In the 21st Century, Should We Be Patriotic?

In the 21st Century, Should We Be Patriotic? July 3, 2017

Half-staff patrioticLast year, a police officer shot and killed an African-American motorist, Philando Castile, during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota. A police dashcam video was released that showed Yanez panicking and opening fire only seconds after pulling Castile over, yet a jury acquitted the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of manslaughter. This chain of events illustrates that, for black Americans, interacting with police officers can be literally dangerous. The United States really does have a systemic racism problem. This, though, is not the subject of this week’s post. Instead, the endemic racism in the U.S. leads me to ask a broader question: can we ask people to be patriots of or believe in countries that commit enormous injustices? Is it possible to still love our country when that country is patently violent toward the dispossessed?

This is a crucial – I mean historical-level crucial – question because, in the late 2010s, nations and countries are undergoing a kind of crisis. Populist nativism has rallied to the forefront of Western politics, precisely when cosmopolitan globalism was supposed to be triumphantly overtaking the entire world. Ethno-nationalism is making a disturbing comeback across Europe and America. And the architectural gems of the post-national order, from the European Union and NATO to the United Nations, seem suddenly weaker than we’d ever thought. In other words, the universalist dream of a world without borders – the utopia of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” – seems to be slipping away from the grasp of those who most fervently worked to realize it.

But the thing is, nations, parochialism, and patriotism were never going to go quietly into the night. Evidence from psychology and evolutionary biology  (among other disciplines) demonstrates that we humans depend on social cooperation and so can’t live without in-groups. We don’t have teeth, claws, or gills. Instead, we have tribes. Tribes and groups are by far our species’ most important survival tool. So no matter what John Lennon thought, a world without human in-groups is almost certainly a scientific impossibility.

Instead of transcending our limited communities and becoming post-tribal humans, it’s a better bet that we’re going to have to learn how to be good members of tribes, good citizens of particular countries. And learning how to be good citizens of our home countries means learning how to respond when we realize that those countries are responsible for doing terrible things.*


It’s perfectly reasonable to be cynical about authority in the contemporary world. Injustice is real. America is very often oppressive to people of color, to other nations, to the environment we all share. So why should we even consider being patriots? Why should we emotionally invest in a rotten system? Why throw our hat in this ugliest of rings?

The two-part answer I’m going to give is extremely, soberly practical.

The first reason why we should emotionally commit to our countries is that nation-states in the developed world actually provide a tremendous amount of benefit to their citizens. If you live in a developed nation, you’ve almost certainly got access to reliable electricity, plumbing, and sanitation services. Your streets are probably swept in the summer and plowed in the winter (if applicable). There are probably environmental protections that keep your air clean, your rivers relatively clear, and water drinkable. Well-maintained borders keep your neighborhoods and homes safe from invasions. In fact, if you’re under about 40, it probably sounds absurd to even mention military invasions as a realistic danger. Haven’t we moved beyond such things as a civilization?

Of course, the benefits provided by (relatively) stable government are very unequally distributed. Residents of Flint, Michigan, might not be too thrilled at my mention of the joys of clean water. Minority groups are often relegated to the margins of society, where they receive far less than their fair share of the benefits. I am not for one second denying these things. 

Let me make it as clear as I can possibly make it: the system is not just.

But at the very same time, the system also supports millions of people, keeps them largely safe and warm and dry, organizes the distribution of food, provides for defense and infrastructure and a legal system that mostly functions. It’s a deeply, deeply imperfect system. But without it, many or most of us would simply not be here. Countries are frustrating, infuriating things, no doubt. Yet they also literally make life possible. They’re like an invisible webbing that supports us over a giant chasm. We scarcely ever notice it, except when it gives way beneath us.

Second, in the words of the historian Benedict Anderson, nations are imagined communities. They’re not just there, the way mountains or rocks are. They’re ephemeral, often lasting no more than a few decades or centuries. They take a lot of work to maintain, and I don’t just mean the grunt work of paying taxes and fixing roads. I mean something a lot more intangible: countries take belief to keep going. They have to be continually coaxed into being, sort of the way that houses have to be continually maintained as roofs crumble, walls settle, and insects make their way in. We “maintain” our countries by our agreement to abide by their rules, to give them our loyalty, imagine ourselves as citizens of them. Countries no one believes in are like houses that no one maintains. They might stay standing for a few years. But gravity will win before long.

