Days of Glory: The Case Against

Happy Bastille Day. As a liberal and an American, I can think of no better way of celebrating it than by defending American individualism against French (small-r) republicanism, the pursuit of happiness against compulsory fraternity, and personal lives in all their diversity against the longing that citizens all hold the same purpose in common (and it doesn’t matter what it is).

Writing against David Brooks’ latest lament for the “spiritual recession” entailed by creeping loss of faith in the gospel [sic, several times] of democracy promotion, independent-minded paleoconservative Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago defending the sufficiency of private life and the unsung sacrifices involved in living it well (h/t: Daniel Larison). I can’t help but quote a good third of it:

Brooks’ linking of American ebbs of American idealism with tides of American materialism is not only wrong but perverse, as if Americans were somehow worse off for buying cars in the 1920s than they were dying of gas attacks in Europe a decade earlier. And if noble causes were a cure-all for the materialism of the elite, then the Truman Committee would not have been booking companies for war-profiteering as the Greatest Generation made its name.

Times of peace are not absent of ennobling effects of sacrifice and duty. But the common sacrifices that fathers and mothers make for children, that entrepreneurs make for the future, that researchers make for the legacy of science, are somehow beneath our notice.

An analogy might suffice. Stern fathers often make the mistake of believing that their children will not defend the home or the values of the family if martial discipline is not instilled. But turning the homestead into a garrison then drives the children to go AWOL. Instead, all the father has to do is make his home a place of love and, yes, comfort. Having done that, his sons will defend it from any real threat with fire in their eyes.

Ideologues prefer the idea of an ideological nation, a crusader state. Crusader states inspire great battle poetry. But a democratic republic like America needs no purpose, no mission civilisatrice. It needs no poetry. America just needs to be our home — that will require sacrifice enough.

Dougherty rightly aims his attack against national greatness conservatism, which is by a long way the most prevalent and dangerous form of American fraternatism. (Shorter NGC: “Americans, admit it: your lives only have meaning when your country is killing a fair number of foreigners or loudly proclaiming an eagerness to do so.”) But though it now persists only in the minds of Robert Kuttner and about twelve other people, there once was common on the Left an equally cloying and also pernicious habit of averring that when people live their own lives and make their own choices they’re effectively surrendering to selfishness. America, on this neo-Deweyan view, is worth the trouble only when “private interest” yields to “public purpose”—i.e. having things run by the state, as a matter of principle and, to simplify only slightly, in as many areas as possible.

Of course no sane and decent person believes that people should lead callous, narrow “private” lives in which we ignore our duties to others and our obligation to contribute to the public goods that all of us count on. (Lots of people do believe that. But they’re not sane and decent.) And on the unusual occasions when ordinary people do turn their attention to politics, I hope they will keep those duties and obligations strongly in mind. But the rest of the time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Americans’ leading our diverse, untranslatable, personal lives, lives of strife and sacrifice and ineffable, idiosyncratic goals. As we live such lives, the condition and the feelings of our family and friends will, inevitably, strike us more directly than those of other fellow citizens.

And even if there were something wrong with our leading such lives, we will in any case live them anyway: a human being is not by nature a self-forgetting animal. A constant, tub-thumping commitment to national greatness, solidarity, fraternity, la patrie, or public purpose will not make a person altruistic. But it may—very commonly does—distort his or her good judgment, and deaden good moral sense.

So: let’s go, children of their actual parents. An ordinary day of summer camp has arrived—and no shame in that.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.