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On Patriotism

photograph of a patchwork ofnational flags sewn together

As a child, I savored July weekends at the carnival in my grandparents’ town of Wamego, KS. Nowhere on earth was Independence Day, and the lingering celebration of American freedom, taken more seriously and celebrated with more enthusiasm. But today, these holidays and traditions draw as much criticism as they do excitement.

Recent events, crises, national shames and national triumphs, make it difficult to know what to do or how to feel during the summer holidays when most Americans spend their weekends in flag-adorned swimming trunks, celebrating the land of the free and the home of the brave. A new question confronts us during the summer holiday season: is it wrong to participate in celebrating a nation so rife with inequality, racial and gender injustice, and environmental degradation? Are these celebrations and traditions merely an attempt to put an optimistic gloss on a nation that we ought to feel anything but optimistic about? And more cynically, does participating in these activities serve to normalize the harsh and unjust conditions that many Americans still face?

G.K. Chesterton, a philosopher, theologian, and fiction writer from the early 20th century, considered similar questions regarding whether we should love the world — for, after all, the world contains many deeply terrible and unlovable things! Should we be optimists about the world, he asks, because it contains so many things of deep value? Or ought we to be pessimists about the world because there is so much suffering, and evil, and injustice, with seemingly no end? Chesterton ends up endorsing a third view in his book Orthodoxy:

[There] is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. […] A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

Chesterton suggests here that loyalty is not something we choose to exhibit based on likeable features, but rather is something that we automatically display whenever we do work to make things better. Through this work, Chesterton argues, we show love and loyalty to a world that, yes, is probably quite bad. Conversely, by refusing to participate in this kind of labor of love, we resign the world to a quickly-worsening fate. So, loving a bad world can actually be a good thing, if Chesterton is right, because this sort of love leads to loving improvement.

There are problems with applying this view straightforwardly to our attitude on national pride — namely, while we cannot choose loyalty toward some other planet, we could choose loyalty toward another country. One obvious response to this objection is that there are no perfect countries! As we have seen in the past couple years, other nations have followed the U.S. in forming Black Lives Matter groups and holding demonstrations protesting local instances of racially motivated police brutality. Additionally, following Chesterton, we may wonder what the world would look like if everyone poured their loyalties and efforts into the very “best” countries (whatever they take them to be): without a people willing to love a place despite its deep flaws, is there any hope of improving conditions from within?

Chesterton suggests that the love we feel for the place we live need not lead to negative effects. But not everybody agrees that there is no harm in showing such naive loyalty. The philosopher David Benatar, in his book Better to Never Have Been, argues that, given the insufferable nature of human existence, humankind ought not to participate in perpetuating the cycle of life. His position, called “anti-natalism,” argues against the permissibility of procreation and in favor of working to reduce suffering for those who are already born. In support of this conclusion, he emphasizes two supporting points: 1) even in a very good life, the pain and suffering one must endure will always outweigh the pleasure and happiness they enjoy, and 2) there is no greater meaning or purpose to give a life of suffering any value.

Benatar echoes strains of French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” and The Plague in his description of human life as “absurd” — short and full of meaningless labor on the way to ultimate annihilation. If life in the world truly is this bad, even for people for whom it is “best,” then why allow it to continue? Ultimately, Benatar does not endorse hastening death for oneself or others — while life is overall a negative experience in virtue of the pain and suffering overwhelming the happy points, death (especially the process of dying) is even worse than life. But we should allow humanity to die out by refusing to procreate. This, then, is the opposite of what Chesterton calls an attitude of “loyalty” toward life on earth. Benatar sees this loyalty as blind faith and a cruel refusal to try to halt the long chain of suffering that human existence has wrought.

This perspective on earthly existence can help shed light on the position of those who choose not to participate in celebrations and traditions of national pride. Analogous to the anti-natalist, those against participation in such celebrations may see this kind of unconditional national pride as a mechanism for the continuation of the sufferings, injustices, and inequalities that mar the current state of the nation. Understandably, many may see this as an unacceptable price to pay for showing even the kind of self-sacrificial patriotic love that Chesterton discusses. Perhaps patriotic celebrations of national love or pride are themselves cruel refusals to fully grieve the ways in which citizens continue to face severe hardships and injustices.

