Citizens of the World, Unite?

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Citizens of the World, Unite?


Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, and 20th-century American liberals have been quick to agree. Indeed, liberals of a more utopian cast at times have gone one huge step further: they have tried to shed all patriotism and to embrace, in one guise or another, all humankind. Not many Americans have joined them in this, but the dream dies hard. In a special issue of Boston Review (Oct.-Nov. 1994), Martha Nussbaum, a noted professor of philosophy, classics, and comparative literature at Brown University, makes a case for world citizenship--and 29 other thinkers kick her argument around.

"[An] emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve--for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality," Nussbaum proclaims. In place of patriotism, she proposes to put "cosmopolitanism," which would ask Americans to pledge primary allegiance to all of humanity. Students in this country should be taught that while they "happen to be situated" in the United States, "they are above all citizens of a world of human beings."

Citing the ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes (who declared himself "a citizen of the world"), Nussbaum says that he knew "that the invitation to think as a world citizen was, in a sense, an invitation to be an exile from the comfort of patriotism and its easy sentiments, to see our own ways of life from the point of view of justice and the good. The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident; any human being might have been born in any nation. Recognizing this, his Stoic successors held, we should not allow differences of nationality or class or ethnic membership or even gender to erect barriers between us and our fellow human beings. We should recognize humanity wherever it occurs, and give its fundamental ingredients, reason and moral capacity, our first allegiance and respect."

Nussbaum is responding, in part, to an oped essay in the New York Times (Feb. 13,1994) by philosopher Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia. Most Americans, he notes, "take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious--if tarnished--national traditions." But the American Left, found mainly in academia, "is unpatriotic," he asserts. "In the name of 'the politics of difference,' it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride." It favors "multiculturalism," instead of traditional American pluralism.

Rorty believes that, for all its faults, the Left is doing "a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society." Nevertheless, he says, it is painting itself into a comer. "An unpatriotic Left has never achieved anything. A Left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country's politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt."

Nussbaum is unpersuaded. Patriotism, she says, "is very close to jingoism, and I'm afraid I don't see in Rorty's argument any proposal for coping with this very obvious danger."

Commenting in the same issue of Boston Review, Harvey C. Mansfield, a political scientist at Harvard University, says that despite Nussbaum's eminence as a professor of philosophy, "when it comes to politics, she's a girl scout. Indeed, she has less useful acquaintance with American politics than a schoolchild of either sex who has recently been exposed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--unless, thanks to the foolish cosmopolitanism she encourages, these items are no longer in the curriculum."

Mansfield agrees with Nussbaum that Rorty's "groundless patriotism" could be perverted into jingoism, but asks why she excludes the possibility of a "reasonable" patriotism: "Why does she ignore the liberalism and the constitutionalism of the country in which she lives? …

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