Once More on the Pledge, Patriotism, and Ordered Liberty

I’ve continued to enjoy the discussion of Linda and Jim’s book, and particularly of the Constitution Day/mandatory patriotism issue. And as much as I liked the book, Jim, I’ve got to side with Kent on the pledge issue. I took it from your original set of comments that you would see schools encouraging students to say the pledge as permissible though not (to borrow Kent’s phrasing of the issue) a “Good Thing,” but you’ve now clarified that you’re pro-pledge. Although I have myself argued that a vigorous liberal democratic polity requires particular virtues in its citizens that the state should foster in public schools (and in fact argue this in chapter 5  here),  I think the pledge encourages exactly the kind of uncritical allegiance that threatens a vigorous liberal democracy, and is particularly harmful here in the U.S.

We have only recently extricated ourselves from the Iraq War, a war that we entered because the country far too credulously accepted the statements of its leaders, which caused considerable loss of life, as well as an outlay of trillions of U.S. dollars even though more than one-fifth of our children are in poverty. And as we speak, legislatures in state after state, without widespread citizen outcry, are passing regulations on voting that will disenfranchise massive numbers of citizens in the guise of protecting the state from voter fraud. Given these examples and more, it seems clear to me that our problem with respect to civic virtues is not that our citizens are not patriotic enough, but rather that their patriotism is too uncritical, too accepting of what their leaders tell them, and that it causes them to support government without measuring it against important liberal democratic ideals. Encouraging the pledge, in my view, is far more likely to make this situation worse not better.

Kent will, I’m sure, point out that my disagreement with Jim highlights the fact that what I’m calling civic liberalism and he calls civic republicanism, in promoting education for civic virtue, requires some determination of what virtues citizens need, and that this is a question to which there are no definitive answers. That’s certainly true, but this isn’t an adequate reason to reject purposeful civic education. As so many liberal theorists have come to recognize in recent years, any tenable liberal democracy requires some virtues in its citizens for it to function relatively well, and these virtues don’t develop simply by chance. Liberal neutrality is therefore not only impossible (liberalism, as the later John Rawls showed, necessarily embodies a set of non-neutral commitments, albeit limited ones), but the failure to aim higher for our young citizens leaves us with a status quo that also has significant costs, and which are imposed on particular groups. At a time in which higher percentages of US citizens believe that religious leaders should assume a strong political role than in other countries, and given that a number of these leaders advocate positions based on their religious philosophy that cannot be justified on grounds shared outside their religion, this is no academic debate. And at a time in which only nine of our states permit same-sex couples the right to marry, a denial which, it’s become abundantly clear, can’t be justified as a matter of public reason, the status quo imposes huge costs, as well, on particular groups of disfavored citizens.

Far more sensible, it seems to me, is to debate the question about what commitments a liberal polity needs to function well, and what an adequate but not excessive civic education would seek to foster. In my view, such a program must seek to encourage commitment to political equality among citizens, to the rule of law, to resolving political differences through lawful procedures, and to the protection of basic individual rights. And young citizens also need to come to recognize (as both Rawls and Eamonn Callan have argued) that deep differences in beliefs and ways of life exist among citizens of the polity that cannot be adjudicated by any mutually accessible standards; with this recognition, they need to come to agree not to use the coercieve power of the state to force their contested vision of morality on others.  Finally, and importantly, citizens must also develop not only their knowledge of both our institutions (which is why I think Constitution Day is actually a good idea) and public policy, but also significant critical thinking skills.  While there is room for disagreement about where exactly to draw the line on civic education, my hunch is that civic liberal theorists would largely agree to this basic list of civic virtues.

Under these standards, Kent, when it comes to your hypothetical ban on teaching about Islam, the fact of the matter is that exposure to different ideas is essential to education for a liberal democratic citizenry. So the ban is incompatible with teaching liberal democratic values. When it comes to your Rumsfeld v. Fair hypothetical, a liberal democracy committed to equality wouldn’t tolerate discrimination against gays in the military in the first place, so the question arises only in terms of how to make second-best tradeoffs; the answer to that question, I think, is a policy tradeoff that the theory of civic liberalism doesn’t answer.




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