Liberal patriotism.

The Dish has begun a thread (initiated here) trying to make sense of why the right has a monopoly on patriotism and flag waving. What, exactly, is wrong with lefties getting in on the game?

Coincidentally, when preparing for my political theory exam the other day my friend was pondering a similar question, and proposed that patriotism may be inconsistent with liberalism insofar as it violates state neutrality. That is, the liberal believes the government should stay away from doing anything controversial that some citizens may disagree with, and any self-congratulatory formal celebration sessions promoting the idea of the nation seem to be an example of the state doing precisely that.

Of course, this would just mean the government shouldn’t promote patriotism. It wouldn’t mean liberal citizens couldn’t voluntarily be patriotic. But I imagine an explanation of why liberals tend to avoid such activities lies in our rationalist mindset: we believe in cold, cautious observation of government, and thus show little need for the kind of sentimentality inherent to waving flags. It is a fundamentally conservative act: a fine example of the type of institution that reflects the ties that bind us and the liberal is allegedly blind to. This may even go some way, for instance, to explaining the disconnect between people like Greenwald and Sullivan on the issue of emotion in politics.

But it seems to me there is at least one form of patriotism that is perfectly consistent with liberalism, both in the sense that liberal citizens should embrace it and liberal governments need not shy away from it. Namely, a patriotism focused on celebrating the liberal state itself. If when flying the flag, what is going on mentally is a celebration of fundamental liberal principles like equality, and core freedoms such as that of thought and speech – what could possibly be illiberal about fostering those sorts of feelings?

And I think this sort of thought is intrinsic to and dominant in the American identity. It is reflected in their other key national symbol, the Statue of Liberty. So perhaps Britain is at a disadvantage here. As we know too well, our flag is too tied up with the monarchy and football. But maybe British liberals should get to work on changing that.

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3 thoughts on “Liberal patriotism.

  1. The criticism I have for liberalism with regards to this is that the respect offered to the state and its institutions borders on the verge of utter reverence.

    Richard Rorty argues that the institutions of liberalism need to be honored as opposed to any type of philosophical/spiritual institutions. It is only through these institutions can society ever truly move forward; in that light it seems the idea of equality seems to come by disregarding the past achievements of metaphysics.

    Furthermore how does pride operate in ethnically diverse countries such as India (perhaps even the United Kingdom)? Equality has different meanings from village to village let alone state to state. The idea that liberals can form a cohesive sense of state identity seems rather difficult if next to impossible in my humble opinion.

  2. Are you familiar with the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism? That might partly map on to the liberal/conservative distinction you’re trying to push.

    Also, surely a significant reason why many liberals are sceptical of nationalism is because they are cosmopolitans?

    • I am of the mind to argue that ethnic nationalism is basically the infusion of linguistic pride with civic nationalism; it is not an original idea but a synthesis of the two. With that in mind I would say ethnic nationalism is synonymous to civic nationalism.

      I do not doubt that certain strains of liberal thought are sceptical of nationalism; the idea that this scepticism is derived from a cosmopolitan attitude seems insufficient. The scepticism of nationalism just seems to be a backlash, a manner in which to identify oneself as being unique, especially in an increasingly fractured world.

      Thank you for your time.

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