Eagle Shirt

Holland, MI

[Note: This is the shirt my son wore to the big screen simulcast on the lawn of the Ford Presidential Museum for the US v Belgium soccer game. He wore it because it’s awesome.]

As our nation – what? sprints? strides? stumbles? limps? – toward its 238th birthday, we prepare once again for our great patriotic festivities. To do so well, however, requires we have some sort of understanding of patriotism. This is a dangerous venture, for one tends to inquire into feelings only when those feelings have become tenuous.

So it is for us. In our time patriotism has become a problem: often bowdlerized by ideological pretenders, or captured in the feckless actions of those Thomas Paine dismissed as “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.”

Patriotism connotes a mode of love, or as Pericles put it in his canonical “Funeral Oration,” in being “lovers of the city.” In Pericles’ case this meant, of course, loving a city and its culture, its ideas, its principles, its distinctive features. Nowadays we are likely to think of patriotic love as attaching to one thing and one thing only: one’s country. 

This probably inverts the order of things. Burke noted that love properly begins in its “little platoons” and gradually moves its way outward, but loses its heat and ardor as it so moves. A little noted consequence of Burke’s thinking is that persons who cannot be taught to love their little platoons can neither be taught to love, to love truly, anything larger than them. A person who cannot love a city can hardly be counted on to love his or her country, not in any serious sense of the term. Likewise those who would attenuate such local affections, be they educators or ambitious politicians, are, according to Burke, “traitors.”

Tocqueville observed the Burkean ordering of habit and love in operation:

“It is incontestably true that the love and the habits of republican government in the United States were engendered in the townships and in the provincial assemblies. In a small State, like that of Connecticut for instance, where cutting a canal or laying down a road is a momentous political question, where the State has no army to pay and no wars to carry on, and where much wealth and much honor cannot be bestowed upon the chief citizens, no form of government can be more natural or more appropriate than that of a republic. But it is this same republican spirit, it is these manners and customs of a free people, which are engendered and nurtured in the different States, to be afterwards applied to the country at large. The public spirit of the Union is, so to speak, nothing more than an abstract of the patriotic zeal of the provinces. Every citizen of the United States transfuses his attachment to his little republic in the common store of American patriotism.”

Likewise it was Burke who noted that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” There is much about contemporary America that is not lovely: the culture wars; the ever-mounting and potentially crushing debt; the constant meddling of the nanny state; the breakdown of family life; rampant hedonistic libertarianism; dysfunctional educational institutions; wars and rumors of wars; an economy predicated on unlimited growth, with mass consumption and production at its core; looming environmental problems; backward agricultural policies and practices; an increasingly sclerotic political system. I could go on. At the macro level, America as a bloated imperial military power is about as attractive as Falstaff without the humor.

At the micro level there is still much to love. Towns and villages where people know and care for one another. Church communities that rally around their own when a family or an individual faces a time of crisis. Colleges where thoughtful students still come by your office to discuss what a life well-lived might be like, to ask for extra reading, or to discuss ideas. Families bound together in mutual love and respect. Friends and neighbors picnicking, sharing the goods from their kitchen gardens, caring for each other’s children. With this list also, I could go on. The political and cultural world looks healthier and more beautiful when viewed through a microscope rather than a telescope.

The patriot is a lover, then, but a lover of what, and what kind of love is it? Is it a jealous, exclusive love? Is it a general sense of well-wishing? Is it discriminate or not? Is its discrimination simply a result of the accidents of birth, or is it freely chosen? 

Being a lover, furthermore, implies a kind of reciprocated passion between two parties. What is it we are loving, and how are we loved in return? We can start negatively, thinking about what we are not loving. Defenders of Republican government have long held to the view that empires can never be objects of love. It was for this reason that Washington had Joseph Addison’s Cato performed regularly for the troops at Valley Forge: to teach the soldiers that Caesar’s quest for glory was “ignobly vain, and impotently great,” purchased with injustice and tyranny, and contrasted to the temperate soul of Cato, defender of liberty and lover of a Rome of “humble virtues, and a rural life.” The lust for dominion creates a civil discord that “shakes our country with alarms/And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms/Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife/And robs the guilty world of Cato’s life.”

An empire has no capacity for reciprocal love. Its basic principle is power. Its essential mode is war. It demands sacrifice but offers nothing in return. It demands loyalty but cares not for the lives and aspirations of the individuals whose energies are required to feed its ambitions. And it operates with deep dishonesty: it will always attempt to appear to its subjects as other than it really is. Such deception contravenes love.

Nor can it be militarism, with its brutality and coarseness. The patriots of ’76 uniformly feared the possibility of a “standing army” not only because it was a threat to liberty, an invitation to onerous taxation and debt, but also because it corrupted morals. An army “will inevitably sow the seeds of corruption and the depravity of manners. Indolence will increase … the springs of honesty will generally grow lax, and chaste and severe manners be succeeded by those that are dissolute and vicious.”

