Critical Patriotism

By Euben, J. Peter | Academe, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Critical Patriotism


Euben, J. Peter, Academe


Our responsibility to critical thought complicates simple-minded notions of loyalty and patriotism. The "classics" of Western thought persist as touchstones of self-reflection and reason.

There was a marvelous irony in the accusation of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), made in the aftermath of September 11, that various professors and the president of Wesleyan University were unpatriotic and (what seemed to amount to the same thing) insufficiently enthusiastic in their support of Western civilization. The Washington-based group numbers among its founders Lynne Cheney who, when director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was dubbed by conservative columnist George Will the "secretary of domestic defense." "The adversaries her husband Dick [then Secretary of Defense] must keep at bay," Will argued, "are no less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal." Fast forward to September 11, 2001, and the conclusion becomes that those academics whom ACTA regards as "unwilling to defend [our] civilization" but eager to provide "comfort" to our enemies are as bad as the terrorists themselves.

The irony, of course, is that many of the canonical figures and texts that constitute "Western" civilization speak against the use being made of them by ACTA. Such didactic readings by those intent on using these texts to legitimate a political agenda, even as they accuse their opponents of politicizing the university, deepen the irony. They also remind us that the Culture Wars did not, unfortunately, implode on their own hyperbole of war and battles or collapse under the weight of stilted posturings.

The claim that patriotism requires unconditional and uncritical support of "America" and its policies is not seen by ACTA as a political demand. What it sees as political is the stance taken by those it defines as "ideologically driven intellectuals," who cannot bring themselves, even in a time of national mourning and crisis, to support the nation and the civilization that makes their existence possible. ACTA believes that Political Correctness has again driven them into a knee-jerk sympathy with America's enemies or, less stridently, to an equivocal identification with their fellow citizens.

Yet the critical patriotism of many of these intellectuals has a long and distinguished pedigree, both in America and in the Western intellectual tradition. No figure has loomed larger in that tradition than the Greek philosopher Socrates. And no dialogues about him have loomed larger than the Apology and Crito written by Plato. They are about patriotism and loyalty and the necessity of critical thought to both.

Socrates did philosophy in the streets. In his hands, it was not what it later became, an academic subject written in a specialized language that only a few can understand. He lived his life asking questions of anyone willing to engage him in conversation. But the conversations he valued most were those with his fellow citizens, since the kind of people they were and might be determined the kind of world he and his children would live in. Among his fellow citizens, he was most anxious to question those with political and cultural power.

When he questioned them, he discovered that they did not know what they thought they knew. Naturally enough, they were not thrilled by this public exposure and many, perhaps the Athenian Council of Trustees and Alumni, regarded him as unpatriotic. Yet Socrates claimed that what he did-- challenge others to think about what they were doing instead of sleepwalking through life, accepting the reigning political orthodoxy, or indulging in collective self-celebration-he did as an act of patriotism.

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