Noonan on good and bad patriotism

In a very idle moment (I was looking at an interactive map showing blogs located near my subway stop) I ran into the following horrible quote from Peggy Noonan:

…[T]he essence of American patriotism is a felt and spoken love for and fidelity to the ideas and ideals our country represents and was invented to advance— freedom, equality, pluralism. “We hold these truths…” The word Homeland suggests another kind of patriotism—a vaguely European sort. “We have the best Alps, the most elegant language; we make the best cheese, had the bravest generals.” It summons images of men in spiked helmets lobbing pitchers of beer at outsiders during Oktoberfest.

When you say you love America, you’re not saying our mud is better than the other guy’s mud.

A summary of my comments, from an exchange with

the owner of the blog:

I don’t think Miss Noonan makes sense on this point. If she did she wouldn’t rely so heavily on crude anti-European and specifically anti-German prejudices.

To be attached to a homeland—a particular place and the particular people who live there—is to say nothing much about other homelands, except I suppose by implication to suggest that they are no doubt as good for others as one’s own is for oneself. Homebodies don’t typically hate each other.

In contrast, to be attached to a grand universal idea like equality is to believe other ideas are wrong universally. That’s why wars of religion and ideology can be so very bitter. To make that kind of attachment the basis of nationality is to insist on conformity at home and imperialism abroad. Foreigners think those are American characteristics, and for all I know they may have a point. They certainly do if Miss Noonan is right about what makes America America.

Miss Noonan suggests there’s something intrinsically aggressive about European attachment to homeland. But how much have the Europeans killed each other over that rather than other things? To the extent “homeland” has to do with war it surely has to do with defensive war. Would anyone call the wars between France and England struggles over “homeland”? Seems odd. The wars of religion? Dynastic struggles? The Napoleonic wars? The First World War?

Her reference to the Germans suggests the habit people have today of interpreting everything by reference to the Nazis. But the Nazis aren’t a good example of attachment to place, people and culture. They stood for a new order of eternal struggle that used race as a rallying point but believed in will and action rather than particular attachments. The Nazis were so shocking because they were so novel. They weren’t talking about homeland, they were talking about Lebensraum and a New Order. The conceptions are different. The Nazis bear somewhat the relationship to attachment to people and homeland that the Bolsheviks do to attachment to equality and social justice. Rather less of a relationship, actually, since equality and social justice are potentially unlimited in their implications in a way particulars like people and homeland are not.

Most of the political body count over the last century has been attributable to attempts to transform human nature and human society in accordance with universalistic ideals. Mao and Pol Pot mostly murdered their own people in an attempt to turn their historical culture into something radically different. It is hard to view such acts as anything like an expression of ethnic, cultural and local attachment. I’d say the same about Stalin, except that he was a member of a small ethnic and cultural minority. That makes any explanation of what he did—which so far as I know didn’t include promoting Georgian supremacy—by reference to particularistic attachments all the harder. As to the current bad guy, Usama bin Laden, Wahhabism (his brand of Islam) is an international movement of radical reform based on strict adherence to formal principles and aiming at a single world community. That’s not the same as an attachment to a particular people, culture and place, and UBL’s followers and operations are in fact quite international.

There’s nothing essentially innocent about an appeal to Miss Noonan’s “freedom, equality, and pluralism.” A ruling class can base its right to rule and thus its power and privilege on almost any sort of appeal. The communists appealed to abolition of exploitation, for example. There are advantages to making the appeal an idealistic one because it broadens the scope of justified power. It seems to me the same applies to pluralism, tolerance and so on. On the face of it such ideals strengthen the hand of various sorts of social managers. EU ruling elites favor them, for example, and it is clearly in their interest to do so. That doesn’t mean it’s in the interest of those they rule.

2 thoughts on “Noonan on good and bad patriotism”

  1. Mr. Kalb’s letter on the
    Mr. Kalb’s letter on the inherent imperialism of uncompromising universalist ideals, such as Peggy Noonan’s trinity of “freedom, equality, and pluralism,” reminds me of the following note I sent to William Kristol earlier this year:

    Dear Mr. Kristol:

    Below are two interesting quotes that I hope you will take a moment to contemplate.

    “In fact, since ‘no nation is exempt’ from the ‘true and unchanging’ principles of liberty and justice, American foreign policy can be said to be at war with tyranny in general—though not as urgently as we are at war with dangerously hostile tyrannies, and with a greater chance of using diplomatic and political rather than military means to achieve regime change.”
    [William Kristol, “Taking the War Beyond Terrorism,” Washington Post, January 31, 2002]

    “By the virtue of God,
    From the rising of the sun to its setting,
    All realms have been granted to us.
    Now, you ought to say from a sincere heart:
    ‘We shall be your subjects;
    We shall give unto you our strength.’
    You in person, at the head of the kings, all together, without exception, come and offer us service and homage;
    Then shall we recognize your submission.
    And if you do not observe the Order of God, and disobey our orders,
    We shall know you to be our enemies.”
    [Letter from Kuyuk Khan to Pope Innocent IV, November 1246]

  2. The Noonan/Kristol/Kuyuk
    The Noonan/Kristol/Kuyuk Khan theory of government certainly seems to have something to it. I wouldn’t dare say otherwise!

    The more I think about the Noonan quote though the worse it seems:

    -The notion that we’re such lovers of peace and justice because we believe in universally obligatory ideals—shades of the Dar-ul-Islam and the Dar-ul-Harb!

    -Attacking the Europeans as a bunch of oafish proto-Nazi agressors because they’re attached to their homes.

    -The notion that America was “invented to advance” a political ideology. I can’t have a country to call my own in the way I have a home or a family, instead I have to believe in the Party.

    -I’m usually not much for talking about Gnostic or Puritan or Calvinist denial of matter, but there does seem to be something of that in Miss Noonan’s view that particularity of people and place is “mud.” It’s really inhuman.


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