As a social virtue, patriotism is today about the least popular concept in Western society. This is in part due to the bastardized form of patriotism that has come to define the term, but even in the classic and best sense of the word – a love of one’s homeland, its history and its culture – patriotism is ranked low by large and growing sections of the West.
There are some Westerners, however, who still dare to be patriotic. Last fall, a group of conservative European intellectuals released a document called the Paris Statement, which partly intended to diagnose the cause of Europe’s political and cultural malaise, and partly intended to suggest remedies for it. Above all, the Statement is an unashamed expression of European patriotism. Explaining that their love of Europe undergirds their concern for their culture, the signatories to the Statement explain,
The reasons we hold Europe dear exceed our ability to explain or justify our loyalty. It is a matter of shared histories, hopes and loves. It is a matter of accustomed ways, of moments of pathos and pain. It is a matter of inspiring experiences of reconciliation and the promise of a shared future. Ordinary landscapes and events are charged with special meaning—for us, but not for others. Home is a place where things are familiar, and where we are recognized, however far we have wandered. This is the real Europe, our precious and irreplaceable civilization.
Juxtaposed against this “real Europe” is what the Statement calls “the false Europe,” a “post-national, post-cultural” continent based on “pseudo-religious universalism” which demands “forgetfulness and self-repudiation” on the part of Europeans. The false Europe, the Statement says, has no room for Europe’s “Christian roots” and its “gentle virtues [of]…fairness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace-making, [and] charity.” In addition to Christianity, the false Europe casts the other historical foundations for European culture, namely “The grave virtues of the self-possessed Romans and the pride in civic participation and spirit of philosophical inquiry of the Greeks,” into a trash heap to be swept away by modernity.
These developments, the Statement says, are the source of Europe’s cultural disintegration and political turmoil. Europeans have been “Shorn of higher ideals and discouraged from expressing patriotic pride,” and as a result, the signatories say, “our societies now have difficulty summoning the will to defend themselves.” This, and not any external threat is the true crisis facing Europe.
The Left and History
What becomes obvious reading the Paris Statement is that the cultural weakness that afflicts Europe is alarmingly similar to that found in the United States. Indeed, the Statement implies that American culture has, at least to some degree, ideologically infected Europe. Whatever truth there is to this, the cultural degeneration of Europe – the decline of religion, the repudiation of history and culture – is clearly happening as quickly in America as in Europe.
In neither Europe nor America is this cultural decline accidental. Rather, it is nourished by an academic establishment that trains students from a young age to hold tradition in contempt. The Paris Statement asserts,
Without doubt, our universities are one of the glories of European civilization. But where once they sought to transmit to each new generation the wisdom of past ages, today most within the universities equate critical thinking with a simpleminded repudiation of the past. A lodestar of the European spirit has been the rigorous discipline of intellectual honesty and objectivity. But over the past two generations, this noble ideal has been transformed. The asceticism that once sought to free the mind of the tyranny of dominant opinion has become an often complacent and unreflective animus against everything that is our own. This stance of cultural repudiation functions as a cheap and easy way of being ‘critical.’ Over the last generation, it has been rehearsed in the lecture halls, becoming a doctrine, a dogma. And to join in professing this creed is taken to be the mark of ‘enlightenment,’ and of spiritual election. As a consequence, our universities are now active agents of ongoing cultural destruction.
This sentiment closely mirrors American conservative Patrick Deneen’s recent observation that, in the United States,
Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts – whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about – have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome… It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.
The observation that cultural revolutionaries, who are almost always political leftists, intentionally undermine history and tradition in order to foment social change (in a leftist direction) is not new. Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in 1953 that,
A sense of the past is far more basic to the maintenance of freedom than hope for the future. The former is concrete and real; the latter is necessarily amorphous and more easily guided by those who can manipulate human actions and beliefs. Hence the relentless effort by totalitarian governments to destroy memory. And hence the ingenious techniques for abolishing the social allegiances within which individual memory is given strength and power of resistance.
