An East Coast Straussian Deplores America - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

An East Coast Straussian Deplores America


Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes
By Steven B. Smith
Yale, 2021

Steven B. Smith claims to have written a book “for this moment,” when “the question of patriotism is even more urgent … than in the days and months after 9/11.” “Then,” he writes, “we were attacked by an external enemy… But today we are confronted with an even more difficult and elusive enemy—ourselves. ‘We have met the enemy and he is us,’ the old Pogo cartoon says. The election of 2016 was a watershed moment.”

“This moment” is defined by Donald Trump, whose candidacy threw into question “what it means to be an American.” Smith sets out to define and defend true patriotism: it must be “rehabilitated for the left” and “recaptured from the right.”

Smith’s professed moderation, and his references to canonical texts and great statesmen, might attract thoughtful conservatives seeking a “decent” (one of Smith’s favorite words) and “enlightened patriotism.” But Smith’s stance is hardly conservative and his argument hardly persuasive. His stance is very much like that of Richard Rorty—in his preference for bourgeois morality, his anti-foundationalism, his disgust at the harsh agonism of nationalism, and his acquiescence to the left’s agenda, so long as it is a decade or so old.

As for the argument, much of the book reads like recycled lecture notes loosely stitched together and loosely connected to present concerns. Some sections Smith does not even bother to integrate with the argument: most egregiously, a four-page digression on “coolness,” including Smith’s own chart of “Cool” and “Uncool” public figures, culminating in the claim that Sex and the City was “the coolest television show of the early 2000s” and “helped popularize a cocktail named—you guessed it—the cosmopolitan.” This is Smith’s segue back to the topic: cosmopolitanism versus nationalism.

I will examine Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes in four places: Smith’s philosophical analysis of patriotism; Smith’s claims about the essence of American patriotism; how Smith addresses (or fails to address) America as it exists today; and what the book reveals about Smith himself.

The most substantial chapter, and source of the book’s title, identifies patriotism as the virtue of gratitude and loyalty, an Aristotelian mean between vicious extremes: nationalism and cosmopolitanism. This is a promising approach, poorly executed.

Three features of Aristotle’s moral theory are worth noting. First, each moral virtue is the stable disposition toward a particular passion of the soul; the vices are disordered dispositions toward that same passion. Courage, for example, is the mean disposition toward fear and confidence; recklessness is too much confidence; cowardice, too little. Second, each virtue is more akin to one vicious extreme than the other. Courage is more like recklessness than cowardice, whereas moderation resembles deficiency in pleasure (insensibility) more than excess (licentiousness). Third, each person has his own bent for which he must correct when aiming at virtue. To become truly courageous, a naturally timid man aims at recklessness; to practice righteous anger, a naturally gentle man aims at harshness.

Smith deviates from Aristotle on all these points. The object of loyalty shifts in each case. “Nationalism,” the vice that exceeds patriotism, is for Smith a misdirected loyalty—“ethno-nationalism” or “white nationalism”—not an excess of loyalty to its proper object. Smith must insist on this, for, as we will see, his own “enlightened patriotism” is an abstract faith in debate, bourgeois society, and gradual progress, which has nothing to do with the location or population of America, the “wide-spreading country” or “band of brethren” of Federalist 2. And “cosmopolitanism” itself does not denote lack of loyalty. Rather, it is a flattering term designating one possible (and, to today’s elite, respectable) transposition of loyalty away from one’s country and toward “humanity” or “the world,” which transposition entails deficient loyalty to one’s country.

What would Aristotle say? He might call the vice of deficient gratitude and loyalty, well, “ingratitude” or “disloyalty,” or (borrowing from Dante) “treachery,” or (a more specifically political term) “treason.” If these sound too harsh to Smith, perhaps “idiocy,” from the Greek idiotēs—a pejorative term for a private person who neglects his duties as a citizen. (Vices deserve nasty names; they are vices, after all.)

As for excessive gratitude and loyalty, why not “idolatry”? Here and elsewhere, Smith might have consulted Aquinas, for whom pietas is the dutiful service to one’s family, country, and God—in that order. This framework better describes the virtue of patriotism itself as well as the self-understanding of today’s American nationalists. Smith’s own account of nationalism as a totalizing ideology, trumping all other loyalties, relies heavily upon European intellectual history and poorly describes today’s American nationalists.

