The American Condition: A Reflection on Cosmopolitanism and Community

The American Condition: A Reflection on Cosmopolitanism and Community

Recently, Nancy Pelosi professed her love for the national anthem and the flag, which earned her an immediate reprimand from the left. Pelosi’s statement was made in light of the denunciations from the NFL’s new policy that requires players to stand for the national anthem. In response to police brutality, many NFL players publicly protested by taking a knee, which caused a backlash among fans who thought taking a knee was disrespectful to flag, anthem, and what those symbols represent.

For many progressives, patriotism and visible displays of love for country have become almost taboo, if not grossly immoral. Be proud of your city, your family, and your state, but love of country is akin to affirming all the sins that drench the history of America. We were a nation conceived in sin, and our past has been one long nightmare of oppression and aggression.

Now, what follows is not to defend all the actions of America abroad or at home. There is surely merit to the criticisms of the ways nationalism or patriotism can be pushed into the service of devious or oppressive projects. Blind patriotism is not the antidote to reflexive anti-patriotism. Often, the two mirror each other.

This past Memorial Day, I was pondering the penchant of many on the left, especially in the more elite intellectual circles, to contrast a crude and antiquated nationalism with a humane and idealistic cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is the dream of the world united and governed by a family of nations, living in peace and harmony without war and prosperity for all. This is an old dream that has found devotees throughout our modern world. John Lennon’s “Imagine” serves as a statement of faith and anthem for this particular vision.

It’s hard to see the cosmopolitan ideal with its noble view of human harmony and peace as a temptation, but in fact that is exactly what it is. I would argue that it is a particularly pernicious temptation because it invites us to love the idealized reality of “humanity” and “peace and harmony” above our actual flesh and blood neighbors who live next door. Cosmopolitanism can often mask a disordered love that would rather comfort itself with idealistic visions than the actual people who are one’s fellow citizens.

As usual, Dostoyevsky captures this insight beautifully in The Brothers Karamazov. The protagonist, Father Zossima, conveys a story about a conversation he had with a doctor:

He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience… But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’

Isn’t that the truth? It is often the zealots, on both political extremes, who are the most ideological, who are the least loving and kind to actual people.

Dostoyevsky’s writing is a good example of the attachment to place and particular people. The most virtuous persons tend to be the “meek of the earth.” Poor peasants with simple faith and childlike innocence display a deeper love for other people than do the refined and enlightened lovers of humanity. Biblically, we would say, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Oh, how easy it is for us to love “humanity” and denounce those around us who argue that our nation must be put first. David Brooks helpfully distinguished this difference as people who are “from somewhere” and those who are “from nowhere.” The nowhere man or woman is a rootless cosmopolitan at home in the world and with no ties that might cause him or her to be narrow or parochial. The somewhere man or woman is someone with a strong attachment to place and culture. It was Trump’s credit that he realized this divide in the country and appealed to “America First” and a generally nationalist message as his rallying call.

The carryover to foreign policy is important. American internationalism can only work if it grows out of a shared American nationalism. The Herculean effort that America undertook in the aftermath of World War II came from deep love of country, for its people, and for their shared ideals, and not some bland generic sense of a cosmopolitan world. Nobody sacrifices their life merely for an airy ideal. Love of country and the willingness to sacrifice for that country will only come about if we cultivate a particular devotion within our communities. This devotion should not be narrow-minded or bigoted, but neither should it be merely bland and reified.

As I have been reading more about the Korean War, I have marveled at how willing Americans were, after a long and grueling campaign in the Pacific, to continue fighting in Korea. Only a nation that inwardly binds itself together can outwardly be effective to the world.

My own experience with soldiers has bourn this out. The most ardent and dedicated soldiers are motivated by an attachment to their countries. They are often people from “somewhere.” This sort of loyalty and commitment should not be disparaged or belittled but admired and honored for the virtuousness that it embodies.

But so often in the name of humanity or more enlightened ideals, the love of nation is castigated as a lesser and more parochial love that needs to give way to a cosmopolitan vision that embraces the world. Many Christians advocate the cosmopolitan vision as morally superior to the idolatry of the nation-state. As someone who thinks America is at its best when it is engaged with the broader world, I do not want us to pull back and hunker down in fortress America. Internationalists must recognize, however, that you do not get a globally minded citizenry willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to preserve that order unless you have a patriotic citizenry.

Our current president offers a rather obnoxious and, often times, crass form of patriotism that too easily fits the caricature that is painted by his critics. People rightly object to the moralizing on the left, but the noble sort of nationalism I would like to see is not only concerned with America or with only advancing our own interests. It must find its source and nourishment within the local and the expanding rings of community, but ultimately a patriotism of rightly ordered love is committed to the highest loyalty that transcends our lesser loyalties. And it is from our loyalty to the heavenly polity that we draw our love and commitment to our temporal one, including our willingness to both die for it and criticize it.

Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump delivers the Memorial Day address during the annual Department of Defense National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery on May 29, 2017. DoD Photo by US Army Sgt. James K. McCann.

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