G. K. Chesterton: anti-Americanism, cosmic patriotism, and Jeremiah

In addition to phrases like “support our troops,” right-wing Americans have gotten extensive mileage out of using the label “anti-American” whenever someone criticizes the United States. The assumption is that if you are critical of America, you are on “their” side. The phrase depends upon an us-vs-them framework, in which you are either for or against—in which to be “for” something means to give unqualified support to it, whereas to be “against” something means to utterly reject it, to wish its annihilation.

In his marvelous book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes about the distinction between optimism and pessimism, and along with that, the distinction between patriotism and anti-patriotism. As he begins to speak about the kind of anti-patriotism that is problematic, he clarifies himself:
I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses; that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.
Chesterton could be—and is, I think—speaking to us. We might modify Chesterton’s statement thusly: “A man who says that no patriot should attack the War in Iraq until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.” Unfortunately, we have far too many people in this country who are not worth answering intelligently.

Chesterton goes on to say the following:
The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason — because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.
There is much here worth pondering. In a sense, this passage is Chesterton’s condemnation of ideology—specifically, the ideological co-option of patriotism. I hardly need to point out that Chesterton’s views would horrify the Bush administration. Bush’s patriotism entirely depends upon history, and thus he falsifies history freely (see Cavanaugh’s dissection of the myth of America as innocent bystander on 9/11 in Theology Today 63.3).

Finally, I think it is especially worth remembering the prophet Jeremiah, who was himself labeled an anti-patriot for critiquing his own city. Like modern-day conservative pundits, the priests and prophets of Jeremiah’s city could not see critique as the highest form of love. Instead, all criticism becomes condemnation, and affirmation becomes blind obedience. So Jeremiah proclaims:
Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded—then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth. (Jer. 26:4-6)
The response of the priests and (false) prophets is not surprising:
And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. ... Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (Jer. 26:8-9, 11)
If we want to have a decent country in which to raise our children, we need to make sure that this nation—along with all nations—is a place that is hospitable to prophetic voices, rather than hostile. For our own sakes and for the sakes of others, if we must choose between being anti-American and anti-prophetic, we must choose the former.


kim fabricius said…
Bang on, David.

After reading your post I went to my copy of Orthodoxy, and where it says "Boer War", I had crossed it out and written "Iraq", dated "June 2005" (which is when I re-read this classic text).

Earlier on, Chesterton actually addresses the case of Bush himself (and Tony Blair for that matter) in a chapter entitled "The Maniac": "Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin," he writes; "complete self-confidence is a weakness." And he says that "The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." Descriptively wrong, no doubt, but definitely normatively right!

My older brother, an ex-Marine, is an avid Bush supporter. We fell out many years ago over Vietnam. He recently conceded that I had got that one right, but refused to accept both the strategic idiocy and the immortality of Iraq. I pointed out to him that in the UK, the military itself is critical and despondent about Blair's War, and argued that you can be a loyal patriot, indeed soldier, and yet protest against particular wars. He couldn't see it, couldn't see that "my country right or wrong" is like saying "my husband drunk or sober". If I had mentioned Jeremiah, he would no doubt have said, "Send the bastard to Guantanamo Bay!" Of course my brother says his prayers every night (replete, no doubt, with imprecations against the French).

Certainly one has to keep reasoning with folk like my brother, but at the end of the day, the only thing that will do the trick is conversion, not persuasion.

Thanks again for a great post.
This was brilliant. When arguing for this kind of critical patriotism (as distinct from jingoistic nationalism), I usually borrow from Bonhoeffer, MLK, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and the like. It would never have occurred to me to consult Chesterton.
BTW, Kim, much of the U.S. military is critical of this war, too--and far more vocally than in previous wars.
Halden said…
This is good, David. I still need to read Chesterton. And will this weekend. :)
kim fabricius said…
I've just been through the comments and noticed that I had typed the "immortality" of (the war in) Iraq instead of the "immorality" of (the war in) Iraq. Talk about one bad typo!
Unknown said…
As a former VFW, I can relate to your brother. And now as an avid reader of GKC, i can also relate to you. I thought that because I have been everywhere, and seen a lot I had seen all. After Chesterton, I realized I may well have gone nowhere for I had learned nothing. I agree with you and understand your brother. Keep it up, someday he'll see.