Mother of Exiles

Cryptoconservative moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has delivered another important essay in light of the ascension of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for POTUS. The piece follows his usual pattern of rebuking liberals and progressives for failing to appreciate the rich, technicolor palette of conservative—in this case literally authoritarian—morality. Liberals see racism and conclude their analysis there. But Haidt argues persuasively that this is just the beginning of understanding the conservative moral mind.

[Authoritarianism is] a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.

Authoritarian conservatives are different from Burkean conservatives, who merely wish to uphold the dominant traditions and norms of the status quo.

But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling “Stop!”

Haidt concludes with advice for liberals about immigration:

Legal immigration from morally different cultures is not problematic even with low levels of assimilation if the numbers are kept low; small ethnic enclaves are not a normative threat to any sizable body politic. Moderate levels of immigration by morally different ethnic groups are fine, too, as long as the immigrants are seen as successfully assimilating to the host culture. When immigrants seem eager to embrace the language, values, and customs of their new land, it affirms nationalists’ sense of pride that their nation is good, valuable, and attractive to foreigners. But whenever a country has historically high levels of immigration, from countries with very different moralities, and without a strong and successful assimilationist program, it is virtually certain that there will be an authoritarian counter-reaction, and you can expect many status quo conservatives to support it.

As a hardcore multikulti liberal my inclination is to cynically interpret this as advice as “Unconditionally accede to the demands of the authoritarians.” But I want to resist this, because even while I disagree with Haidt’s conclusions of limiting immigration I think he’s onto something about patriotism. Earlier in the essay he noted that nationalists see patriotism as a virtue. Rootless cosmopolitans like myself famously denigrate patriotism as an especially vulgar vice. But I have recently come to concur with Haidt that this is a mistake.

Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens [sic] interests above the interests of people in other countries.

I’m unwilling to classify patriotism as a virtue. Must an individual cultivate patriotism to lead a flourishing moral life? Doubtful. But it may be a quasi-virtue, a hybrid of love and transcendental faith that helps bind people to each other and to their institutions.

Adam Smith famously observed (roughly) that upon hearing of a megadeath catastrophe on the other side of the world, we may pause to reflect on the fragility of the human condition—and I would add we nowadays may even be spurred to donate for disaster relief—but we shortly forget all about the tragedy, and it leaves us with less of a lasting impression than would the loss of our little finger. Powerful biochemicals support our love for our children. Family is partially glued by a host of closely observed formal and informal obligations. And even friends are held together by long histories and memories of shared struggles, triumphs, and good times. But distant strangers are just too intangible. Thus patriotism. The nation state is the largest unit yet discovered wherein distant others can be effectively joined in bonds of cooperation, solidarity, and even sacrifice. Our fellow nationals are made more concrete through a shared culture and a shared national narrative. We grew up with the same founding myths, songs and rituals, national heroes, and collective traumas (e.g., slavery and Civil War, the Great Depression, WWII, 9/11).

Of course, this very ability to draw people into a willingness to fight and die for the nation is a source of worry for the critics of patriotism. Skeptics, of which I numbered myself until very recently, do have strong objections. The nations we are born into are morally arbitrary. Patriotism encourages unreflective obedience to authority and enforces conformity, easily manifesting in racism, religious intolerance, and other kinds of bigotry. Patriotism is difficult to distinguish from nationalism, and can thus lead to economic isolationism or violence abroad, with a steep discounting of foreign lives. Finally, these concerns aren’t all theoretical. America for example has a bloody actual history of genocide, slavery, white male supremacy, imperialism, and warmongering.

I won’t deny that these are dangers of patriotic sentiment. But they aren’t necessarily entailed or implied by patriotism; they depend on its particular construal. The dangers listed must also be viewed against the proper baseline, which isn’t the perfect utopia of cosmopolitan liberalism. Taking poor or wicked construals of patriotism as inevitable is analogous to condemning all religion or all feminism on account of their popular expressions. Least common denominator bastardization would surely condemn all forms of radicalism as well if they were held to the same standard.

Where we are born is as arbitrary as the color of our skin, but the implications of this are limited. Our families are also unchosen, yet few would deny that we owe a presumptive, provisional faithfulness to our parents. This can be overridden of course (as can patriotism), if we suffer the misfortune of an abusive or toxic home environment. But there is no prior reason to be skeptical of our families just because they’re arbitrary. Likewise it’s not particularly damaging to our chosen relationships with friends and lovers to acknowledge that soulmates are a myth, that there is a heap of chance involved in whom we befriend based on such arbitrary elements as where we live, and the schools, workplaces, and watering holes we happen to attend. We love these individuals all the same and we suffer no cognitive dissonance over the fact that other people love their randomly assigned peoples just as much.