Smith fails to recognize (or perhaps admit?) that the virtue of patriotism is more akin to its vicious excess than its vicious deficiency. As for Smith himself, it is clear where his sympathies lie. “Cosmopolitans” are presented as well-meaning and respectable if misguided humanitarians. “Nationalists” are ultimately “white nationalists,” practicing (it must be read to be believed) “identity politics [for] white men, Christian evangelicals, incels, and other groups that see themselves as politically and culturally disenfranchised.”

Aristotle might advise Smith to aim at the excess (“nationalism”) to hit upon the virtue of patriotism. If this book is his attempt to do so, then I suggest he try, try again.

Smith has described himself as a “far-East Coast Straussian,” so perhaps it is unsurprising that he describes America as an overridingly creedal or propositional nation. John Locke is asserted to be “America’s philosopher-king”; “enlightened patriotism” is a product of philosophic modernity that happened to manifest in America. But Smith’s America is less creedal than emotive—“enlightened” in its tastes, not in its rationalism. Smith emphasizes “liberal morality”—“capacities and character traits such as independence, fair play, acceptance of moral responsibility, and critical self-reflection”—and the “bourgeois society” it produced far more than any particular teaching about nature.

American patriotism, then, is a “patriotism of ideas,” a “self-questioning patriotism,” a “uniquely enlightened patriotism,” but one which, in Smith’s hands, has very little to say about ideas. The Founders “instill[ed] a new model of human character, one that values flexibility over rigidity, prudence over dogma, and discussion over conflict,” a “liberal or ‘bourgeois’ ethos in which people … deal fairly and cooperate freely with one another through bargaining, persuasion, and compromise.” Smith’s deceptive dichotomies paper over the real fact, recognized by philosophers and statesmen, that we must have some substantial ideas about good and bad, justice and injustice, in order to reason and live with one another.

Smith recasts the American experience as one long seminar, the purpose of which is to share one’s opinions and feelings, not argue from or to the truth. He is fond of describing Americans, whose patriotism is a “constitutional faith,” as “people of the book.” He seems not to have thought through the metaphor. Peoples of the book—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Con Law professors—argue about interpretations and either settle upon some orthodoxy or else keep fighting until they schismatize. Just so, Americans with our Founding documents. Smith shrinks from articulating an American orthodoxy and seems scandalized by schism over our national identity.

Smith is sloppy in paraphrasing and selective in quoting Lincoln, his exemplar of American patriotism. Indeed, he is downright Obaman in his abuses of traditional terms and images. Smith has a habit of deploying hoary phrases (“a more perfect union”) to suggest that America’s progressive march is a fulfillment of our Founding. Lincolnian patriotism is “egalitarian,” “aspirational,” and “inclusive.” If this could be justified, it would require a great deal of qualification and clarification. Smith supplies neither. Tellingly, Smith almost entirely ignores nature and natural rights in his treatment of the American creed. We are left with a poor-man’s version of an Obama oration afterglow, tipsy on a brew of venerable phrases blended with contemporary prejudices.

Claiming to have written “for this moment,” Smith fails to describe the actually existing American regime of the 2020s. He not only omits to render something useful to his fellow citizens; when he discusses his fellow citizens, he sins against patriotism as he himself describes it.

Smith rightly observes that “regime analysis … was the original form of political science,” but he gives practically no attention to the present composition of our regime, our ruling class, or the mounting crises, chronic and acute, faced by the country. Smith’s one reference to “the dangers of an emergent oligarchy” includes a brief, anodyne caution against “socialism,” an exhortation to “make [markets] work better for all Americans,” and the bromide that capitalism has “improved the lives of billions.” Neither the riots of 2020 (which Lincoln would have been the first to condemn) nor the tyranny of “public health” are acknowledged for what they are.

All this is embarrassing for readers who teach the texts that Smith references. Politics, as a practical science, is supposed to reveal the world as it is and aid citizens and statesmen in seeing what can, and should, be done. Smith as political philosopher is capable of little more than high-falutin’ (and, given his penchant for popular culture, low-falutin’) references that buttress rather than challenge, correct, or refine contemporary elite opinion. Accordingly, he diminishes the scope and stakes of statesmanship and distorts history itself. Smith presents Charles de Gaulle as “a perfect example of the conservative patriot in power, someone who reveled in the politics of grandeur while never abandoning his acceptance of the modern constitutional order.” I would advise Professor Smith, whom I assume was deeply distraught by the events of January 2021, not to look too closely into the events of May 1958.

