What is “Patriotic History”?

In a recent article that appeared in The Atlantic last week, Eliot Cohen, the prominent political scientist, sometime public servant, and well known neocon, makes a case for “patriotic history.”


The essay starts with Cohen following George Orwell in making the following distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects,” while patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The former, which Cohen associates with President Trump and the Make America Great crowd, is supposedly inferior to the latter. Why Cohen believes such is the case (aside from the fact that he evinces enormous dislike for the current occupant of the White House) and why he even chooses such definitions in the first place, are unclear. Indeed, a number of problems with his essay begin with the meanings that Cohen attributes to these terms—but more about that anon. Cohen continues by arguing that the failings of the current administration have inspired a renewed interest in civic education and particularly history as a means of inoculating the public against the corruption emanating from Washington, DC. He is gratified to note that history is alive and well in the United States, insofar as Americans have many opportunities to engage with the past. But Cohen believes that history and historians must be more mindful about encouraging Americans to understand and embrace patriotism. The kind of patriotic history that Cohen has in mind would not be some sort of white-wash. As he puts it:

Patriotic history does not have to cover up the dark pages of the American past—the cruelties and suffering of slavery and Jim Crow, the violence and injustice of the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Wounded Knee, the corruption of Tammany Hall, the follies of the Red Scares or Charles Lindbergh’s creepy America Firstism. But patriotic histories have a way of reminding us of what there is to celebrate in the American past—as when David Hackett Fischer reminds us that George Washington broke with British military practice in abjuring the floggings that could turn into death sentences, or when James McPherson points out that, in fact, the Cause—be it preservation of the Union or hostility to slavery—really did matter to many Union soldiers.

This history, he states, must provide us with heroes—complex characters from a wide variety of backgrounds who may have had flaws but can help teach us what integrity, intelligence, service, and self-denial are all about:

Patriotic biography gives us John Quincy Adams in every phase of his life, to include its end, when he took a lonely and principled vote on the Mexican War just before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives. It gives readers Davy Crockett on the frontier and Audie Murphy at Anzio, and it also gives them Harriet Tubman rescuing men and women from bondage, or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fighting a hopeless fight for his people. It gives them complicated figures like Andrew Carnegie—strikebreaker and extraordinary philanthropist committed to building libraries across the country to give young people the keys to better futures.

Cohen stresses that, “All of us, but young people especially, need heroes, including the really complicated ones, and particularly these days, when character is in such short supply. . . . To know what heroes look like is also to know what craven or spineless or obsequious or merely unserious persons are.”

One Thing after Another will not deny that American patriotism is now in a bad way. Both the right and left would agree on this point but, of course, for very different reasons. Certainly, our political leaders have done a poor job of modeling the virtues and behaviors associated with patriotism. There is now much more concern with outcomes than process. Party has become more important than the republic. Even the armed forces, which seem to many people the last and most reliable bastion of patriotism in America, may not be able to sustain this role for long. Long-service professional forces committed to imperial ventures for extended periods overseas and often alienated from the main currents of metropolitan civilian culture may not remain patriotic forever. Such a situation threatens to produce a class of “centurions” (to borrow the title of Jean Lartéguy’s famous novel about French officers who fought in Indochina before applying lessons learned there to Algeria) who are tough, experienced, resourceful, skillful, intelligent, brave, and cynical—but more responsive to the call of a mystical brotherhood in arms than the democratic republic they serve. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Lartéguy’s centurions became praetorians who twice attempted to overthrow the French Republic (1958 and 1961).

There are, however, a number of problems with Cohen’s argument and prescription. For one thing, patriotic history has been tried before, and the results have not always been desirable. France provides an interesting example (again) because, like America, it too has been a democratic republic for many years. Under the Third Republic, patriotism was a mainstay of history education in the schools. In this context, one is reminded of the schoolmasters who were the so-called “shock troops” of that republic in its battle against the Catholic Church, great landed families, and conservative values. Armed with Ernest Lavisse’s The History of France (“our ancestors the Gauls were intelligent and brave”), these schoolmasters not only taught a love of the Republic and its institutions, but also devotion to the patrie. With its praise of Vercingetorix, Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, Bayard, Henry IV, and so on, this type of education was perhaps not so nuanced as the sort Cohen would like to see. One marvels, though, at the results. The patrie was literally manured with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen between 1914 and 1918 as they fought Germans who had been educated in much the same way. Patriotic history was not solely responsible for this bloodbath, but it played its role. Lavisse, in his way, was part of that love to which F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Tender is the Night, famously attributed the colossal sacrifice of World War I:

The western front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. . . . This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. . . . You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. . . . This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Udine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Württemberg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here.

How can we ensure that a patriotic history does not become an aggressively nationalist one (at least according to Cohen’s lights)? Can the state, especially one constituted as ours, be trusted to conjure up Fitzgerald’s “sureties” properly and deal with the results in such a way that we do not experience another “great gust of high-explosive love”?

If Cohen’s patriotic history, which exposes the past “warts and all,” should not resemble something so unsubtle as Lavisse’s History of France, what would it look like? How would it convey its patriotic message? What exactly would that message be? To what degree would it look different from plain old history? And are we not already producing the kind of history that Cohen desires? Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of Ron Chernow’s Grant and Louis Galambos’s Eisenhower (both of which were published in late 2017) as works that might fit Cohen’s bill. But since Cohen is not terribly specific about the form and content of a patriotic history that might suit the needs of 2018, it’s hard to tell.

