Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
A clique of intrepid Redstate readers have over the past few months joined me — or perhaps, as these are in general generous men, it would be better to say they have indulged me — in an occasional debate that we might set under the head, On the Nature of Patriotism. As with all good debates between men, this one will never end; as with all good debates online, it is no insult to the participants, or the forum, to say that it would be much better — more boisterously, more warmly, more fruitfully — conducted over mugs of strong beer late at night, to the consternation of attached women. Alas, this true form of the masculine self-government is unavailable to us, so we will make use of what we have.
Some years ago now, I began a project on Patriotism, with the intention of turning it into a book. The impetus was not mine, but rather a well-known editor’s, who astonished me by approaching me on the subject. This project never came to fruition, mostly for reasons deriving from my difficulties getting a handle on it; but I have never lost interest in the subject. On the contrary: my interest has only grown, even as I have taken up another project dealing with what has already, or certainly will soon become the primary object of the indignation and antagonism of American patriotism: namely, the Islamic religion; or more precisely, the wicked doctrine of Jihad, which is one of the darker offspring of the Islamic religion. This project is moving along nicely. The expectation is that it will be published by Spence in mid-2007. Anyway, in the earlier project, I had gone as far as discover what must be the title for what may be the central chapter in my now-imaginary book on patriotism. Titles being indispensable things, I was quite satisfied with this one: the Partition of Patriotism.
The Partition is an attempted violent separation of things that are in fact an integrity; a partition like that which preceded the Civil War, or followed the various conspiracies of subjugation visited upon Poland by European powers; the breaking of an organic union. The union in question here is of mind and viscera, “head and belly” as C. S. Lewis put it: “The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat,” he continues, “of emotion organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by the intellect he is mere spirit and by appetite mere animal.” Patriotism is a thing of the chest. I might almost say it the quintessential thing of the chest.
But it is also, like so much else that is true, a thing of irresolvable paradox. It is the paradox of the sort proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount; that of small being great, of poor being rich, of weak being strong. This is not a mere clever verbalism, but rather a reflection of the feebleness of our apprehension of reality — the ineradicable limitations of our perception. The meek shall inherit the earth is a verbal contradiction that has been repeated in reality a hundred times over, not least in the conquest of the great Roman Empire by the meekness of the early Christians, or, more basically, in the meekness of the infant who was God. And patriotism too begins in meekness. Only by feeling that our home is small and unheralded and very dear, can we ever realize that it is great. When we discover that our country is weak, unutterably weak and broken, subjugated and beset — then our love for her grows to a grandeur equal to the word patriotism. That poet laureate of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, once asked a pregnant question, with a ring of thunder: what can they “know of England who only England know?” Here, as Chesterton perceived, Mr. Kipling let his worldliness oppress his patriotism, and lost his way. For the patriot is a lover; and thus cosmopolitanism is adultery. The patriot may surely come to learn much about other countries, and come to admire some as he detests others; indeed, only a very narrow patriot will abjure that intuitive delight in variety which is the birthright of man. But this is something quite different than “knowing” as we are using it here. The ancient writers of Scripture even refer to the conjugal act as “knowing” your wife; and if the reader can forgive my pressing of this earthy parallel still further, the English patriot, lest he debase his love, can indeed “only England know.”
All this is suggested, more reliably than my scribblings ever can, in the striking language of natural beauty that permeates our patriotic songs. They are, indeed, a kind of love song. “Purple mountains majesty,” “woods and templed hills,” “oceans white with foam” — this is the poetry of the lover. It is the particulars of the beloved that inspires the emotion. It is even, if you will, the smallness of these particulars. And being small they are vulnerable, which is what moves the patriot to action. What is “The Star-Spangled Banner” (its most familiar stanza, at least) but a hymn to the vulnerability of something beloved? We would have a strange anthem indeed if the flag venerated therein were seen as vast and indestructible; if the poetry rang with unflagging optimism about its endurance. Does the flag of that song not feel small and dear? — silent against the shattering report of the bombs bursting; soon to vanish in swamping darkness of perilous night; distant and feeble against the breaking dawn; dwarfed by the glowering ramparts? There is even a solid edge of surprise that it has survived the night, that small and menaced flag. And this small and menaced banner could not possibly wave over the land of the free unless the latter were also, in a sense, small and vulnerable.
