the form that I defend and that many of the commentators eloquently assert -- is not the patriotism that is usually expressed in public life. The visible patriots of our society have been people like Oliver North, and patriotism has most often been invoked to stifle criticism and rally people for war. Even though patriotic ideals can, then, be developed in admirable and constructive ways, it remains true that many people -- including both cosmopolitans and extreme patriots -- will not even recognize this positive ideal as a genuine form of patriotism.

The work of articulating this positive patriotism and making it a visible part of our culture remains incomplete. Indeed, it has barely begun, in part because disgust with extreme patriotism generally pushes thoughtful people toward cosmopolitanism, rather than inspiring an effort to transform patriotism.

While Nussbaum cannot be faulted for taking seriously what is essentially a simplistic, undesirable, and morally unattractive form of patriotism, she can be criticized both for underestimating the need for some form of patriotism to provide social cohesion, and for failing to give any genuine content to her cosmopolitan ideal, leaving it largely undeveloped and amorphous.

In the wake (pun intended) of the November elections, we cannot afford to take for granted the forces of social cohesion in our own society. We are so badly fractured, so ill equipped to bring people together in common tasks that there is something presumptuous and complacent about placing the promotion of cosmopolitan ideals as our main priority. Nussbaum seems to speak as if our social bonds were healthy and intact and simply needed to be broadened to include the rest of humanity. Of course, global values also need to be promoted, but not as a replacement for cohesive forces within our own society.

Finally, both Nussbaum and others of us who regard the cosmopolitan vision as desirable in any way need to examine it as critically as we examine the patriotic ideal. In the abstract, globalist ideals have much appeal, but it is not clear that we really understand what they amount to. Unfortunately, Nussbaum was content to wave the banner of world citizenship without really telling us how a commitment to humanity is to be made compatible with our belief that we have strong duties to our families, friends, and other more immediate communities. Of course, we are all equally human, and that humanity requires some form of recognition and respect from us, whether or not it exists on our side of a border. But what exactly follows from these moral truths? How are they to be translated into action, both politically and personally?

These are harder questions than Nussbaum seems to realize. Before we can decide whether to embrace the cosmopolitan ideal, we need to figure out what it amounts to. There's no point replacing a crude form of patriotism with an equally crude form of cosmopolitanism.

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