The alternative to a robust nation state is not one in which everyone views themselves as citizens of the world. It is far more likely that a de-emphasis on the nation will go hand in hand with a return to eminence of the clan. Rule by extended family can be far more oppressive than the modern bureaucratic state, with fewer opportunities for voice and exit, more authoritarian and exclusionary values, and quite likely even greater violence. Nationalism can likewise be seen as enabling greater cooperation and coordination among a larger body of people than the likely alternative, which is not a global village but clans of blood and gods. Modern democratic states in their actual histories deserve serious criticism, but their contributions to humanity should not be ignored, their rise being suspiciously coincident with the Great Enrichment.

It’s very likely that patriotic sentiment is with us whether we like it or not. Martha Nussbaum, in Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom, argues that powerful emotion and narrative imagination will always be in play in developing and reinforcing popular values. While liberals must evade the various dangers of uncritical patriotism, we must also avoid the danger of the “watery motivation” of abstract, bloodless ideals.

If altruistic emotion is to have motivational power, then, it needs to hitch itself to the concrete. The idea of the nation … needs to hook us in through several features: concreteness—for example, named individuals (founders, heroes), physical particulars (features of landscape, and vivid images and metaphors), and, above all, narratives of struggle, involving suffering and hope.

Patriotism can instead be carefully cultivated to channel liberal values and this liberal patriotism has to be vigorously peddled in the marketplace of ideas and proudly defended the arena of political discourse. Luckily we don’t have to reinvent wheel: we already have narratives of America (I’m sticking with my own country for this post) as an ongoing project of tolerance, inclusion, and opportunity.

Skeptics note that inequality for, inter alia, women and blacks was baked right into the Founding. But America has no shortage of well-recognized national heroes who advanced the cause of equal liberty specifically by appealing to the unfulfilled implications of the ideals of the American revolution. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and Frederick Douglass to name a few. One can view the nation, as did these individuals, as an unfolding ideal, ever extending its promises. History doesn’t just catalog our national sins. One can just as easily and honestly appeal to history to highlight the celebrated progress of America’s promise.

Critical thought and dissidence can be and have been conceived as American values, as patriotic. MLK Jr, Susan B Anthony, and Rosa Parks are celebrated figures, and of course the revolution itself is garbed in the rhetoric of casting off unjust authority. In the literary canon also, critical thought is enshrined: To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, and Inherit the Wind all feature the lonely voice of righteousness.

Patriotic narratives both appeal to the past for solidarity in face of oppression or hardship, but they also look to the future. Nussbaum analyzes the powerful examples of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and MLK Jr’s Dream speech as firm resolutions to fulfill America’s promise going forward. Patriotism combines the elements of love and faith already discussed with the future-looking virtue of hope. America as a “shining city on a hill” has been used by two iconic modern presidents representing both parties: JFK and Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s words, America was committed to be

a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

We can (and should!) criticize Reagan all we want for compromising this ideal, but the ideal as expressed is that of the open society, and rhetoric is important. Contra Haidt, even a conservative leader can embrace “teeming” immigration of “people of all kinds.” Holding faith in the right patriotic narrative (Reagan spoke of the city on the hill for most of his political career) ennobles the homeland while embracing the rest of the world.

Incidentally, the “city on the hill” is reference to the pilgrim John Winthrop’s sermon of 1630, which itself referenced the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners they are to be “the light of the world.” References to the past, to the canon (and to the faith for some), all serve to viscerally remind us of our past, to remind us of our commitments, to situate us in discourses of justice and striving and hope since antiquity, and to put “contemporary flesh on these moral bones,” in Nussbaum’s words.

We speak of the “American dream,” whereby even an “immigrant coming up from the bottom” can make their own way to prosperity. Criticism is always warranted. It’s always worthwhile to ask just how real the promises of peace and prosperity are. But denying the progress that has been achieved and the progress that is possible is just cynical bomb-tossing. It replaces realistic hope with either unachievable perfection or pointless despair.

But liberal patriotism requires constant vigilance and defense. After all it isn’t the only form of patriotism. Diligent discursive gardening is constantly required to affirm an inspiring vision of an America as an engine of freedom and prosperity for all, regardless of race, sex, religion, sexuality, body type, or nation of birth. When we falter in this rhetorical effort, it’s all too easy to cede the fertile ideological field of patriotism to reactionary, clannish mentalities.

America as an engine of freedom and prosperity, a people not cowardly crouching but standing courageously with arms open to embrace the future and the world is a vision implanted in me by yet another member of the American canon, the New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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