Sometimes, as with most loves, patriotic love will move men to amusing acts of that folly which is actually wisdom. There are unique delights in every man’s warm feeling for his home. He may remember a certain valley, or the glow of a sunset at a certain time of year; he may be surprised by some long forgotten smell, or reminded of warm memories by an old tune. But at any rate he can hardly describe these things with any exactness. They are the inexpressible particulars of any love. Poetry and song are their best approximations. For example, whenever I hear the opening chords of the Allman Brothers’ song “Blue Sky,” I feel patriotic. It is silly and even embarrassing; it is also true. The lyrics of that song are really quite banal; but the song is beautiful to me, because it reminds me of the American South, which has become my home — the vast sun-drenched majesty of the South, which sometimes feels so small and vulnerable.
In other words, Patriotism cannot be properly understood — understanding cannot even begin — unless we first see that its “belly” is anchored in the intuition of something weak but tenderly adored that is threatened: the intuition of meekness under threat. A passion has been stirred by this intuition. Not an argument; a passion, and a particularly vital one. That passion is Indignation; and the whole world, in a sense, must be, at least potentially, the enemy.
Alright. How, then, does the “head” enter the puzzle? How is this passion of Indignation “organized by trained habit into stable sentiment”? First, it enters in concrete acts of discipline, the intentional impression of order upon anarchic things. We feel a passion, and we train it by ritual, custom, prescription. At every sporting event in the country, even the half-drunk crazies with faces painted like mediaeval warriors remove their hats and stand quietly for the national anthem. We send great volleys of pyrotechnics into the air, and give ordered liberty to the pyromania of young boys, on Independence Day; it used to be (and still is, in some places) that on that same day families would gather round for readings of legendary American oratory and text. The passions are ordered according to their nature, in a sort of renewal and reformation. Even in this collective work of the intellect is rooted in the particular. And it is important to realize that this discipline is emphatically not a purely individualistic thing: it springs from that great “democracy of the dead,” which is tradition. It is an attempt at a sort of communion with the American mind across the generations, embracing the living, the dead, and the as yet unborn.
But it is here, when we come to the question of the role of the intellect, that, alas, the heresy of Partition wreaks its havoc. For the instinct of modern men, even those inspired to defend patriotism against other moderns who would like to have done with it altogether, is to introduce a Universalism that appears to enlarge but really only narrows. The attempt is made, by this theory, to attach the love of country to a variety of political doctrines. Mostly these are fine political doctrines — liberty, rule of law, free enterprise — but they cannot be the stimulus of truly human passion, because they exist only as abstractions. We need only give cursory consideration to the sanguinary Twentieth Century to observe the sort of inhuman passions wayward abstractions can stimulate. Sloppy talk and sloppier thinking allows such phrases as the “threat to democracy” to pass unremarked almost daily, but the pulverizing fact is that “democracy” has no concrete existence of its own. There is no democracy as such; there can only be American democracy, or French, English or Iraqi democracy. Men only talk of a threat to democracy because they perceive a threat to their country, which they have associated, through the rarefied parlance of Western politics, with this system called democracy.
But the only way to force this conflation of political abstraction with concrete reality — and thus the only way to achieve an approximation of the passion of Indignation — is through the abbreviation of reality we call an Ideology. This is why I say Universalism narrows, despite its claim to do the opposite: the whole vast organic tangle of attachments, memories, prescriptions, and intuitions, which are conjured by the word “country,” and which inspire such songs of love as our patriotic ones, and which become the seedbed of our national patriotic rituals, is contracted into a set of stock phrases of political discourse. No political discourse, no matter how sensitive, no matter how inspired, no matter how comprehensive, can possibly capture even a fragment of the living tradition that is within a man when he reflects on his country. Reality is too vast for words. Ideologies have their uses, of course, but they must always be abbreviations of reality.
For example, it is said that Capitalism is a part of the American creed, and as such should be part of the object of our patriotic affections. But I do not love Capitalism, and never will. I see its uses, and sometimes I suspect that it is merely a term we use to denote “the way things are,” but in any case I shall never love it. And indeed, there are times when this passion of Indignation has risen in me with great fury against it — usually when Capitalism has made a dark alliance with darker forces to oppress my home, as when, for example, a local homeowner must jump through a hundred bureaucratic hoops to remove a dead tree that threatens his house, while the large developer can remove a whole copse of trees with impunity. Small property is fettered; capitalist collectivism is emancipated. The vulnerability of the American South to these dark alliances is acute; and I confess that there are moments when I feel that nothing is so great a threat to my home as these. There are parts of the South which have been so tortured by Capitalism, so visited with unthinking ugliness, that one can feel only hatred — a hatred for the devil and his works. This is the passion inspired at times by Capitalism.