With these questions unanswered, it also remains difficult to decipher which heroes to include in the pantheon of patriotic history. Who is a hero? Who is not? Is Robert E. Lee in? Is Eugene Debs? We can be sure that those who support the inclusion of the former in patriotic history would not look kindly on the latter—and vice versa. These questions are ineluctably tied to another: who should select these figures? In the same way that it “takes money to make money,” it requires patriotism to make patriots. We cannot remedy our deficiencies with supposedly non-existent material (unless, of course, Cohen and other self-appointed patriotic elites choose themselves for the task of resurrecting patriotism). Otherwise, a bitterly divided country suffering from a lack of patriotism is not in a position to anoint heroes without adding yet another battle to the protracted culture war that has consumed the United States for decades. From where is the universally recognized understanding of patriots and patriotism to come?

All of these questions stem from Cohen’s problematic descriptions of nationalism and patriotism which he obtains from Orwell. Orwell’s definitions appear in “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) in which he wrote:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly ­– and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. . . . By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Although this view of matters may accord with the way these ideas are widely perceived, the problem with this passage is that it turns nationalism and patriotism into bad and good versions of more or less the same thing: nationalism is aggressive and motivated by a thirst for power; patriotism is defensive and inspired by love. Both, however, are about one’s association with a community of people (which is really nationalism). Ironically, Orwell’s understanding of the difference between the two lends itself to a kind of double-speak: “we” are always patriots (peaceful and defensive), and “they” are nationalists (warlike and aggressive). It is partly for these reasons that most scholars who investigate the topic have rarely defined the two terms in this fashion. Generally, the most important distinction that those working in the field have drawn between patriotism and nationalism is that the former concerns one’s duties to the state while the latter is about one’s relationship to the national community (which is frequently defined and held together by forces such as culture and history). This is a position most identified with Lord Acton’s famous essay, “Nationality” (1862). More recently, Maurizio Viroli has made a very similar argument in For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (1997), when he states:

The language of patriotism has been used over the centuries to strengthen or invoke love of the political institutions and the way of life that sustain the common liberty of a people—or love of the republic; the language of nationalism was forged in late eighteenth-century Europe to defend or reinforce the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic oneness and homogeneity of a people.

Viroli goes on to argue that nationalists can be patriots, and patriots can be nationalists, but the priorities of each are somewhat different. Such is usually the case, unless one lives in a country characterized by civic nationalism—that is, a nation (like the United States) defined by subscription to specific political institutions and not to a particular ethnicity. In such a case, one can say that patriotism and nationalism are extremely closely related if not identical. In America, then, patriotism and nationalism are not different names for a horse, one for when it is good, another for when it is bad (as Cohen and Orwell would have it); instead, they are two horses working in tandem.

Making distinctions of this sort are not acts of pedantry. They help us understand what our duties are and how they should be taught. A civic nationalism based on our institutions binds us to our fellow Americans while a patriotism based on our love of our democratic republic and the protections it extends to us also ought to bind us in duty to the state. It seems fitting, then, to conclude with a reference to George William Curtis’s oration to Union College’s graduating class of 1857 in which he pointed to one way in which Americans could understand their peculiar patriotism. In this speech, entitled “Patriotism,” Curtis made clear that we have several duties that could either contradict or complement each other. As people, we were “bound by the universal rule of right or of God” which meant that in “whatever country or whatever case a man may chance to be born, he is born a citizen of the world.” Such an assertion was in keeping with his belief that “the races are but one race” and that the “doctrine or practice of universal brotherhood” was the “ethical statement of a scientific fact.” A man, then, should not be “the best German or the best Roman . . . but the best man he can be.”

Patriotism was the “peculiar relation of an individual to his country.” It was, declared Curtis, an “intelligent love” that perceived opportunities where his country could help mankind. A person’s country, Curtis went on to argue, was a principle, and “patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” Every country served a different principle which contributed to the “cause of human development to which all nationalities are subservient.” In America’s specific case, that principle was not power (every country was tempted by its siren song), and it was certainly not riches (which Curtis believed had the potential to corrupt America). Rather, it was the love of liberty safeguarded by a commitment to democracy; that is, the spirit and values that underpinned the democratic republic. Curtis continued:

Patriotism in an American is simply fidelity to the American idea. Our government was established confessedly in obedience to this sentiment of human liberty. And your duty as patriots is to understand clearly that . . . whatever in its government or policy tends to limit or destroy that freedom and equality is anti-American and unpatriotic, because America and liberty are inseparable ideas.

The patriot’s duty consisted of obeying the laws of the state—only so long as they did not contradict American principles and thus violate the universal rule of right. Although he did not say so explicitly at Union College, Curtis asserted in other venues that American slavery, protected by the Constitution and the laws of men, violated natural laws. It was therefore the duty of every patriot who loved democracy and freedom—by definition every true American—to destroy the peculiar institution. Towards the end of his speech, Curtis had these words to say, as true then as they are today: “Remember that the greatness of our country is not in the greatness of its achievement, but in its promise—a promise that cannot be fulfilled without that sovereign moral sense, without a sensitive national conscience.” From this perspective, patriotism could be taught by history (and Curtis referred to many such examples), but it was mainly a question of ethics.

At the end of the day, then, the problem with a history that teaches a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world” is that it makes presumptions about a country and its people that are not necessarily true (one may believe something that is false). Moreover, such an attitude lends itself to complacency (if one belongs to a country she believes to be the best in the world, why change it?). One Thing after Another much prefers Curtis’s vision, which suggests that patriotism is a matter of eternal exertion and struggle for the sake of an idea that is imperfectly realized—a democratic republic. In other words, instead of defining Americans by who they are, Curtis seeks to define them by what they strive for. And that seems much more useful at a time when, to quote Villèle, the journalist who crops up in Lartéguy’s Centurions occasionally to make an observation, “The role of the utter, out-and-out bastard is becoming more and more difficult to keep up in this dull, hypocritical, tolerant world of ours.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


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