Martha Nussbaum wants to encourage a cosmpolitan sense of identification with all countries, not just with our own. She also wants to encourage human rights. But she doesn’t tell us which want comes first. Here and there can be found countries whose observation of human rights is less than splendid. Should our cosmopolitan identification with all the world oblige us to respect the practices of such countries and to view the unsplendid dictatorships as legitimate governments? Or should a feeling of cosmopolitanism oblige us to try to overthrow dictatorial governments wherever they exist? Should we try to revolutionize the cultures of the many traditional societies where women or minorities are spectacularly oppressed? The space between those different understandings of cosmopolitanism seems to me deep, and Nussbaum’s argument falls into it, and does not come out again.
The classic left in the 19th and early 20th centuries used to favor cosmopolitanism, too; but the classic leftists favored cosmopolitanism only as an extension of their deeper values, which were democratic, libertarian, socialist, and so forth. Perhaps those are the universal values (in a modern version) that Nussbaum wishes to revive under the name of cosmopolitanism. But if we are going to resurrect the old left-wing idea, we shall also have to revive the equally classic left-wing distinction — mention of which is fatefully missing from Nussbaum’s essay — between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is a chauvinistic feeling of ethnic superiority over others; patriotism is a healthy feeling of solidarity with one’s country. Nationalism is the beginning of strife; patriotism is the beginning (a beginning, anyway) of community, locally and more-than-locally. I am glad that Nussbaum opposes mindless nationalism; but when she throws out patriotism, too, I think she has lost the baby with the bathwater.
Something should be said about the particular patriotism that is American. In the last 200 years American patriotism has come in three main varieties. There is the chauvinism of the white race (a nationalism, really), which sometimes wraps itself in the stars-and-stripes. There is the self-interest of business (not even nationalism but merely greed) which sometimes wraps itself likewise. But there is also the third kind, equally wrapped in the flag, but for very different purposes. It is the patriotism that you see in the writings of Abraham Lincoln, who defined America’s identity as a commitment to democracy, not just as our own quaint local custom but as a principle for the entire earth. You see that same idea — of American patriotism as a commitment to democracy at home and everywhere in the world — in the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman.
Patriotism in Lincoln and Whitman’s sense already comprises the cosmopolitan feeling of identification with the entire world that Nussbaum wishes to encourage. But it affirms that identification in the name of democracy and human rights, not in the name of a value-free all-accepting respect for anything whatsoever. When Richard Rorty writes about American patriotism as a valuable sentiment which ought to be embraced by the American left, he plainly means patriotism in the Lincoln-Whitman sense. American patriotism thus understood is a step toward, not away from, the old universalist dream of a worldwide egalitarian and democratic solidarity.
So I can’t agree with Nussbaum’s contention about patriotism and cosmopolitanism. But I do admire the verve in her essay. Any argument that begins with Rabindranath Tagore and concludes with ancient Greek philosophers copulating in public and enjoying dinner parties can’t be all bad.