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  • Patriotism as Loyalty
  • Steven B. Smith (bio)

I am an American, Chicago born

—Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

LOYALTY, AS ERIC FENTON HAS OBSERVED, IS A "VEXING VIRTUE" (FENTON 2011). WE admire loyalty to family, friends, sports teams, even institutions—up to a point. I am deeply devoted to the New York Yankees; the team is a formative part of my identity. I am loyal to Yale University, the institution where I have taught for over 30 years. I am a loyal Jew who cares deeply for the land of Israel, warts and all. And I am, or at least believe myself to be, a loyal American. Yet loyalty also sits uneasily with other qualities that we equally admire, qualities such as fairness, justice, mercy, equality, and open-mindedness. There is something primitive, almost primordial, about loyalty. It seems like the Mafia code of omertà. What if my preference for friends and family comes into conflict with or forces me to be unfair to others? Does loyalty to my own country require me to adopt a hostile or belligerent attitude to other countries? Does it require me to put "America first" in the rebarbative jargon of our time? Does loyalty to America require me to overlook the faults of America, resulting in a form of "bad faith"? These are some of the vexing questions I want to consider.

Loyalty—to parody the political philosopher John Rawls—is the first virtue of social institutions. It is the tie that binds society together without which much of human association would be impossible. "What distinguishes loyalty is that it is deeply affective and not primarily rational," Judith Shklar wrote. "If obligation is rule driven, loyalty is motivated by the entire personality of the agent" (Shklar 1998, 41). [End Page 583] It is a matter not just of the head but also of the heart. It involves not only logos but also pathos. Yet it is for exactly this reason that even among the great philosophers, loyalty has never quite received the respect it deserves. It is the Rodney Dangerfield of the virtues.

To be sure, loyalty to country is the most problematic form of loyalty, in part because it raises the most problematic demands. Raise the issue of patriotism, at least in educated circles, and one is likely to hear Samuel Johnson's barb that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," although rarely will Boswell's clarification be added: "He did not mean a real and generous love of country but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest" (Boswell [1791] 1957, 615). Or you might hear

E. M. Forster's wish that if he had to betray either his country or his friend, he would hope to have the courage to betray his country (Forster 1951, 68–69). Forster was here only reformulating the ideas he had learned a generation before from G. E. Moore and his circle at Cambridge; namely, that the experience of certain private pleasures, such as intimate friendships and the enjoyment of beautiful objects, was accorded a higher priority of rank to the virtues associated with public life.

For this group, which was later to become the Bloomsbury Circle, the affirmation of personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments necessarily meant the rejection of all claims on behalf of patriotism, love of country, and public service from the list of virtues. Forster was completely consistent with this perspective when he presented the choice of friendship over country—of private over public goods—as a tragic, even a noble, decision. A number of years before Forster made this comment, three young undergraduates—Kim Philby, Donald Ma-clean, and Guy Burgess, all members of the Cambridge Apostles—chose to betray their country. They became Soviet agents and for years passed on vital secrets to Moscow as they ascended the ladder of the British intelligence services until they were finally exposed in the 1950s and '60s. It was not long after that the three began to betray one another. [End Page 584]

To be sure, treason has always had its defenders. To paraphrase what Oscar Wilde once said of...


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