Rob used to have his own blog. I liked his stuff, and when he gave it up I offered to let him show up here and Guest Blog on occasion. Recently, he took me up on my offer. It's a nice extension of the Veterans Day / Remembrance Day posts we ran yesterday. The Moral Duty of "Tribal Patriotism" Rob Lyman I had a long conversation about the war on terrorism with an academic expert on Tibetan Buddhism this weekend. Given that I'm a typical gun-totin' conservative, you may guess that we disagreed on more than a few points. As I considered some of his thoughts I started to write a piece about patriotism, then saw that Armed Liberal had modified and re-posted last year's Veteran's Day piece. I agree, heartily, and I have a bit to add as well. Here's a question for U.S. citizens: Does it matter that 3,000 Americans died on Sept. 11, rather than 3,000 Russians, Iraqis, or Bolivians? My response: Yes. It matters an awful lot. I'd like to make the case that this sensitivity to the murder of one's countrymen - I've been trying to think of a word, and all I can come up with is 'tribal patriotism' - isn't just acceptable, or desirable, but rather is morally mandatory.
Consider: Americans enjoy a democratic government which is, to a greater or lesser degree, responsive to our will. We are the authors of our government's actions. If I vote for someone whose platform is opening up the prisons, I am partly to blame for the victimization of innocents which results when all those murderers and rapists get turned loose. If I vote for a politician whose platform is unilateral disarmament, I am partly to blame for whatever military catastrophe results. If Americans are killed by terrorists that my government failed to hunt down and kill, I am partly to blame. Now, the first duty of the government is what? Why are governments created? Dr. Dean? No, I'm sorry, it doesn't have anything to do with dairy subsidies or prescription drugs. Governments are instituted among men to protect the citizens. If a government fails to protect the citizens, then the social contract is broken. The government may, quite legitimately, be voted out of power or, in the extreme, be overthrown by force. That means that the first duty of every citizen, who is, as I have said, the author of the government's actions, is the protection of fellow citizens. Now, South Koreans and Brazilians have no power over the U.S. governments (there are thousands of separate governments in the U.S., remember); they don't vote in our elections, and they can't run for office. They have no power, and thus no responsibility to the citizens of the U.S. We, in turn, have no power over the choices of their governments, and thus no inherent responsibility to worry about their safety. They should avoid recklessly endangering us, and we them, but that's the limit of our mutual obligation unless we voluntarily expand it by treaty and friendship. Therefore, to 'value all lives equally,' i.e. for an American to treat American deaths as no different from Taiwanese deaths, is not to be admirably cosmopolitan. It is a dereliction of the first duty of the citizen in a democracy, namely, the duty to protect fellow citizens from harm. Furthermore, subordinating this first duty of the government to the will of foreign governments - to use a domestic analogy, allowing the neighbors to vote (with veto power!) on the question of whether you should feed your children - is treason. I am not suggesting that death and dismemberment of non-Americans is insignificant and to be ignored. If Toronto or Tokyo were hit by a nuclear bomb, I'd be disappointed if some U.S. submarine commanders didn't get the most frightening orders of their lives. There is noting to stop the United States from voluntarily concluding alliances, or for that matter simply unilaterally intervening to help someone we like or in pursuit of an ideal such as freedom. But such alliances and intervention must be grounded in enlightened self-interest. We must get something from the bargain, and the action must not gratuitously endanger Americans. To go further with the child analogy, it's fine to share food with your hungry neighbours, but if you wind up starving your own children in the process you're a criminally bad parent. Each nation-state, or at least each democracy, is a tribe: we must hang together, or we will surely hang separately. And the democracies themselves form a sort of meta-tribe, which must hang together in the face of barbarism. It's unfortunate that so far we have failed to do so in a number of ways. I should also be clear that I'm not saying that it is unpatriotic, immoral, or treasonous to have opposed overthrowing Saddam's regime. Rather, it is unpatriotic, immoral, and treasonous to subordinate American national security to U.N. demands. Since France, Russia, and China have no obligation to protect Americans - and in fact have a perhaps opposing obligation to protect French, Russian, and Chinese - they don't get a veto over our government's actions. To reiterate: Opposing war because you think it will increase our vulnerability to terrorism = good. Opposing war because Belgium will be mad at us = bad. Now, I can almost hear the sophisticates of the world smugly pointing out that excessive attachment to one's tribe is the flaw of the Islamofacists: they think that people who disagree with their 9th century worldview, and Americans in particular, are subhuman and deserving of death. Am I not suggesting the same thing? Of course not. I say that the citizens of each country have an obligation to protect each other which supersedes any obligations they may owe to those outside of their country. That's a long way from saying that non-Americans are subhuman infidels, is it not? More important still are the standards to which I hold Americans abroad. Remember Daniel Pearl? Suppose we found a video of American soldiers beheading an Iraqi. Would we turn it into an Army recruiting video? Or would we drag them before courts-martial, on capital charges (and thus force the French to consider them for honorary citizenship)? There is no doubt as to the answer, and that answer easily separates us from the vicious murderers who are our enemies. So I agree with A.L. There is much in the American tradition of which we should be proud (and, I should add, there is much in the traditions of many other nations, of which those nations should be proud). But even if you can't get past the stain of slavery, or of Jim Crow, or of the abominable treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americans, you still owe a duty of patriotism to your fellow citizens. You have an obligation to try to protect them. If you fail in that obligation, you deprive our democracy, and indeed, the very idea of democracy, of legitimacy. Nobody wants that. Do they? --- UPDATES --- * Intelligent debate and discussions in the Comments section. As usual. * Judith Weiss has an outstanding complement to this essay, and shows that the issues Rob talks about are very much alive in other contexts as well: bq. "I understand the impulse to universalism and the discomfort with particularism (given some of its uglier manifestations). But universalism can produce the same kind of ugliness when it tries to destroy the particularism of family and religion in favor of an ideal - Stalinism and Pol Pot-ism come to mind here, as well as Wahabism - just ask the Bosnian Muslims. And particularism does not inexorably lead to aggression against those who are different." * Armed Liberal's "Selective Service" shows that he was paying close attention to the comments. One of them, he says, exemplifies the attitude among some liberals today who: "...believe they can have the benefits of modern liberal society without getting their hands dirty. They value moral purity and self-satisfaction above everything else...." Ouch.