This is where politics and religion overlap. Both depend on a certain amount of conviction in the absence of evidence. If the Founding Fathers hadn’t believed in the United States before it actually existed, it never would have come into being. If the early revolutionaries of Latin America hadn’t first envisioned free republics, liberated from allegiance to Spain, countries like Columbia and Bolivia simply wouldn’t be on the map today.

Being religious demands faith that certain claims about the universe are ultimately true, even if we can’t see them from where we stand. In the same way, being a citizen or “political animal” (in Aristotle’s famous definition of humankind) requires believing in the ideals of one’s country even if that country isn’t currently living up to those ideals – or even if it doesn’t exist yet.

The political way of believing couldn’t be more different than the scientific one. The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once wrote that “The good thing about Science (sic) is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”** I’m not a fan of Tyson’s cheerfully outspoken, philosophically paper-thin scientism, but he does have a point here. Science only accepts hard evidence as justification for belief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But the creation and maintenance of countries and societies is completely the other way around. You have to believe first. You commit to the ideals and the vision in advance, and then, if you’re lucky and diligent, the thing very slowly comes true.

What this means is that one of the responsibilities of being a citizen of a country is to find a way to believe in it.

If you’re a member of Philando Castile’s family, that’s a really tall order. Many, many people have perfectly, excruciatingly legitimate reasons to be upset with the United States, or with whatever country they happen to be citizens of. No government is remotely innocent. No system is without bloody stains. It’s nearly always justifiable, in theory, to refuse to give your country any loyalty or commitment on purely moral grounds.


The internet age is characterized by a hyper-awareness of how much moral harm nations and in-groups can cause. For example, skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer’s recent book The Moral Arc*** advances the thesis that tribalism and particularistic loyalties, such as nationalism or solidarity with co-religionists, are fundamentally morally regressive. Shermer argues that, as scientific and secular reason spreads throughout the world, we humans are advancing beyond our narrow tribal interests, becoming more interested in the well-being of those who exist beyond our in-groups’ boundaries. While we once felt it was acceptable to deny service to racial out-groups, or to make war on neighbors because they weren’t like us, now we understand more and more that people who look, talk, or worship differently than we do are still people, deserving of our respect and consideration. Moral progress, for Shermer – and the secular-rational worldview he adheres to – by definition means moving away from loyalty to in-groups.

In this optimistic, cosmopolitan view of moral progress, in-groups like nations and countries may, at most, be politically necessary – but we shouldn’t really trust them. We should be especially reflexively skeptical about patriotism. Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, as the saying goes.**** A good enlightened citizen of modernity should feel loyalty to the world, but not very much to any particular country. Countries are entities that discriminate between citizens and non-citizens, that make war on each other, that despoil their ecologies. Nations and in-groups are the source of a lot more evil than good, and to the extent that we should tolerate them, we should do so with disdain and caution.

But this view is wrong. Human in-groups, like nation-states, provide a tremendous amount of benefit for their members. They’re also never guaranteed to survive or to remain stable. We need to do more than just tolerate them.

What I’m saying is that the secular-rational worldview takes societies, groups, and all their many benefits almost completely for granted. Our WEIRD individualism insists that we’re all more or less completely autonomous, not clutching onto each other for survival. Indeed, political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart imply that WEIRD psychology – with all its individualism, liberal values, and secularism – may just be what human psychology looks like when it’s not worried about survival.

Those of us who live and work in clean, well-lit cities, complete with lots of public services and plentiful ethnic restaurants, may feel like we don’t need to worry about survival. It may seem that civilization has reached an unstoppable positive momentum. Services and pleasant amenities seem as dependable as the sun rising in the east each morning. This lets us feel more individualistic – and less confined to the borders of any nation or country.

