More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville detected in democracy a tendency toward despotism. Although it would degrade its citizens without tormenting them, democratic despotism might well be all-encompassing. Backed by the will of the majority, the government could become “the sole agent and the only arbiter” of status, success and happiness.
In the 21st century, according to George Kateb, an eminent emeritus professor of political philosophy at Princeton, the United States has slid far down the slippery slope. With sophisticated technologies of surveillance, an entrenched welfare bureaucracy and a national-security state, Mr. Kateb argues, “the powers for total domination are insidiously being heaped up.” Since history reveals that “every power or capacity is eventually abused,” Americans may be only one trauma away from “general and unmistakable oppression.”
Pessimism permeates Patriotism and Other Mistakes, a collection of essays on the expansion of government power, President Bush’s war in Iraq, the relationship between aesthetics and morality, and political philosophy from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. A libertarian, Mr. Kateb offers paeans to individual audacity and a Thoreauvian insistence that no one need be an instrument of injustice, but emphasizes that collective human behavior exhibits “political ruthlessness tending toward brutal excess and extremism and accompanied by intoxicated or thoughtless moral indifference.” Intended to challenge common sense and conventional wisdom, to bear witness and speak the truth, even if no one will listen, Patriotism and Other Mistakes is, in turn, erudite and angry, ingenious and outrageous, sophisticated and shrill.
Defenders of patriotism and group identity, Mr. Kateb contends, commit grave mental and moral errors. Patriotism engenders a jealous and exclusive loyalty to the nation-state, which “has a few actual and many imaginary ingredients.” Patriotism has been enlisted for moral ends, like the abolition of slavery, but far more often it bolsters unjust causes. Moral principles, moreover, should be defended directly: not because they are ours, but because they are right. For most citizens, Mr. Kateb observes, patriotism induces vicarious love and a deadly sort of rooting—making it easy to forsake principles with a clear conscience.
Like patriotism, Mr. Kateb asserts, other intense forms of group identity may be inevitable but are nonetheless lamentable. Ethnic, racial and religious identity diminishes individuality by encouraging pride in achievements not of one’s own and subsuming the self into an abstraction. By reducing sympathy for outsiders, group identity destroys the chance of developing a “democratic aestheticism” that embraces a common humanity, finding even the ugly, the impure and the ill-defined worthy of appreciation.
Mr. Kateb acknowledges, though only in passing, that group identity can counter some of the vices of individualism—selfishness, solipsism and materialism. He’s more interested in the use of patriotism to concentrate power in the executive branch of the American government. The Bush administration, he charges, spreads fear by portraying terrorism as “motiveless malignity”; went to war with Iraq for “partisan politics, unreserved concern for Israel, and oil”; and used pain, coercion and violence as instruments of state policy. Retaliation and retribution, Mr. Kateb proclaims, are always immoral: It doesn’t matter morally if people are killed deliberately or accidentally, as “collateral damage.” Even in an unequivocally good war, “the very use of violent means disallows invoking the name of justice.” Like Thoreau, Mr. Kateb doesn’t deem it his duty to eradicate wrong, but instead endorses “a morally driven disaffiliation.”
Mr. Kateb’s ferocious critique of contemporary American politics will resonate only with the left side of the choir. It’s redeemed, however, by a penetrating analysis (based on the work of Arendt) of the non-rational ideals that bind citizens to their government. In judging individual works of art, Mr. Kateb notes, critics divorce moral from aesthetic criteria. Thus, they deem D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation a “great” film, despite its racism. Less well known, and far more dangerous, Mr. Kateb indicates, is the application of these “aesthetic cravings”—a love of beauty, coherence and order—to politics. Far more than self-interest or even necessity, they trump considerations of justice and truth and help swell “the unconscious or rationalized immorality in the world.” Mr. Kateb speculates that Eve ate that apple for aesthetic reasons: It was beautiful to behold and pleasing to the palate. People praise courage on the battlefield, he notes, even when it serves wrongdoing. Fascists and totalitarians, as well as some “democrats,” have understood the appeal of what Arendt called “a lying world of consistency” to people eager to substitute “a design for a new reality” for the less satisfactory one they inhabit.
Mr. Kateb has gauged the power of these aesthetic cravings. Even though they tend to make us “monstrous,” without them “we are not human.” How, then, might they be checked and balanced? He finds some small consolation in the fact that many people who embrace “stories that make reality more meaningful, tend to like even more some immediate answers to the daily problems of staying afloat.” These people need to be reminded of the role of due process in “recognizing human dignity as a reality that emanates from a unique and immeasurable potentiality of human beings”; they need to be reminded, also, that although the United States still surpasses the world in freedom of speech and religion and the extension of equal protection of the laws to immigrants, the rights to privacy and habeas corpus are now in danger.
Such rational appeals may not be enough. To make aesthetic cravings only “a momentary stay against confusion,” Mr. Kateb looks, without much confidence, to existentialism. Our greatest teachers, he suggests, should “encourage us to endure meaninglessness.” By abjuring the search for a transcendent meaning and allowing local meanings to suffice, we can recognize “ordinary” things as beautiful and distinctive—and “intensify wonder that there is a world at all.” The prospect of nothingness, then, may be the last, best hope to force us, one by one, to look at ourselves and acknowledge others as worthy of respect.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
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