But of course, Capitalism is primarily a matter for adjudication by reason; the place for passion is small. Ugliness is certainly not the greatest evil, and anyway Socialism has far outdone Capitalism in producing ugliness. But if someone tells me that Capitalism must be included in my patriotic love, I will simply answer: “you do not know what patriotism is.”
To summarize, then: the whole effort of Universalism, which for our purposes here consists of the attempt to replicate the natural passion which impels patriotism, and attach it to a set of political abstractions arranged into an ideology, amounts to a partition of the patriotic force from its elementary source. To recall our earlier image, wherein patriotism was compared to a marriage, we might say the proffered universalism is very often merely an invitation to promiscuity. When what is wanted is fidelity, universalism seduces with a sanctified adultery.
Universalism is really not universal. So often universalism has been the mere projection of certain particulars of the world, onto the whole world: an overlay of provincialism upon all the provinces. A political creed can only be an abbreviation of a living tradition; and it can be only a terrible truncation of the object of a patriot’s love.
Now to say this is not to say there are no universals; it is only to urge caution, considering how many of them have been exposed as false and pernicious. More germane to my argument, it is to say that, while there certainly is a transcendent order of justice, to which all men owe an accounting, it is not the same as a country. The patriotic loyalty is not the same as the duty we owe to Justice. The first is, strictly speaking, parochial and particular; the second universal and abstract. I feel that I am on firm ground leaving most of the latter, in the field of politics, to prudence. It is said, for instance, that democratic government is universal. Perhaps. But this is a matter of some dispute. A much more solid proposition, it seems to me, is that government is universal. But in at rate, by entering such a discussion, we have left the question of patriotism behind.
Recall that I said patriotism is first about a passion, not an argument. A man can no more argue about his elementary patriotism than he can argue about his vivid and jealous love of the color green; he can no more contend like a formal disputant for his love of his country than he can for his love of his venerated old eccentric of an uncle. To be forced to lay out the evidence for his uncle, like a forensic debater, is already to do an injustice to the man: most of the jury or audience will only see the eccentric and not the uncle, for he is a man, and a man is too large a thing to be embraced by any forensic science. Part of the evil of divorce, for example, is that it forces this terrible rationalistic contraction: it forces people to spread out the character of their loves and attachments like organs in a dissection. They are inevitably demeaned. And patriotism is inevitably demeaned when it is compelled into a forum where ideas are set before the bar of rationalism and weighed in abstraction. I can almost see the pitiful figure of captive Patriotism, suddenly constrained to answer the slashing dialectic maneuvers of the cross-examiner in the elusive language of poetry. To the hard question: “How long can the patriot’s love endure his country’s wickedness?” — Patriotism can only answer as in song: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw.” To the even harder question: “When must the fealty of the patriot submit to the higher claims of justice?” — Patriotism can only murmur: “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave, who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.” You can see how such replies might dissatisfy the stern rationalist, or the ambitious prosecutor.
No, Sir (as the old orators would say), the purpose of the intellect is the ordering of the passions. For nothing can be more certain than that the passions of man want ordering. Patriotism, like any other passion, can be destructive if untamed. And so the integrity of patriotism lies in the word rule. The head must rule the belly. My disputants in this debate have hurled the accusation of relativism. We who emphasize the particular that is the anchor of patriotism, they say, fall into a relativism which forsakes the transcendent order of justice to which all men owe obedience. I share their revulsion of that heresy; but I say to them: It is not our heresy. We do not denigrate Justice by refusing to call it Patriotism. The two are not one. A man does not apply reason to discover if his love of country is just; he discovers that he loves his country, and applies reason to set this love in its proper place. It is not Patriotism (recalling our image from above) that should be cross-examined; it is Man. And among the resources and particularities in each man is his love of his home, which is a passion impelled by his sense of menace to his home. Since each man’s home is a portion of creation, which God declared was good, then I cannot think otherwise than that this passion has its roots in something good; that this love is a just love; and that it only becomes unjust when a man’s reason fails. Patriotism must always be seen in the context of the paradox of the man who loves his earthly home, but knows it is only a temporary home; the man who feels a duty to his land, but a higher duty to a transcendent order of justice. The duties are not the same, and one of the tragedies of the Fall is that they may even stand at times in opposition. Then, indeed, his freedom will be a burden, for he will know that his choice will be judged. Sin, a disordering of the will, has made in us the original Partition; and there is no clearer awareness of the Fall than when a man must choose between his loves. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”posted by Paul Cella | 2:12 PM |