Writing in the great tradition of Kant and the Stoics, Martha Nussbaum deploys the noble ideal of cosmopolitanism against the manifold parochialisms of patriotism, nationalism, and ethnicity. She is especially unhappy with recent American attempts at adducing a national identity because they risk substituting a “colorful idol for the substantive values of justice and right.” She wants us to emulate Tagore’s Nikhil and resist the temptations of an American Bande Mataram, which she sees lurking behind the appeals of Sheldon Hackney or Richard Rorty to a national conversation about values and a new patriotism.
I have two problems with Nussbaum’s admirable exercise in Kantian universalism. First, she underappreciates the success of the American experiment in grafting the sentiments of patriotism onto a constitutional frame defined precisely by the “substantive values of justice and right” she prizes. And second, she underestimates the thinness of cosmopolitanism and the crucial humanizing role played by identity politics in a deracinating world of contracts, markets, and legal personhood. Patriotism has its pathologies, but so does cosmopolitanism. Because she misjudges these two elements, she is unduly alarmed about what has been a remarkably successful and undogmatic constitutional exercise in American exceptionalism and unduly frightened of efforts to refocus American patriotism and community in an era of individualism and privatizing markets. In an overly tribalized world, cosmopolitanism might be a useful counterpoint. But ours is a world disenchanted in which Gemeinschaft and neighborhood have for the most part been supplanted by Gesellschaft and bureaucracy. What we require are healthy, democratic forms of local community and civic patriotism rather than abstract universalism and the thin gruel of contract relations. I will comment in turn on these two misjudgments.
American national identity has from the start been a remarkable mixture of cosmopolitanism and parochialism. The colonists and later the founders understood themselves to be engaged in a novel process of uprooting and rerooting. In his celebrated Letters from an American Farmer, St. John Crevecoeur sets the tone for America’s new form of patriotism, conceived precisely to counter the religious parochialism and persecutions from which immigrants to America were fleeing. American patriotism was itself the counter to the very evils Nussbaum associates with American patriotism. Crevecoeur solemnizes the creation of a “new man” in “the great American asylum [where] . . . everything tended to regenerate [men] . . . new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system: here they are become men; in Europe they were so many useless plants . . . [here] they have taken root and flourished.” How has that happened? “By what power hath this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws.” American civic identity is invented to bar the confessional wars Nussbaum fears it will occasion.
Jefferson himself echoes Crevecoeur when he writes “Let this be the distinctive mark of an American, that in cases of commotion he enlists under no man’s banner, but repairs to the standard of the law.” And just a few years later the feisty English emigrant Frances Wright, herself unable to vote, nonetheless joined in celebrating the new American patriotism, seeming to remonstrate explicitly with Nussbaum: “What is it to be an American?,” Wright asks. “Is it to have drawn the first breath in Maine, in Pennsylvania, in Florida, or in Missouri? Pshaw! Hence with such paltry, pettifogging calculations of nativities! They are Americans who have complied with the constitutional regulations of the United States. . . . wed the principles of America’s declaration to their hearts and render the duties of American citizens practically to their lives.” Still more recently, Justice Frankfurter spoke of the need “to shed old loyalties and take on the loyalty of American citizenship” which is a kind of “fellowship which binds people together by devotion to certain feelings and ideas and ideals summarized as a requirement that they be attached to the principles of the constitution.”
Elsewhere, I have tried to sum up this approach to Americanism by suggesting that “from the outset, then, to be an American was also to be enmeshed in a unique story of freedom, to be free (or to be enslaved) in a novel sense, more existential than political or legal. Even in colonial times, the new world meant starting over again, meant freedom from rigid and heavily freighted traditional cultures. Deracination was the universal experience. . . . To be an American was not to acquire a new race or a new religion or a new culture, it was to possess a new set of political ideas” (An Aristocracy of Everyone).
The American trick was to use the fierce attachments of patriotic sentiment to bond a people to high ideals. Our “tribal” sources from which we derive our sense of national identity are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Inaugural Addresses of our Presidents, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s sermon at the 1963 March on Washington (“Free at Last”) — not so much the documents themselves as the felt sentiments tying us to them, sentiments that are rehearsed at July 4th parades and in Memorial Day speeches. If Sheldon Hackney wants to recreate a sense of such patriotic rhetoric among ordinary Americans, he surely is more likely to strengthen than to imperil the civic fabric and the American commitment to cosmopolitan ideals.
At times, Nussbaum seems to come close to recognizing as much, acknowledging that even among cosmopolitans the circles must be drawn towards the center. But she is distrustful, worrying that in the end patriotism, however conceived, is “close to jingoism.” She seems diffident in the face of the actual ideals that animate American patriotism — however little realized they may be. Yet it is precisely these ideals that give parochial America its global appeal, these ideals that afforded Lincoln the opportunity to claim that America might yet be the “last best hope” for people everywhere, these ideals that draw peoples damaged by toxic patriotisms elsewhere to American shores. Justice Hugo Black captured America’s patriotic idealism in the phrase “constitutional faith.” More recently, Sanford Levinson wrote a lively testament to Black’s idea — also called Constitutional Faith. At its best (it often is not at its best), America’s civic nativism is, then, a celebration of internationalism, a devotion to values with cosmopolitan reach. The cosmopolitanization of such values has even gotten America in trouble (in Mexico under Wilson, in Vietnam under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, perhaps now in Haiti as well) — a reminder to Nussbaum that cosmopolitanism too has its pathologies and can also breed its own antiseptic version of imperialism.