The militarization of America was feared by no less a patriot than Patrick Henry, who saw in public support for an army and a navy only a desire for “a great and mighty empire,” the preference for a “splendid government” over “a simple one,” the latter which alone had liberty as its “primary object.” 

Granted, the arguments largely occurred over the propriety of standing armies as they existed in times of peace. But American history has evidenced little of such times. Furthermore, such armies can exist as a threat to liberty not only in the sense that the government might direct the armies against the people, but that the government might use the armies for purposes not necessarily related to the public weal, for other reasons – personal ambition, ideological, or pecuniary – and that these purposes would require citizens to sacrifice life and property to pursue ends contrary to their own. Hamilton, in Federalist #26, seemed dismissive of this possibility, arguing that it would require “a continued conspiracy” between the legislative and executive branches wherein even a short-term combination would be improbable, given biennial elections and the zealous resolution of “the people” not to allow such “augmentation” of the military force. 

Compare Hamilton:

“If such suppositions could even be reasonably made, still the concealment of the design, for any duration, would be impracticable. It would be announced, by the very circumstance of augmenting the army to so great an extent in time of profound peace. What colorable reason could be assigned, in a country so situated, for such vast augmentations of the military force? It is impossible that the people could be long deceived; and the destruction of the project, and of the projectors, would quickly follow the discovery.”

With Eisenhower in his “Farewell Address, where the public deception and political combination is a fait accompli:

”This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Nor can it be a large, centralized bureaucracy. A state is distinct from a nation, and its defining features are absorptive and monopolistic, and thus a threat to liberty.  It doubles-down on this threat to liberty by operating with a client-based politics that creates dependent subjects rather than self-sufficient citizens. As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote it is “a supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money;” and at the same time demands that these clients be prepared to sacrifice their lives on its behalf, which, MacIntyre says, is “like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

What happens to patriotism when love becomes simple obedience, on one side, and  perpetuated dependency on the other? This is the soft despotism Tocqueville feared, one which would “resemble paternal power” if it sought to prepare persons for adult life, but instead tried to keep them in a perpetual state of childhood, the effect of which is to “extinguish their spirits and enervate their souls.”

Perhaps the most compelling sense of national patriotism involves reflection on American ideas. America exists primarily as the incarnation of the universal principles of human equality, freedom, and democratic practices. In its founding documents it expresses fully for the first time the political, indeed the human, aspirations of all mankind. To love America then, is an expression of love for these ideas.

Of course they have great currency. Ideas still matter in this world, and they can generate great enthusiasm. These ideas can operate on their own level, functioning as guiding principles for political activity, or they can serve as expressions of a deeper sense of religious purpose, operating within the framework of a civil religion. And they can do both at the same time, often operating at one level for “elites” and policy-makers, while performing functions of legitimation at a more religious level for the general public. Religious believers generally don’t love dogma, however. They recognize its importance, but what they love is the reality for which the dogma provides descriptive parameters. Either idea or dogma would serve the important function of directing Americans to a common end, doubly important when our internal politics are increasingly dominated by the absence of shared ends. In that instance, the temptation of external importation become significantly more powerful, for it creates a project that can help unify the country, such unification being to the benefit of those in power, but also important to provide some stability in an otherwise highly unstable environment.

Tocqueville noted that democratic countries were inclined toward a particular type of patriotism. Because individuals believed in the ideas and rhetoric of self-governance, they identified the achievements of the nation as their own achievements. The active principle of participation, however deformed in practice, creates the sense that public success is private success. This is the reason why Americans are always so insistent that they are … pick your superlative: the best country, the freest country, the richest country, the most powerful country. Generally, number one. This identification makes patriotism prideful rather than a kind of genuine love. This pride has all sorts of destructive consequences: from ill-conceived wars to foolish policies, and a kind of arrogance that every one else (rightly) finds off-putting. This was the context in which Tocqueville famously said

“Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A stranger may be very well inclined to praise many of the institutions of their country, but he begs permission to blame some of the peculiarities which he observes—a permission which is, however, inexorably refused. America is therefore a free country, in which, lest anybody should be hurt by your remarks, you are not allowed to speak freely of private individuals, or of the State, of the citizens or of the authorities, of public or of private undertakings, or, in short, of anything at all, except it be of the climate and the soil; and even then Americans will be found ready to defend either the one or the other, as if they had been contrived by the inhabitants of the country.”