So, what should we do? Should we join in the celebrations, ensuring that we include voices of criticism alongside voices of praise as equally important aspects of patriotic love? Or should we opt out of the celebrations, allowing our silence to send a message to others that the pain of discrimination, poverty, brutality, and other injustices, make our nation one that is not worth fighting for? Regardless of whether we choose to participate in specific forms of national traditions and celebrations, it may be worth taking to heart part an insight from Chesterton and an insight from Benatar. Chesterton brings our attention to the fact that things are rarely made better without people willing to love them despite terrible flaws. We might remember President Joe Biden’s response earlier this year when asked by reporters about his son’s struggles with drug and alcohol addictions, stating simply, “I’m proud of my son.”

Benatar, on the other hand, shows us that it is important to be discerning about who and what are worth loving and improving. While Benatar thinks that human life on earth is not worth furthering, loving and improving the lives of those humans who already exist is of supreme importance. And he argues it is perfectly consistent to reject loving “human life” while continuing to love individual living humans. Likewise, perhaps it is perfectly consistent to reject pride in a nation while loving and serving the individual people of that nation.

Both of these thinkers draw our attention to the fact that “pride” is more complex than we, or our national celebrations, have tended to realize. Is it possible to see the value both in participation and in abstention from celebrations of national pride? Alternatively, how can these celebrations incorporate a deep awareness of the ways in which we still struggle with discrimination, poverty, brutality, and injustice? Is our love for our country strong enough to weather the acknowledgment of these criticisms? Is our love for our fellow citizens deep enough to inspire us to take up a kind of love for our country, if that love could be transformative?

Is There an Ethical Duty to Buy American?

photograph of "Made in the USA" embroidered pillow will US flag pillow in background

For many years, the U.S. economy has been dominated by the services sector, a broad category that includes financial services, media, transportation and technology. Service industries account for about two-thirds of the U.S. GDP and eighty percent of all jobs. Manufacturing, by contrast, makes up only eight percent of all jobs and eleven percent of our GDP.

Yet if one consulted only the views of both major parties’ candidates, one would come away with the impression that the health of the entire economy depends upon subsidizing U.S. manufacturing. On July 9, 2020, Joe Biden rolled out his nationalist economic agenda in a speech in Pennsylvania. In it, he outlined policies aimed at reducing reliance on foreign manufacturing and creating domestic manufacturing jobs. “I do not buy for one second that the vitality of American manufacturing is a thing of the past,” he said. And economic nationalism is by now one of President Trump’s signature positions; on his Inauguration Day, Trump tweeted that “Buy American” and “Hire American” were two “simple rules” that would guide his administration. Since then, he has levied numerous tariffs on foreign goods, supposedly in order to encourage domestic manufacturing.

There are surely political calculations behind this emphasis on a tiny part of the economy — our electoral system endows residents of Rust Belt states with disproportionately powerful votes — but it might be argued that there are specifically moral reasons why ordinary people ought to support domestic industry. That argument can perhaps best be presented in the form of a parable, which I call the “Parable of the Tamales.”

My next-door neighbor makes his living by selling tamales from his porch at 50 cents per tamale. One day, I am driving across town and spot another person selling tamales from her porch for 25 cents per tamale. I buy a few and return to my home. As I pull into my driveway, my neighbor spots me contentedly munching my tamales. As I return his gaze, I can see the betrayal and anger in his eyes. I reflect that I ought to have bought my tamales from him.

