Gomberg, Paul — Patriotism Is Like Racism

Gomberg, Paul. “Patriotism Is Like Racism.” Chicago Journals 101.1 (1990): 144-50. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

Gomberg argues that “patriotism is no better than racism” (144). He appeals to Stephen Nathanson’s definition of moderate patriotism as “preference […] for one’s nation, its traditions and institutions, and one’s fellow nationals, but within the limits of morality, that is, provided one does not violate the ‘legitimate needs and interests of other nations’ and their nationals” (145). In other words, patriotism should be directed inward at one’s own country, without infringing upon other nations.

Gomberg further argues that “moral regard is universal – all count equally and positively in deciding what to do [… and] in conflicts between nationalities the moral universalist will not patriotic” (145). For Gomberg, there is an incongruency between moral universalism and patriotism; they cannot exist together. Patriotism, by its very definition, requires that one must put the needs of his or her own kind above the needs of others, and this is contradictory to moral universalism, in which “actions are to be governed by principles that give equal consideration to all people who might be affected by an action” (144). According to Gomber, “the patriot will fight for the national community while the moral universalist will not” (145). This is problematic because in order for patriotic acts to be moral, they cannot differentiate between kinds, and that is exactly the purpose of patriotism, to favor your kind over others: even “the moderate patriot [would] be more committed to the preservation of the institutions and traditions of his or her own nationality than to those of other nationalities” (146).

Gomberg takes his argument one step further by arguing that patriotism uses this differentiation in kinds to be a sort of racism: “favoritism toward a more prosperous nationality or discrimination against nationals from poor nations contributes to a morally objectionable inequality […] favoritism toward one’s compatriots is as objectionable as ethnic favoritism” (148). Gomberg also uses an example to illustrate his point that patriotism is like racism, asking readers to “consider the imperative, ‘Buy American!’ which is certainly prescribed as a patriotic duty […] the effect of the imperative, ‘Buy American!’ is likely to be increased national antagonism” (149). Though this is a very simple example, it has the desired effect for Gomberg; promoting one nationality over others, as a part of your patriotic duty is nothing less than nationalism and racism. Gomberg sums up his thoughts on this idea by saying that “if we try to allow patriotism and forbid racism on the basis of a universal morality that makes racial discrimination a violation of a fundamental right but makes discrimination based on national citizenship permissible, the universal morality with this structure looks implausible and arbitrary. We want to know by what criterion we decide what is on the list and what is not” (149).

Paul Gomberg also believes that the “most plausible strategy for defending patriotism is to argue for an indirect universalism, either utilitarian or Kantian: in order to realize universal principles (promoting well-being and respect for human rights) we need social norms that bind people together, and those norms create special relationships, with corresponding special duties. Hence universal principles can be realized on through relationships that require preferential treatment […] A genuine universalism is possible, but only as a result of a struggle against patriotism and nationalism” (150-1). In summation, Gomberg believes that the only way to achieve universal moral principles is to eliminate the ideas of belonging to a certain nation, and endeavoring not only for the well-being or rights of the people who reside in that certain nation, but the world as a whole.

I believe that Paul Gomberg puts forth a very interesting and strong argument. As a philosophy major, I enjoyed reading about the ethical side of patriotism, and how our current conception of patriotism can be considered a violent act. Gomberg has convincingly argued that as patriotism is defined here (a preference for one’s nation), it is not only used as a justification for racism, but nationalism as well. I believe that in order to achieve a more non-violent definition of patriotism, we must move to alter the definition of patriotism from “a preference for one’s nation over others” to something that doesn’t force people to support one nation while condemning another. It seems difficult to imagine, however, that patriotism could survive without being attached to some national identity; it doesn’t seem plausible that patriotism could be extended beyond devotion to the nation where you reside to a more encompassing, universal identity. After reading Gomberg’s article, my main question is whether or not patriotism can be defined simply as one’s preference for humankind? But even then, it seems that you are disregarding the needs of everything else on this planet, and still acting selfishly; for example, if patriotism were preference for humankind in general, and not just one’s nation, that would demand that your actions put the needs of humankind over the needs of all other living things. And yet, that does not eliminate patriotism as being a violent act, as per Galtung’s definition of violence. The needs of all the sentient animals and the environment would be secondary to the needs of all humankind. What, then, could be a better conception of patriotism?

–Sapna Singh

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