And indeed, the most fervent John Lennon-esque reverence for the idea of a borderless world is often found in places where services are plentiful and government is overwhelmingly stable: New York, London, Boston, Brussels. These rare places make it easy to imagine that humanity ought to, or indeed is about to, overcome its seemingly irrational need for tribes and groups. The benefits that are provided by functioning governments – the official face of national and local in-groups – seem so consistent that we take them for granted. So consistent, in fact, that we may even forget that they are, in fact, benefits, made possible by real humans straining to work together at near-miraculous levels of coordination and cooperation.

But all over the Western world, things are starting slowly to show subtle signs of not being so stable after all. People who have no business running countries are getting elected to really high offices. Authoritarian strongmen are putting liberal democracy – such as it is – in jeopardy. People who know what they’re talking about are starting to warn that the dogs of war may be gathered and snarling just over the horizon. And the global system of trade that underpins the cosmopolitan dream may be in serious danger, if a trade war erupts between major powers – something that would have been unthinkable for many decades after World War II, but now increasingly looks increasingly possible.

In other words, the startling benefits that we in the postwar developed world take for granted may be much less permanent than they appear. Not many people currently living know what it’s like to live through a real, transformative crisis – the kind that gets written up in history books and becomes the reference point against which its survivors define the rest of their lives. Not even the 2008 financial crash came close to the World Wars or the Great Depression in terms of sheer disruption. But we may be due. If so, we’ll all get a reminder that the benefits that make life so safe and pleasant don’t just come from nowhere. They’re the products of extraordinary human cooperation. In groups. It’s only when we ignore this basic fact that books like Michael Shermer’s seem convincing. Maybe, we think as we drink our cold-pressed coffee and feel the subway rumbling cheerily beneath the patio, progress really is synonymous with liberation from human collectives, like countries. Maybe loyalty and patriotism really are regressive anachronisms. And maybe countries really do cause more harm than good.


Countries sure do cause a lot of harm. But they’re where we live. We need to stop dithering and start acting like people who own a house. Yes, a decent portion of the house was built by slave labor. Yes, the family dynamics inside the house are still relatively noxious. But the wiring works, the bones are good, and the roof keeps us dry and warm. The house is actually worth keeping.

The thing is, Americans all live in this house, including the descendants of slaves, the descendants of slave owners, and generations upon generations of immigrants. So one of the best ways to help each other – to redress the grievances and injustices that have marked our history since day one – isn’t to indulge in fashionable cynicism and metaphorically turn your back on the country. It’s to believe in the country. It’s to learn to become grateful for this place. To realize that, as imperfect as this house is, it’s better than being out in the rain.

Again, I’m not saying that black Americans or Native residents or other people our social system injures should just count blessings. That’s absurd. What I am saying is that the temptation to cynicism doesn’t actually help the oppressed. What’s more, the capacity for basic gratitude can fuel the fire of positive action like almost nothing else.

When you lazily assume that the house has always stood here, will always stand here, and is mostly just a source of (subpar) services and capricious rules, cynicism comes easily.

When one day you realize, “Hey, this house wasn’t always here,” you can’t help but then realize that it may not always be here – and this realization, in turn, sends your imagination down a rabbit hole, envisioning what it might actually be like if the house burned down or was washed away in a flood. A little chill shudders down your back.

When you finally understand that the house is contingent – that it doesn’t have to be there, but is only standing because someone you never met built it – you start feeling little sparks of gratitude for the good things it does offer: warmth in the winter, shade in the summer, lights that mostly work. And once you start feeling gratitude, you start feeling the desire to give back. Once you start feeling the desire to give back, you realize that the other roommates all benefit when you fix a window, or replace the refrigerator coils, or repaint the siding.

With enough people all taking responsibility for little pieces of the house, a sense of team spirit in ownership might develop. People formerly low on the totem pole might find that they have some of the most important – and necessary – skills in the house. The sense of accomplishment that comes from contributing to the team effort might become something available to everyone, not just the well-connected or the normatively pigmented.

Okay, maybe this is a clunky and inexcusably saccharine metaphor. But it’s real. Houses are built by massive human labor and aren’t guaranteed to stand through the centuries. Unless their inhabitants put continual work into keeping them up, a bad storm might wreck them. Countries are exactly like this, except when countries collapse, they don’t just take a single family with them. They take millions.