It is the reason why failure in America seems to be more deeply problematic than more mature nations who recognize that contingency, tragedy, irony, and failure are part of governing. Our surprise at failure demonstrates the enormous energy contained in such feelings: it is why we put a man on the moon and had 11,000+ men die in Vietnam in the same year. It explains why we  could put the space shuttle Columbia up there in the first place, and then be shocked that it disintegrated during the mathematically difficult process of re-entry. Part of what makes America so interesting is that failure is never embraced, but is typically explained away. It doesn’t change our character. 

Americans undoubtedly love their country. On Tuesday I attended a watch party in downtown Grand Rapids for the US-Belgium soccer game. I didn’t want to engage in typically American superlatives, but I couldn’t resist the thought that no nation does jingoism like Americans do. I had to resist the temptation to ask the people around festooned in flags exactly why they were jumping up and down and chanting “USA! USA!” or spontaneously singing “God Bless America.” Love is in some sense blind, and to inquire into the reasons why one loves country is a little like asking a person why he loves his spouse: the reasons are often nebulous, but it results in a deep sense of commitment.

Tocqueville and Burke rightly emphasize a patriotism that stresses a love of the place of one’s birth. This is part of the reason why both emphasized the primacy of particular localities, both in attachment and in the nurturing of such love in honest and non-coercive ways. Opponents of these ideas despise the smallness, the meanness, the accidental nature of such love. They would have us aspire instead to an anonymous love: toward ideas, toward bigness, toward a comprehensive system that absorbs all particularity with its potential for division within itself.

There is no program to overcome this contingency which does not result in the attenuation of the freedom Americans purport to love. Patriotism ought stress our enmeshment in particular communities and commitment to particular places that alone can give value to our efforts without diffusing them, and see such commitments as the backbone of a good nation worthy of our respect, perhaps even of our veneration. As Tocqueville said, a nation cannot be strong where each person in it is individually weak. To strengthen each individual requires enlarging them by shrinking the scale of political life. It recognizes, as Russell Kirk said, the principle of variety by which  citizens “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

A healthy patriotism starts locally and radiates out. Wendell Berry wrote that he loved Port Royal more than Kentucky and Kentucky more than the USA. I’d say the same about my relationship between Holland/Michigan/America, although I’d add that I love my family and friends more than any of those. Berry went on to say that he doesn’t, however, love America more than the world. That never made a whole lot of sense to me, either logically or as a matter of principle. 

I confess: I love America more than I do Cameroon. I have more a sense of solidarity, more interest in the well-being, of Americans than I do of Belgians. (To the degree I have an interest in soccer I’d root for the American team, unless they were playing the Dutch team, for whom I would root as an expression of residual identity.) When I travel elsewhere and “foreigners” criticize America, I feel an instinct to defend it. Sometimes it needs defense against its internal critics as well. One need not believe America is “the last best hope for mankind,” “an almost chosen people,” or a “redeemer nation” in order to have affection for it. At the same time one can with gratitude reflect on some of the good things the military has done. I recently read a dispatch my grandfather wrote from Winnipeg back to his native Fryslan, wherein he discussed attending a service for dead Canadian soldiers “who gave their life for our liberation. Our entire family went to show our appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice these young men made. WE WILL REMEMBER ALWAYS.” [Caps in original] Any assessment must account for both the sacrifice of Virgil Feltner and the reality of the lives of those they liberated from oppression, such as my parents.

Look around the world. We enjoy remarkable levels of personal freedom. We pay inordinate attention to the goods associated with human personhood. We can be self-correcting in unlikely ways. We are often generous and blessed with humor and material abundance. We are friendly and hospitable. There are still reasons for a well-placed pride, as well as reasons for grave concern. Perhaps Berry simply meant that America as he sees it isn’t lovely enough to be loved. Then we ought to try to make it so.

An earlier and shorter version of this essay appeared in the June 20th edition of The Bridge.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. I would interpret Berry’s point this way, through my own experience: I know Durham, personally and intimately, having lived here almost twenty years. I know North Carolina; I’ve personally known and worked with people from every part of it, studied and written the history of every part of it, visited and stayed in almost every part of it. But the United States of America remains, comparatively, an abstraction to me. There are certain other places within it that I know personally and love accordingly, but there are great swaths of it whose people, land, history, culture I know little or nothing about — no more, and in many cases less, than I know about the people, land, history, and culture of other countries and continents. If the kind of love I’m interested is the kind that grows from personal knowledge and not from academic knowledge, from experience and not from study, from community not from affiliation — and that is the kind Berry is usually talking about — then I’d draw the line between North Carolina and America, just as he draws it between Kentucky and America. That isn’t to say that I don’t love this country, and love it more than I love others, or that there aren’t good reasons for valuing it and wanting to preserve and improve it; but it is to say that my love for my country is of a different kind qualitatively than my love for my place, and of qualitatively the same kind as my love for the world — a more abstract love, and one that I’m therefore less inclined to trust.

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