My second objection to Nussbaum’s worries is that, though she is not entirely unmindful of the problem, she finally understates the thinness of cosmopolitanism. Like such kindred ideas as legal personhood, contract society, and the economic market, the idea of cosmopolitanism offers little or nothing for the human psyche to fasten on. By her own admission, it “seems to have a hard time gripping the imagination.” Not just the imagination: the heart, the viscera, the vitals of the body that houses the brain in which Nussbaum would like us to dwell. No one actually lives “in the world of which the cosmopolitan wishes us to be good citizens. Rather, we live in this particular neighborhood of the world, that block, this valley, that seashore, this family. Our attachments start parochially and only then grow outwards. To bypass them in favor of an immediate cosmopolitanism is to risk ending up nowhere — feeling at home neither at home nor in the world. This is the lesson of America’s tempestuous multicultural politics: to become an American, women and men must first identify as African-Americans or Polish-Americans or Jewish-Americans or German-Americans; to acquire the dignity of natural citizens they must first take pride in their local communities. Diogenes may have regarded himself a citizen of the world, but global citizenship demands of its patriots levels of abstraction and disembodiment most women and men will be unable or unwilling to muster — at least in the first instance.
Like Ibsen’s Pastor Brand, Nussbaum urges her parishioners up the harsh and lonely mountain to an abstract Godhead they cannot see. As ordinary women and men, they soon fall away from the quest and return to the loving warmth of their hearthsides in the valley below. Brand continues on his selfless mission, to which he has sacrificed wife, child, and parish, only to discover, too late, too late, on the mountain top, at the moment of his death, that God to whom he has given all is not the master of an abstract universe but the God of love who wants nothing more for Brand than that he love and care for those in his immediate circle down in the valley.
Nussbaum acknowledges that “becoming a citizen of the world is often a lonely business” and her mentors (Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, Thoreau) are not only solitary intellectuals who march to a different drum, but heroic figures like Brand. Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism also has something of the heroic about it, a Nietzschean quality that seems intolerant of ordinary needs and the democratic taste for the neighborhood. For the American everyman (everywoman), the representative poet is not Emerson but Whitman, not Thoreau but Woody Guthrie, bards who praised the handiwork of Lincoln and Roosevelt and who would have us travel together as comrades, drinking in the immediacy and the immensity of the American landscape, celebrating the neighborhood while urging neighbors to extend their circles of fellowship.
Nussbaum defines the cosmopolitan as a “person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world,” but Whitman’s allegiance is initially to the farmer, the sailor, the miner, and the shipwright. And when Guthrie sings of the American land, he sings the specifics: “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters . . .” Is Guthrie’s rooted love of America incompatible with justice? Hardly. In nearly every song, he transmutes that love into a demand for justice. The poetry of Langston Hughes practices the same patriotic/civic alchemy when it pleads: “Let America be America again,” appealing not to disembodied cosmopolitanism, but to the unrealized American values that are the country’s embodied soul:
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where everyone is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s
Negro’s, ME —
Whitman, Guthrie, and Hughes have “sung America” in a voice of loving devotion that insists the country live up to its aspirations. The old cliché has it that those who love humankind in general often cannot abide individual women or men in particular (Moliere’s Misanthrope). Our wise American poets prudently ask us to kindle an affection for the general by reveling in the particular.
I recommend Whitman and Guthrie and Hughes to Nussbaum. They will remind her that love of homeland is not just a matter of “color,” the odd term she employs repeatedly in trying to rally a little sympathy in herself for patriots. As if she were a tourist from some black and white rationalist utopia touring the technicolor slums of some National Geographic tribal culture teeming with multi-hued, brightly-feathered natives. But patriotism is more than color, and when it is reduced to color, the color is all too often blood-red: for it speaks to the power of the visceral human need to belong — if only by virtue of imagined identities and contrived “others” whose exclusion (or extermination) helps draw the boundaries.
The question is not how to do without patriotism and nationalism but how to render them safe. A civic patriotism that eschews exclusion but meets the need for parochial identity can provide an alternative to the many pathological versions of blood kinship that are around today in places like ex-Yugoslavia, Romania, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Nigeria, the Ukraine, and Afghanistan, to name just a few. I am completing a study of this kind of fractiousness, which I subsume under the term Jihad (the book is called Jihad versus McWorld, “McWorld” being my name for the toxic cosmopolitanism of global markets). But Jihad is a sickness of the national body and cannot be treated with remedies aimed at detaching the soul from it. Pathological patriotism can be cured only by healthy patriotism, jingoism only by a pacific constitutional faith, destructive nationalism only by liberal nationalism (in the title of Yael Tamir’s new book), separatist, exclusionary ethnicity only by multicultural ethnicity. If the tribes of traditional community are dangerous, then we need to find forms of egalitarian, democratic, and voluntarist communities that render tribalism safe. Cosmopolitanism as an attitude may help us in that effort, but cosmopolitanism as a political destination is more likely to rob us of our concreteness and our immediacy and ultimately can only benefit the less wholesome aspects of the yearning for community and identity.
Of course Nussbaum may wish to say that if (as I have argued) parochialism is the safest way to cosmopolitanism, cosmopolitanism can also be a road to parochialism. That at least is the lesson I draw from her final citation from the noble Crates. Cosmopolitans who copulate in public and then go off to dinner parties? This is the kind of cosmopolitanism even the earthiest of parochials can understand.