Days of glory: the case against

On Bastille Day, an appreciation of American individualism. Only a fanatic seeks out days of glory.

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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

5 thoughts on “Days of glory: the case against”

  1. I could not agree more violently with this post. A pox on the Grand Adventure! agitators on the right and the Shared Purpose! agitators on the left.

    The course of human history will provide us with plenty of legitimate needs for all of society to rally against a foreign enemy or a domestic scourge. And we should heed the call when it comes. But we shouldn't go looking for enemies or scourges out of some asinine sense that life is more meaningful or aesthetically grand when it is lived in a mode of crisis. Grown ups solve problems when they have to. Fools seek them out when they don't.

    Or put another way, it always strikes me a sad that so few of my countrymen realize that the movie Patton was a satire and its protagonist ("There's only one proper way for a professional soldier to die…") a figure of at best mixed respectability.

  2. This post is sandwiched between Michael O’Hare’s list green things we should do and Keith Humphreys’s, “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You.”

    These three posts, especially Sabl’s, raise the problem of selfishness, and Sabl’s parent-child parallel reminds me of a standard plot from sitcoms of an earlier era. The child is faced with some dilemma – maybe really cute boy has asked her on a date, but that weekend is the family reunion, and Gramps and Gram and the others have looked forward for months to seeing her.

    “It’s your decision,” her parents tell her. Under principles of American morality, it would be wrong for her to be selfish, but it would also be wrong for the parents to tell her what to do.

    Sabl solves the problem by saying that selfishness (“When people live their own lives and make their own choices”) isn’t selfish. He adds that people shouldn’t be selfish (“ 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.”) But what if they are, since that is their “nature.”

    The only solution he can think of is the Father-Knows-Best ploy: it’s your decision. This would work wonderfully if society and government were The Cosby Show. But they’re not.

  3. The French got it right. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, There's no liberty for all without equality: not just the mirage of equal opportunity, but substantial equality of condition; peasant farms not seignorial estates, well-paid factory jobs with Eisenhower's General Motors not minimum-wage exploitation in WalMart. There's no equality without fraternity: a mutual respect that preserves a common citizenship against the strains of necessary inequalities and necessary redistributions from the more prosperous to the less.

    Which of the two revolutionary republics is under greater threat today from its internal contradictions?

  4. Just as a suggestion, you might want to avoid having arguments about obvious things. If a writer writes something nonsensical, why not just ignore them? Do not give wingnuts attention and they might go away.

  5. I understand the main point here is that individuals living their quotidian lives, defined by their own myriad purposes, has great value even absent imbrication with brave national purpose. This is surely correct.

    But making this point polemically against the democracy-promotion crusade of national greatness conservatism obscures the real question separating the individualist 'let people live their lives undisturbed' crowd and the republican 'what is our common purpose?' crowd. This is about how much democracy and democratic citizenship actually demands from the lives of individuals.

    The individualists want to say that it's up to us how much of our lives to devote to citizenship. But this is plainly insufficient since it is compatible with rational choice's world where no one shows up to vote. The republican or (more accurately I think) democratic side would insist that democracy requires some level of engagement from all of us lest public power be turned into the power of those few who bother to make themselves heard.

    This is very different from demanding a common project to give our lives meaning, and must less ambitious. It is, as I see it, about keeping our democratic infrastructure in good working order.

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