Martha Nussbaum on ‘Decent Patriotism’

Professor Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, delivered the Second Foundation Lecture organised by the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi, on December 17. Her topic was “Development and the Nation: Can there be a Decent Patriotism?” The purpose of this post is not to sum up her lecture, which in due course, will be made available in full by the IHD on its site. As I found that her lecture drew largely from her article written for Daedalus (Toward a globally sensitive patriotism, Summer 2008 issue), I wanted to share what I felt after reading this article. In her lecture, she referred to her recent article in Los Angels Times on the Mumbai attacks, and what it means for the Muslims in India, which invited many critical comments.

Taken together, the Daedalus and the LAT articles articulate her concern that stereotyping of Muslims in India is as bad as racial profiling in the U.S. Her view of decent patriotism is based on her belief that national sentiment can play a valuable role in creating a decent world culture. She identifies five attributes of decent patriotism. The first is constitutional rights and independent judiciary. Second is a separation of powers that makes going to war more difficult. She wants war-making powers should reside in the legislature, and executive authority to initiate and continue wars should be severely contained. Third, she wants firm protections for the rights of legal immigrants who are not citizens, and decent arrangements for illegal immigrants. Fourth, getting the good out of a purified patriotism requires education about foreign cultures and domestic minorities. For example, she says if schools in Europe and the U.S. were doing their job teaching people aout the varieties of Islam, the current atmosphere of panic would be far more difficult to sustain. Finally, according to her, purified patriotism requires a vigorous critical culture, and protection of freedom of speech and dissent.

Unfortunately, she says, both India and the U.S. have recently taken a turn from the purified toward the malign form of patriotism. Saying that patriotism today shows her Janus-faced nature in India, she cautions that decent patriotism faces strong opposition from the malign patriotism of “Bande Mataram”. Acute fear, she says, has typically led Americans to characterize the nation in narrow and exclusionary terms.

She concludes that patriotism in and of itself is not a good thing; often indeed it is a very bad thing. What she has argued, however, is that a nation that pursues goals that require sacrifice of self-interest needs to be able to appeal to patriotism, in ways that draw on symbol and rhetoric, emotional memory and history – as Lincoln, King, Gandhi and Nehru all successfully did. Her last sentence underscores the need to appeal to emotion and imagination, even while pursuing decent patriotism. If the advocates of decent patriotism (as when a nation pursues both internal justice, characterised by economic equality, and justice for minorities, and the goal of global justice)eschew symbol and rhetoric, fearing all appeals to emotion and imagination as inherently dangerous and irrational, the Right will monopolize these forces, to the detriment of democracy, she warns.

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