Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mea Patria

Since the computer was unplugged and off in a corner for the long weekend (as we finished with the flooring adventure in the living room) and I returned to an unusually frenetic work week, I find myself posting on Independence Day very late.

The 4th of July is the day on which many Americans pause to be grateful for the sacrifices of those who founded our country 232 years ago -- while a few others pause to decry what they term the "nationalism" and "triumphalism" of their fellow citizens. In one thing, at least, we are most of us united: we take the day off and grill.

Many among our "best and brightest" like to talk about us having entered a post-national age. In this new age, it is imagined, we will all treasure the traditions of our regions and ethnic heritages, but we will be "citizens of the world" first and foremost, and we will think of "nation states" as mere "administrative units".

This modern internationalist/post-nationalist line of thinking has never appealed to me -- perhaps in great part because the available international institutions which these enthusiasts seem to hold dear (the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, etc.) do not impress me. They seem to provide all the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the various world-spanning empires of history, with none of the cultural heritage which these provided us with. (Imagine, if you will, that the Greeks of Alexander's age and beyond and the Romans, Byzantines, Carolingians, Normans, Holy Roman Emperors, Persians, Turks, Hapsburgs and British had, rather than spreading their cultural and political institutions throughout their spheres of influence, simply set of ponderous committees and NGOs, which provided all corruption and slowness of empire, but none of the cultural legacies. Would we be better off? Perhaps by some standards, but surely not by mine.

And yet, it has struck me increasingly of late that my own attitude towards my country has changed quite a bit over the years -- whether through a shift in philosophy or simply through maturity I cannot say. The Latin word for one's country was patria, a word which would best be translated as "fatherland" if the Third Reich had not forever tainted the connotations of that phrase. And it was very much as a parent that the ancient Greeks and Romans (our cultural forebears) saw the state.

When I first encounter the final Socratic dialogues, Crito and Phaedo, I was deeply disturged by Socrates' notion of the relationship between the citizen and the state. In Crito, Socrates, who has been condemned to death under an unjust charge, refuses the offer of his wealthy friend Crito to help him escape from captivity in Athens to another city state. Socrates refuses, arguing that by living his whole life as a citizen of Athens, and even fighting for it as a soldier, he has committed himself to live by Athens' laws -- and so it would be wrong of him to violate their laws by fleeing punishment, even though he believes that he was wrongly convicted.

To my modern, youthful mind, this was clearly idiotic. Sure, one could love one's country. But if one were wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, why not skip out? This seemed like an excess of loyalty that bordered on insanity.

Looking back, I think that my line of thinking was that one's association with a country was voluntary: I think this country is basically a good country, therefore I decide to live there. And based on that, it seemed to me that if at any point the country did something wrong, one should have no qualms in severing that voluntary association. At an individual level, that may be an appealing view. But once you get beyond the extreme individualism which is the province of the sixteen-year-old male, you realize that few people ever think themselves in the wrong. If everyone opted out of every country the minute that he felt he was being treated unjustly, we would have anarchy. In order for a nation to provide the order necessary for a stable society that protect the common good, it is necessary that we generally obey that nation's laws even when we think them unjust. (We can work to change them, to be sure, but we can't simply ignore them or leave -- except in the most extreme situations.)

Socrates' other line of thinking was more based on emotion and loyalty: Athens was his polis. One famously cannot choose one's family. Socrates clearly believed that beyond a certain point, one can't choose one's country either. Given that he had remained a constant Athenian citizen during good times, he could not now abandon it in bad. (Much though he might suffer for that decision.)

At the time, thinking of one's relationship to one's country as similar to one's relationship to one's parents struck me as very odd. After all, your parents made you. And much of the time, your parents are responsible for providing your with an educational, cultural and religious background which remains part of you through the rest of your life. A country is just a place where you live, right?

Well, clearly a country is something more than just a place where you live. Nations have specific histories and cultures, and often embody certain ideals or approaches to the world through their laws, culture and national characters. I think most of us acknowledge at least this much. Certainly, I did even in my much more individualistic youth. However, it seemed to me then that countries were spread across the world, buffet like, and that one chose (either actively or passively) with one of them. Thus, I chose to live in the US, partly perhaps because it was where I had been born, but at a deeper level because I thought it was the best country for me to live in based on its culture and founding ideals. If I didn't think that, I could go elsewhere, couldn't I?

It's true, one can leave one's country, and indeed, many people do very much become citizens of countries they emmigrate to. (My boss was born and raised in Belgium, but has become very much an American in his thinking over the last 15 years that he has lived here.) But truly becoming a member of another nation involves more than an airline ticket and a citizenship form -- in that very sense in which nations are rather more than "administrative units". Indeed, the process of truly imbibing the culture and ideals of another nation is probably best seen in analogy to the process of adopting another family. It is a process that (unless one is very young) takes a good deal of time -- and is seldom achieved completely and without traces of the old allegiance.

From my current vantage point, Socrates analogy between parent and patria seems increasingly reasonable. There really is a deep sense in which we belong to our nations, we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Some are founded upon beautiful ideals and have inspiring histories. Others are dysfunctional to the core. Yet others simply have a lot of history, a back story which defines and shapes the current reality. You can move from one country to another, but it takes a great deal of work and abandonment of self to truly become a member of the new country. All too often, one is simply a resident in a strange land. Like it or not, we are the children of our country. And that fact has a great deal to do with who we are.

And so, looking back two hundred thirty-two years and five days, I am thankful to be an American. The United States is the country that gave birth to me, and to a great extent it is responsible (whether I like it or not) for who I am.


Anonymous said...

Country is home writ in very large letters. There are many things I like about the US, but I would still love my country even if there was not much to like about America because it is my country. This does not mean that someone should be blind to the flaws of his homeland, anymore than he should be blind to the flaws of his family, but it does mean that the bond of loyalty and affection remains even in the most trying of circumstance. I have always been fairly uncomfortable with people who are always negative about either their family or their country. My views about such people are summed up in the immortal words from the Mikado of Gilbert & Sullivan: "The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this, and every country but his own."

TS said...

The Long Voyage by Malcolm Cowley

Not that the pines were darker there,
Nor mid-May dogwood brighter there,
Nor swifts more swift in summer air;

It was my own country.

Having its thunderclap of spring,
Its long midsummer ripening,
Its corn hoar-stiff at harvesting,
Almost like any country.

Yet being mine; its face, its speech,
Its hills bent low within my reach,
Its river birch and upland beech
Were mine, of my own country.

Now the dark waves at the bow
Fold back, like earth against the plow;
Foam brightens like the dogwood now
At home, in my own country.

Thomas said...

I agree with most of what you wrote above, but it's important to note that Socrates is still wrong.

The issue is not that Socrates thinks he's being treated unfairly but that in fact an objective injustice is being committed. That's an important difference (unless one is a thoroughgoing relativist).

If it doesn't seem that way, imagine that the death sentence was about to be enacted (unjustly) on five hundred toddlers. Doesn't one have a duty (indeed a duty to one's country) to resist, protest, try to overcome the injustice, rather than passively conceding? Socrates' argument is misleading because he wants to say it only effects him, and it looks like he's being noble, but it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. If the oligarchs can have him killed, how many other inconvenient innocents can (and will) they have killed?