Saturday, May 19, 2007

"Patriotism and Other Mistakes"

George Kateb is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University and one of the more respected and influential political theorists of the last quarter century.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his book Patriotism and Other Mistakes and reported the following:

Patriotism and Other Mistakes is a collection of essays held together by an effort to understand the causes of large political ambitions, and the patriotic readiness of ordinary people to lend their indispensable support to these ambitions. Societies with a lot of organized political energy seem to be almost automatically driven to launch extraordinary enterprises like the building of empires and the domination of neighbors. Concentrated political energy can also show itself in projects of radical change in the structure and orientation of society at home. Political life is thus often characterized by unpredictable eruptions of activity that initiate new directions in human affairs. That is how political greatness is commonly defined. When trying to grasp politics, we should be guided by the motto “expect the unexpected.”

Page 69 of the book gives an indication of my approach in regard to recent radical and imperialistic American policies. In the background are the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001. The essay deals with two connected matters: the anti-constitutional attempt by the Bush Department of Justice, under John Ashcroft and his successor, to abridge fundamental rights, especially in the field of criminal law; and the war of aggression against Iraq that began in earnest in March 2003. Neither policy was or is appropriate to guarding against terrorism, but may even increase its likelihood.

Here is page 69:

“Yes, I offer a conspiracy theory; it would be culpably innocent to disallow it a priori...

“One use of an enemy is to inspire fear in the people.... The gift of terrorism to American imperialism, to the overarching aim of maintaining the national security state and economy, is that the terrorists killed American civilians on American soil. Hence, the fear is not so apocalyptic or remote as to feel largely unreal, as for most people the nuclear threat did and does much of the time.... In contrast, terrorism created a more palpable fear, if not entirely real except to New Yorkers. Where there is fear, there is demand for greater security. What is the national security state but a state intended to provide security against any kind of threat?”

My account of the excesses and pathologies of political life is not confined to the present administration, which is only the latest example of adventurism in human history. In trying to explain these occurrences, I give a large place to the urge to coerce reality: to make reality conform to a new pattern or work itself out into a new narrative. I think that a good deal of the impetus is a partly unconscious aestheticism, a concept I discuss in a number of the essays. Needless to say, violence or its threat is a necessary instrument of political aestheticism.

I also examine some kinds of non-violent resistance to these projects. The resistance is in the name of decency and moderation, and it may sometimes require the moral and physical heroism of a figure like Socrates or Thoreau, or the grim skepticism of a theorist like Hobbes. There is greatness in resistance also.

Learn more about Patriotism and Other Mistakes at the Yale University Press website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue