Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Does Patriotism really hold in a global world? The case of the United States

11th of September:

Since many saw through CNN how the second plane flew into one of the Twin Towers, it meant being transformed from simple spectator into an eye witness. That is of great importance since reality is transmitted as 'breaking news' and thus in real time as things are happening and unfolding. Of interest is the uncensored take-in of all kinds of information and opinions during the time experienced immediately after such a calamity has happened. It starts with the key exclamation of "holy shit" by someone overheard in the street as the second plane made its appearance and does not end with the interview of a woman, an international lawyer, and wife of a man who died in one of the towers, insofar as she stated in front of the running cameras: "my husband engaged himself throughout his life for peace, therefore his death should not be used to justify the going to war!" How right she was but such voices could no longer be heard three days later for by then the overall mode had set in as to which message was to be send out.

In the sequence of events unfolding thereafter, many voices spoke and above all it was made clear not only Americans had died, but many from different national and cultural backgrounds. The latter were mainly a part of the vast number of people cleaning and servicing the Twin Towers when the two planes struck.

Amazing was that civil planes had become lethal missiles with still people on board. With the exception of the fourth plane which went down in the fields of Philidelphia, none of the others on those flights could apparently prevent that they were to be used like suicide bombers to kill other people. To be witness in such a tragedy must be frightening enough, but the event underlined one crucial difference. While all called their loved ones to say good-bye as they knew death was approaching, there was one man on the Philidephia flight who did not phone home to his wife, but to his mistress or secret love. They did not enter the usual sentimental rhetoric of love but she informed him about what has happened in New York with the Twin Towers. Due to that conversation it became clear to the man that something had to happen on his plane in order not to let the same thing happen. Since love and betrayal are often linked, it might also reveal quite the other aspect, namely how a true love imparts truthful knowledge in order to face in a human way the simple fact.

The frantic search for some conclusive evidence as to who did it meant to single out a force which had matured out of a hatred of America. Till then any immigrant going past the Statue of Liberty felt of having arrived finally in a safe haven. That myth of America being invulnerable was shattered. The real challenge became on how to deal with this newly realized vulnerability. In the vicinity of where the Towers used to stand New Yorkers who had not fled entered restaurants to eat together with the other. There was an urge to feel the collectivity as form of human solidarity. Quite differently was the political exploitation of the event. Once President Bush came to Ground Zero, the firemen and policemen were watched with tension and anxiety. What will they do? They had been in the past at the forefront of the Anti Viet Nam protest and were radical voices as far as the political process was concerned. Once they shouted not Bush, but 'USA; USA; USA', it was clear that something was going to happen along that line Jonny Cash, the country singer stated in an interview thereafter: 'who was so foolish to do that and think he would get away with it?' It was a clear indication that the direction things would take was one of revenge and of war. It negated what one international lawyer had said after she learned her husband was one of the persons killed in the Twin Towers: 'his entire life he had devoted to peace, hence his death should not be used as justification to go to war'.

Red thread / red line:

Very often when reading theories of Habermas, but also others about Habermas, there is made reference to 'perception' to explain the relationship between individual and nation state. Likewise Habermas responds to the question about whether or not 911 altered radically the perception of things. Of interest is how Habermas perceives the impact of these changes with a marked tendency towards mistrust instead of the usual American 'liberal openness' with which strangers had been greeted over the centuries when landing for the first time in USA as the 'promised land'.

Since then Patriotism is evoked or called upon in periods of other kinds of crisis. It indicates a permanent tendency within given nation states to rally people around single causes or symbols as if this would allow an encounter with destiny. This was also the case after the bombing of the Londoner Tubes and one double decker bus. The code of BBC became one of emphasizing one British characteristic when faced by grave danger, and this in reference to what heroic attitude was displayed during the bombing of London in Second World War, namely 'defiance'. To go on and to continue as if nothing has happened, to shrug off the attack like someone would a fly off the shirt, that has a certain quality. Many in London after the bombing went into the streets to play music and dance out of defiance. Again it was a collective response to a single attack but because of its horrific nature underlines the vulnerability everyone experiences when taking a public transport system and trusts that no one would be so stupid, foolish or anti human to place a bomb in one of the wagons. Since fear is linked to mistrust, it would mean the breakdown of a social component societies need to function on a daily basis. It is interesting to see that in the case of the UK the response of the government was to reintroduce and enforce within the education system a greater sense of Patriotism as if this would ensure people who would grow up under such a system will not go against the system and the people living within such a system.

Borradori: Do you consider what we now tend to call "September 11" an unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves?

Habermas: „Allow me to say in advance that I shall be answering your questions at a distance of three months. Therefore, it might be useful to mention my personal experience in relation to the event. At the start of October I was beginning a two-month stay in Manhattan. I must confess I somehow felt more of a stranger this time than I did on previous visits to the "capital of the twentieth century," a city that has fascinated me for more than three decades. It was not only the flag-waving and rather defiant "United We Stand" patriotism that had changed the climate, nor was it the peculiar demand for solidarity and the accompanying susceptibility to any presumed "anti-Americanism." The impressive American liberality toward foreigners, the charm of the eager, sometimes also self-consciously accepting embrace—this noble openhearted mentality seemed to have given way to a slight mistrust. Would we, the ones who had not been present, now also stand by them unconditionally? Even those who hold an unquestionable record, as I do among my American friends, needed to be cautious with regard to criticism. Since the intervention in Afghanistan, we suddenly began to notice when, in political discussions, we found ourselves only among Europeans (or among Israelis).“

Source: Borradori, Giovanni (2003) „Fundamentalism and Terror – a Dialogue with Jürgen Habermas“. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/066649.html


Habermas made the observation that in the wake of 911 a new form of Nationalism emerged in the USA. He called it for want of a better word 'Patriotism'. It articulated itself during the visit by President Bush to Ground Zero when the firemen and policemen of New York known for their opposition to the war in Viet Nam started to shout suddenly: 'USA, USA, USA'. Unfortunately such an expression was but the beginning of a war out of revenge first in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. And 'at home', that is in the United States, it extended itself into 'homeland security'. Around that time everyone hung as well the American flag out of the window to show where one's sentiments stood. And all believed the USA was under attack by some 'invisible enemies', the terrorists! As observed by Habermas, it was demanded from all the others to stand by America, and not only by invoking Article 5 of NATO i.e. when one is attacked all the others must come to the rescue. For it meant invoking an international form of Patriotism.

Interestingly enough, Habermas had already come close to the term 'Patriotism' when making some astute observations about the new army which was set up in West Germany after 1945 and which Adenauer used to join NATO, in order to gain freedom to do what he liked to do at home, namely expel all left wing intellectuals and critical thinkers. It was the beginning of a restoration phase of those who had brought Hitler to power. These were difficult times and only with the Student Movement did some cracks appear in this façade. Since West Germany and West Berlin were under the auspices of the Four Powers, the West German army or 'Bundeswehr' could not use any enemy pictures of the Russians or Americans when training the soldiers. In the eyes of Habermas, this meant an entirely new military organization. Allegiance or the loyalty of the soldiers had to be brought about by something else than having a common enemy. This made him think already about Patriotism as a rational alternative to Nationalism.

Disturbing elements about Patriotism – the example in the USA after 911

As pointed out already, Patriotism was used after the 911 attack to unify the American society against an extreme threat. It went so far that it justified the going to war. It followed an urge to revenge. As expressed by Jonny Cash in an interview, 'who would dare to do something like this and think he can get away with it!' There is an inherent fear within the American system, and not only, that if the response is not strong enough, it will happen again. That is why the death penalty is upheld as it is thought to be the best deterrent. In reality, murders continue and still many send onto death row may not have even committed the crime. At the same time, killing innocent civilians even if an undeclared war by means of drones with collateral damage is not even thought to be a problem of ethics.

The event of 911 was used to force everyone to become a Patriot. In effect, it meant no public spaces were granted in the media about why such an attack took place and more importantly what would be a wise response. Instead all were made into 'victims' of a single attack. As such it prevented any self-critical appraisal of the position the United States has in the world.

The attack was so terrible because it broke a myth of invincibility upheld till then in the United States. In the past sailing past the statue of Liberty when entering the port of New York, that had always meant for those fleeing dangers back home to reach finally new safety even if in exile. After 911 that illusion was gone. The only way to avoid war would have been to listen what one woman said about her husband who had died in one of the Twin Towers, namely that all his life he had engaged himself for peace so that his death should not be used to justify the going to war.

Truth does matter – contrary to a war against terrorism

While striving for 'rational forms of governance', Habermas uses a concept of Patriotism which leaves out something but which underlines this new war against terrorism! Even though many dispute the existence of objective knowledge, truth does matter. But this cynicism linked to the claim that people do not really wish to hear the truth, justifies ever more the use of mendacity or the public lie (Martin Jay). It has become governmental practice to use of spin doctor to have just those reports on the table which justifies the policy of the day. What is not seen is how this absence of truth does lead to war. For it allows a false reasoning dominate the political agenda.

The writer Robert Musil predicted that once society has lost all elements of truth, then decisions shall be based on probabilities, the outcome of which shall be 'terrorism'. Interestingly enough this was verified insofar as security measures and security needs became dependent upon not what people felt and upon truthful reports, but what politicians and intelligent agencies would define as 'probable attacks'. That vague predictability determined in turn how terrorism was to be fought but definitely not understood as Musil would interpret it, namely as an extreme form of demand for truth!

How often do parents say they feel terrorised by their own children but without considering the possibility that they were hiding from the children some essential truth e.g. who was in reality the true father! Equally the truth about abuse can be a reason for this tendency towards extremism. It is in reality a desperate attempt to break out of this prison of silence only possible if it would become public what this adult did to that child. There are many more reasons why public truths are suppressed, but not seen is what it does to the abused child or victim.

Relevant to this discussion is the thesis that any extreme demand for truth comes after a complete loss of truthful knowledge about one's own identity. It has been damaged and then there is added the belief in a damaged or wrong life there cannot be any truth. Enzensberger describes these people as 'radical losers'. They can live for 35 years almost unnoticed in the neighbourhood but one day they go on a shooting spree and kill a lot of people, before shooting themselves. They seem only capable of acting when they instil still further fear in society by taking down as many others with them. They do this extreme act to prove not only to themselves but to the whole of society that all are losers.

The use of 'mendacity' when propagating Patriotism

When Powell testified in front of the Security Council of the United Nations, he lied by claiming falsely that he and the United States had proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As this became the reason to go to war in Iraq March 2003, it was a most fateful lie. More so it can be assumed that Powell made that statement out of devotion and loyalty to the American state. He did so as well out of service to his boss, that is President Bush. Consequently he used a slave language which masks real motives and hides true knowledge. That is the case of anyone trapped within a hierarchy so that not the truth is told to the authority placed higher up but only what is wished to be heard. By upholding the slave language, Powell failed terribly insofar as war became unavoidable.

Thus it still matters how truth is brought about. That depends to what extent human pain is felt and real needs recognized. Moreover it underlines the importance of having a constitution based on mutual understanding as to what values are shared. Even though, and that is an important distinction to be made, without trust between people, there is nothing what states and nations can do to replace that missing human link.

Instead of revenge and the need to demonstrate strength active recognition of human vulnerability

When the United States lashed out after 911, then this does not differ in any significant way from Islamic Fundamentalists who call for immediate revenge if 'Allah' has been insulted. Interestingly enough Hegel had claimed progress in nation states can be made in terms of becoming more 'civilized', if they succeed to overcome the need to revenge. This is definitely the case if a relative of a victim does not revenge this by hurting a relative of the perpetrator. Rather the state steps in-between by pressing charges and by holding court to let justice do the work. Also the state oversees accordingly the form of punishment by imposing fines, jail sentences and in the most extreme case as well the death penalty. The latter was identified rightly so by Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler as still being within the law of revenge. Unfortunately this is not perceived as such in the United States where the death penalty is still being upheld in many states.

Yet Hegel assumed revenge or the urge for revenge would be suspended in the law and therefore ensure a civilized state. What Hitler's Germany demonstrated and which is the real danger of a nation state is when the state is no longer neutral while safeguarding the life of every individual, but rather becomes an instrument for revenge. Hitler used that motive to avenge the humiliation of Germany brought about by the Versailles treaty which stipulated Germany could not rearm and must pay huge war reparation. All this was felt within Germany to be highly unjust and was cunningly exploited by Hitler who went ahead to rearm and to cancel any repayments. After 1945 the Western allies along with the Soviet Union dealt a lot more sensitively with this issue. The Marshall Plan was but one example of not seeking to just punish Germany, but to help this country to get back on its own economic feet. It marked a difference to just seeking revenge for what Germany had inflicted upon the rest of the world in due course of time between 1933 and 1945.

After 911 all that seemed to have been forgotten. By going to war in first Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, the United States wanted to clearly avenge itself for what happened on that on 11th of September 2001. It was done out of a newly felt insecurity and thus everything was justified in terms of seeking to renew 'security' now interpreted as taking the war away from American soil and to those countries where it was thought that terrorism originated from. In Afghanistan it was the Talibans who had been, however, financed previously by the United States when a matter of fighting the Russian occupation. As for Iraq, there was also still that unfinished business of 'desert storm', but also an intention to demonstrate to other leaders who might think otherwise that the only thing the Western powers would tolerate is full compliance and cooperation.