The secular-cosmopolitan worldview has a massive blind spot. This is that humans need each other to live. We need groups. We can never be universal rational observers, free from irrational loyalties and ties, viewing the world from a perspectiveless vacuum. Countries, tribes, religions, and nations are never going to be vanquished by enlightenment rationality. In-groups may be problematic, but they’re also necessary for our survival. They’re not going anywhere.

If you’ve ever been party of a family, you know that odd little rituals and mythologies and in-jokes develop over time. No functioning family is remotely rational. No human association, from a family to a nation, can ever be tethered together, in the long run, by reason and individual self-interest alone. We will always need some level of belief, some element of shared mythology, in the absence of immediate evidence. Because while it’s rational inquiry that teaches us how to lay shingles or work with electrical wiring, it’s a shared belief that there ought to be a house in the first place that animates the laborers to do the work. It’s commitment to the ideals of a nation – very often against all empirical evidence – that inspire people to keep doing the work, not just of tearing down things that need to be replaced, but lovingly maintaining the things that are working, unobtrusively and in the background, and on which we all depend.

If we don’t cultivate that shared belief, all the algorithms and best practices in the world won’t save us. Neither will social activism, academic conferences, or hard-hitting journalism. One last time: Again, critics are right to point out that governments are unjust and society is unfair. America’s treatment of African-Americans, American Indians, women, gays, and many other groups is not morally acceptable. But if we let these injustices curdle into cynicism, we’ll only open the door to a breakdown that will hurt everyone. We’ll end up with a country where nothing works, just as Aristotle described 2,400 years ago:

They aim at getting more than their fair share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share; and each man wishing for advantage to himself criticizes his neighbor and stands in his way; for if people do not watch it carefully the common weal is soon destroyed.


*Prior to being killed during that routine traffic stop – a danger that white motorists don’t face in remotely the same way that black drivers do – Philando Castile had been pulled over 52 times in the previous 14 years. He had never gotten a citation for any major violation. Most of his traffic stops were for speeding or minor infractions like not wearing a seatbelt.

Guess what? I nearly always speed. I drive about five miles over the speed limit, which is what all American drivers drive, except for some grandmothers. I sometimes do U-turns where I shouldn’t.† If I were black, I would almost certainly be getting pulled over for these things. This isn’t an opinion or a politicized rant. It’s a demonstrable fact. One University of Minnesota study found that police stopped minority drivers at much higher rates than white drivers, and searched them at far higher rates, but found less contraband than during searches of white drivers. The study concluded that, all factors being equal, black drivers were pulled over 310% more than expected, based on rates of speeding or other traffic infractions. In addition, black Americans killed by police are more likely to be unarmed than white Americans.

†Especially in Boston, where taking any single wrong turn can quickly make it physically impossible to reach your original intended destination, possibly forever.


** He wrote this on Twitter, of course, because both crass scientism and incipient goonish anti-democratic despotism have something in common: a remarkable ability to express nearly all their substantive ideas in 140 characters or less.††

†† Also notice his capitalization of “science.” Is science just an objective method of gathering provisional knowledge? Or is it a sacred ideology or a religion? Hint: we don’t capitalize “cognitive science” or “biochemistry.”


*** Which I wrote about more than two years ago here, to the great chagrin of many of Shermer’s followers. In the aftermath of this review of Shermer’s ideas, which many people took to be a disingenuous book review of a book I hadn’t read, I got in touch with Shermer and asked him to send me a copy of the book so I could read and review it properly. Graciously, he promptly did so, and ungraciously, I promptly got sucked into the whirlwind of my dissertation and didn’t end up reading it until, last night, I noticed on my bookshelf and picked it up. It’s an absorbing book, although I disagree with practically everything in it, and it even caused me to miss a subway connection this morning, because I was so caught up in reading it (and scrawling urgent rebuttals with exclamation points in the margins) that I got on the wrong Green Line train and ended up at Symphony instead of Kenmore. (If you know Boston, you know that if this happens your best bet is to give up and walk home.) Upshot: I have always planned on actually writing the review I promised, and now I’m within a few weeks of making good on it.


**** Of course, this quote is generally misused. Its originator, the British conservative Samuel Johnson, actually meant that scoundrels often take refuge behind false assertions of patriotism. True patriotism itself was actually a good thing.

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