More recently, and back across the Atlantic, Irish philosopher Gerard Casey has written that
History is to a society what memory is to the individual: without memory, an individual cannot sustain a personality or a character or maintain enduring personal relationships; similarly, without a knowledge of its history, a society has no substance and no character, since it does not know what is has been, what it is, or, in a non-geographical sense, where it is going.
The common element in all these points of view is that culture is vital to a civilization, and that history is vital to culture. When radicals want to transform and homogenize a civilization, then, they begin with destroying history. The only thing that stands between civilization and revolutionaries, ideologically speaking, is patriotism.
Libertarians and Patriotism
For this reason, patriotism is generally considered a conservative phenomenon, and rightly so. But in recent years political conservatives have wreaked extreme damage on the concept of patriotism by reducing it to a few, profoundly unconservative notions: broad, largely uncritical support for the state, the police and the military, combined with an oversimplified and glorified view of history. These principles, such as they are, have drawn scorn from many sides, not least from libertarians, who object to the glorification of the state in the present and in the past. The type of patriotism practiced by modern political conservatives has led many libertarians to categorically reject the concept of patriotism altogether.
But this is a grave mistake, for the political liberty that libertarians desire is impossible without a culture whose beliefs and behaviors support it. The development of individual liberty in the West is, at a high level, the story of culture progressing in fits and starts towards an ideal of freedom that was dramatically different than anything else world history. Only as the culture advanced was liberty able to follow, and the history of this advance is vitally important to both the maintenance of the liberty that has been attained, and the achievement of liberties that have heretofore been elusive. Those who seek to destroy history and revolutionize culture are, therefore, the enemies of liberty.
Since Western culture provided the fertile ground from which the seeds of liberty sprouted, defending it from the growing leftist onslaught is part of the libertarian’s responsibility. It’s not enough for libertarians to talk about changes to laws or about an idealistic future state. Libertarians must engage in the battle over culture, and must take the conservative side in this battle.
The necessity of patriotic libertarians is becoming more urgent as our societies become increasingly radicalized to the left and the right. The rise of the alt-right, for instance, has been well-documented, but less reported is that the alt-right is to a significant degree a result of the rhetoric and tactics of anti-Western radicals on the left. Alt-right devotees are self-consciously reactionary and often consider themselves the last line of defense for Western Civilization. But if that is true, then Western Civilization is already doomed, because many of the beliefs that the alt-right holds constitute a rejection of some of the most foundational elements of the West. Alt-rightists who conflate culture with ethnicity, and seek political solutions based on that conflation, offer as unappealing a vision of the future as does the radical left.
Preserving Western culture is important, but the way to do it is not to appeal back to the collectivist mindset from which Westerners struggled for so long to break free. To reclaim and retain its culture, says the Paris Statement, the West “needs to draw upon the deep wisdom of her traditions rather than relying on simplistic slogans and divisive emotional appeals,” adding that “The true Europe affirms the equal dignity of every individual, regardless of sex, rank or race.”
But for all that they get right on culture, the political recommendations of even traditionalist conservatives, like those who signed the Paris Statement, inevitably derail in illiberal (that is to say, unlibertarian) directions. The Statement, despite all its proper diagnoses of Europe’s disease, makes the mistake of prescribing state action as the cure – even as the state is progressively wielded as a bludgeon against their entire worldview – and identifies the free market as a threat to be regulated.
Libertarians can (and should) disagree with conservatives on these points, even as they acknowledge that traditionalists are right about the importance of culture and patriotism. Cultural conservatives, even when their political opinions are at odds with libertarianism, are better allies for libertarians than any other sociopolitical group. Because of this, libertarians should join with conservatives in defending the Western tradition and its unequaled importance to the libertarian tradition.
Libertarians should not hesitate to express love for their homes and homelands. They should appreciate and defend Western history. Patriotic libertarians, in this sense, do not shy away from acknowledging the moral failings (nor the moral triumphs) of the West, but neither do they join the throng of leftist voices that seek to isolate Western history from the context of world history. Patriotic libertarians realize that patriotism, properly understood, is vital to a defense of cultural beliefs that offer the only chance of success for their political philosophy.
Libertarians, ultimately, must realize that it’s not enough to have the proper view of government. Liberty also requires a correct view of culture.