Note: interestingly enough the word 'revenge' made its appearance in the Presidential election campaign in Nov. 2012 when Barack Obama stated to vote out of revenge for what Romney had threatened to do, namely to close the automobile concerns in Ohio, and Romney jumped on it not to vote out of revenge but out of 'love for your country'. Again the latter is a use of political rhetoric to subsume direct interests for one specific candidate under the general emotional attachment people in America feel for the whole country.

Culture and the security agenda

As politics becomes more and more intertwined with making business work, negative forces start to seize control of all public institutions and media. The anti-democratic trend is made most evident by an increasing lack of public participation in politics with a majority of the population blaming politicians for everything and thus making 'anti politics' the dominant school of thought. This leaves many questionable judgements and assertions about the others unchallenged while the overriding need becomes then one of security due to an overall increase in violence and fear. Yet security cannot be gained by an increase in police force. Yet this is precisely the politics of the Extreme Right. They suggest only a show of strength and in particular in leadership will resolve the crisis. And liberal or left wing political forces make the mistake not to point out that strength can only be gained out of working together.

The term 'security' does not deal at all with this question of identity or rather people feeling at loss due to having no real personal identity, but only pseudo or fake ones linked to a system of symbols and images. It means that only such identities are recognized, if they allow the persons to relate in an affirmative, slave like way to the system and the governing power within such a system. There is no room for criticism or alternative thinking. Technocrats are wanted, not visionaries. A long time already creative people have left universities while the latter have adopted ever more so business like methods of management. But this is no way to treat knowledge and more so the important validation of knowledge.

A blind devotion to security will not bring about peace of mind in a world which is permanently at war. More so by entering repeatedly ill fated wars and wrong dependencies, all the experiences being made underline just one sad fact, namely the absence of any ethics. Yet without ethics there cannot be any creativity capable of bringing about an imaginative vision of the future of mankind.

In the case of the USA going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was due to a wish to regain a fictitious security based on the myth of America as invincible power. The latter is assumed to be in place when no one dares to provoke USA forces again. Ten years on with many more people displaced, killed or frightened into all kinds of new dependencies, life continues for many people around the world in a system not allowing for hardly any positive change. This is because this system is not of their own making while being highly unjust to all people. The terrible truth about this injustice is that it exposes everyone to ever more vulnerabilities not only in Iraq or Afghanistan, but equally in the United States. Hence the radical losers are on the increase.

If people are to take on a positive identity which is free from the urge to revenge, 'human vulnerability' will have to be interpreted not as sign of weakness in need of massive protection i.e. arming forces and going to war, but taken as sign of real human strength. Moreover vulnerability can only be embraced as a positive human attribute, if there exists a human self consciousness and a real openness towards other people. Such an openness does require trust of the others. Since that is a public good, it needs to be sustained by such a cultural development which allows public truths to be discussed in public spaces. (Bart Verschaffel)

The failure of Patriotism

A show of Patriotism requires an institutionalized demonstration of a single identity even if claimed as not being the old feared type of Nationalism. By implication, an institutional identity drives things towards collective goals while being cut off at the same time from human and social reality. For it misses out on human compassion and therefore leads just as easily as Nationalism to discrimination of especially those who do not belong either to the privileged class or who do not belong to society. Naturally one way to default is not to show Patriotism e.g. by not hanging the American flag out of the window as everyone else did after 911.

As this selection process says something about who has access to resources and how they are distributed, Patriotism seems to fulfil a longing for 'normality', if not to as well a wish to belong to the privileged. That makes as well the failure of Patriotism predictable. For the more exclusive this practice, the more extreme the responses.

Still, it is a question in the United States who is really a Patriot: the one willing to cut the defence budget and thereby risks to jeopardize 'national security', or the one who truly believes in the military, and therefore is prepared to increase the budget as he thinks demonstration of strength is the best way to uphold national security, even if it runs the risk of increasing the state deficit?


Before the Presidential election in Nov. 2012 - Sandy Storm and the rest

Bloomberg endorses Obama after Sandy Storm but adds following criticism which reminds what role appeal to Patriotism does play in modern politics, namely to make people be willing to make sacrifices in order to facilitate changes deemed necessary to respond to new challenges like climate change:

Rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice,” Mr. Bloomberg said of Mr. Obama, “he engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it.” (Bloomberg Backs Obama, Citing Climate Change By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ Published by New York Times, November 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/nyregion/bloomberg-endorses-obama-saying-hurricane-sandy-affected-decision.html?_r=0 )

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