Smith proposes that “patriotism is best displayed by those capable of broad moral sympathy with their fellow citizens,” yet he consistently denigrates the deplorables. Consider the following paragraph, the closest Smith comes to criticizing our ruling class:

Yet even at its best, cosmopolitanism is indifferent to the actual ties of loyalty and affection that bind people to home and country. Today’s cosmopolitan elite seem to care little for their fellow citizens, especially if they come from such culturally benighted areas of the country as Appalachia or the Deep South. It is precisely this cultural elite, nestled in the fashionable neighborhoods of Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Cambridge, who have taken it on themselves to set the cultural rules for everyone else. This has in turn created a backlash of populist resentment that has brought us not a more democratic politics, but demagogues and strongmen promising to restore order by reversing the ship of state. This possibility was presciently depicted in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—turned into a Netflix miniseries—based on a counterfactual history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 on a platform of “America First” and develops close relations with Nazi Germany.

By the second sentence, Smith has already let the cosmopolitans off the hook: they “seem to care little for their fellow citizens.” But why should they? By the paragraph’s end, he has associated Trump voters with Nazi-lovers. Middle Americans are from “culturally benighted” (not merely economically blighted) backwaters—kingdoms of darkness that lag behind our coastal value-makers. Smith has heard such things about “Appalachia or the Deep South”; perhaps he even read a post-2016 anthropological dispatch in the Times. The populist backlash is not “democratic,” by which Smith means “Democratic.” (In Lincoln’s time, it was common to refer to the Democratic Party and its agenda as “the Democracy.” Twenty-first century claims that X threatens “our democracy” and Y fortifies “our democracy” are often meant in this nineteenth-century sense.) Rejecting cosmopolitan elites means “reversing the ship of state.” Smith updates this classical image: the ship may sail slowly (“moral arc of the universe” and all that), but it only sails left. Perhaps Professor Smith should spend less time watching Netflix and more time developing “broad moral sympathy” with his fellow citizens.

Reclaiming Patriotism fails in its philosophic and civic duties, but perhaps it succeeds in some private purpose: as a virtue-signal from Smith—who has written extensively on Leo Strauss and other dead white men—to distance himself from Trumpian “ethno-nationalism” and even darker atavisms. It may not serve his fellow scholars well, in analyzing the phenomena of patriotism itself and American patriotism in particular, or his fellow citizens, in providing a guide to the past and present and possible futures of the country they love and inhabit, but the book might burnish Smith’s reputation in his own milieu.

Here again, Smith seems to be following Richard Rorty. In an interview two years before his death, Rorty stated: “I don’t think there’s any criteria you can appeal to to settle the quarrel between Nietzsche on the one hand and Dewey on the other. I think you just decide what kind of future you want for humanity and work on from there.” For Rorty, his own preference for bourgeois society was just that—a private preference, a matter of taste—but one with important public consequences. Because it was his preference, it was the preference he preferred to disseminate—not by rational justification, but by (mere) rhetoric, by narratives that would condition the (mere) tastes of his audience to prefer the “sunlit uplands” of our not-yet-achieved egalitarian future. “On my view,” Rorty said, “you start with the political and move from there to the philosophical. You don’t try to back up the politics with philosophy.”

Smith tries to dissolve the tension described by Rorty by portraying Nietzsche as a cultured, soft-around-the-edges “true cosmopolitan.” But he cannot leave it at that. Dewey’s heirs are the progressive cosmopolitans for whom Smith has a soft spot, but Nietzsche’s heirs are, if not blood-and-soil, at least sun-and-steel vitalists with whom Smith would like to have nothing to do. Like Rorty, though without his frankness, Smith avoids arguing from nature; so the best he can do in response to the Nietzscheans and nationalists of our day is to clarify to his audience that his own tastes and preferences are pacific and enlightened and harmless. Smith, it seems, would like to be left alone by politics and by history, free to speak and write about philosophy without worrying too much about the country outside his campus. It sounds like a comfortable, if somewhat bloodless, life.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is assistant professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.


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