There are a few reasons why I might believe that it was my duty to buy from my next-door neighbor. On a consequentialist view, the rightness or wrongness of my actions is solely a function of the goodness of their effects. It might be argued that the effects of buying from one’s neighbor are better than those of buying from the tamale-purveyor across town. It is true that both benefit from selling tamales to you. But you may benefit more from supporting your neighbor, and of course the beneficial effects to you of actions you perform are legitimate inputs into the consequentialist calculus. For instance, you may feel satisfaction from seeing your neighbor thrive and knowing you contributed to his well-being. More selfishly, you may want to live in a prosperous neighborhood where the houses and lawns are all well-kempt, the children well-fed, and the cars in the driveways well-maintained; helping your neighbor prosper may in this way be a means to satisfying your self-regarding desires. In these and other ways, the consequentialist calculus may require you to support your neighbor over the tamale-seller across town, particularly since your neighbor’s tamales are not unreasonably costly. Mutatis mutandis, it might be argued that the consequentialist calculus supports a duty to buy American, since most of us want to live in a prosperous society and see our fellow citizens thrive.

On the other hand, you may not care at all about the flourishing of your neighbor or the prosperity of your neighborhood. If so, the consequentialist case for the duty to buy from your neighbor collapses. Thus, consequentialism cannot support a universal duty to buy from one’s neighbor, since the case depends upon the content of people’s contingent desires. Moreover, in this kind of case consequentialism might be self-defeating. If you come to believe that it is your duty to buy from their neighbors, rather than something good but not obligatory, you may experience less satisfaction when doing it. But in that case, buying from your neighbor will not bring about better effects than buying from the tamale-salesperson across town, and the consequentialist case again collapses. Finally, if the analogy to the case of domestic manufacturing holds, then it is quite possible that the tamale-seller across town benefits more from each 25-cent sale than your neighbor benefits from each 50-cent sale, given that foreign workers tend to be poorer. Thus, consequentialism would appear to favor supporting foreign manufacturing, not domestic.

Another argument for buying from your neighbor is that it is a way of discharging a debt of gratitude. After all, your neighbor may babysit your kids occasionally, help you with home repairs, and myriad other small favors. Since spending 25 cents more per tamale is not an unreasonable cost, it seems that buying your tamales from him may be a good way of discharging your debt of gratitude. By the same token, it might be argued that one owes a similar debt of gratitude to one’s fellow citizens on the grounds that they contribute to your own well-being through taxation.

The trouble with this argument is that arguably, we owe a debt of gratitude to others only for benefits they freely confer upon us. If my neighbor helps me out with home repairs only because doing so fulfills his mandated community service sentence, I do not owe him anything. Similarly, while my fellow citizens may benefit me by contributing their tax dollars to programs that help me, these are not voluntary contributions.

A final argument for buying tamales from your neighbor is that your relationship with him, and in particular all of the mutual expectations that naturally arise from that relationship, ground a special moral duty to help him if doing so is not unreasonably costly. Similarly, it might be argued that the relationship of co-citizen, with all of the mutual expectations it entails, ground a special duty to buy American.

Unfortunately, this argument either proves too little or begs the question. On the one hand, the mere fact that my neighbor expects his neighbors to buy his tamales is not enough to ground a duty that I do so. My neighbor could, psychologically speaking, expect anything at all from me.  He might expect me to help him bury bodies in his yard, but nothing at all follows from this about what I ought to do. On the other hand, if it is claimed that his expectations are legitimate, then this argument simply assumes that I have a duty to buy from him. But that is precisely what the argument was supposed to establish!

Thus, it seems that there is no moral duty to buy American based on consequentialist considerations, debts of gratitude to our fellow citizens, or our roles as co-citizens. It does not follow from this, of course, that our government should not subsidize domestic industry. Such policy decisions rest not only on the moral relations amongst citizens, but the moral duties of government to its citizens, as well as non-moral considerations.

Nevertheless, the fact that there is no moral duty for ordinary citizens to buy American simply throws into starker relief the disproportionate attention that manufacturing receives by our political elites. As I suggested at the start of this column, government would probably do better to focus on helping workers in the services industry. Furthermore, if the various sectors of the economy have a claim to government largesse that is proportionate to their contributions, then it seems positively unjust to neglect services in favor of manufacturing. Presumably, an economic populism worth its name must be one that helps the industries that employ the vast majority of people.

The Context of Colin Kaepernick’s Protest

During a preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers on August 26th, people finally noticed what 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been doing all season: sitting during the national anthem and presentation of the flag. In a press conference with the media, he proclaimed, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Continue reading “The Context of Colin Kaepernick’s Protest”