The Truth about Patriotism

The Truth about Patriotism

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 10 illustrations Published: August 2007

Author: Steven Johnston

American Studies, Politics > Political Science, Political Theory

The Truth about Patriotism is a bracing repudiation of the claim that patriotism is essential—or even beneficial—to democracy. Contending that even at its best patriotism subverts the democracy it purports to value, Steven Johnston turns to patriotism’s defenders to show how they must jettison much of democracy to champion patriotism. Closely examined, patriotism itself effectively demonstrates the impossibility of love of country. Patriotism, Johnston argues, tends toward narcissistic self-regard, blind to its violent ways of being in the world and its dependence on death. Thus we would be better off without it.

Drawing largely from aspects of American political and popular culture, this wide-ranging book presents a wealth of examples to disclose patriotism’s self-defeating character. They include Richard Rorty’s and John Schaar’s enmity-driven love of country, Socrates’s angry judicial suicide, the violent obsessions of High Noon and Saving Private Ryan, the triumphalist self-display of the World War II Memorial, Oliver Stone’s and Don DeLillo’s spectacular representations of the assassination of President Kennedy, George W. Bush’s symbolic sacrifice of more Americans in commemoration of September 2001, and yet other memorials to and apologies for patriotism. Ultimately, Johnston calls for a vision of democracy that uses the tragic possibilities inherent in politics as a spur to a life-affirming civic ethos of reciprocal generosity.


The Truth about Patriotism will engage the reader in meaningful thought and reflection on a core political issue. He compels the serious reader to question the roots and role of patriotism in today’s political culture. Academics and graduate-level students of political theory and ethics will find this to be stimulating, thought-provoking, and intellectually rewarding reading.” — Peter J. Bergerson, Perspectives on Political Science

“In the past decade or so, the intellectual Left in America has sought to recapture patriotism for the project of democratic renewal. . . . The Truth about Patriotism seeks to repudiate this project by revealing the animosity and narcissism underpinning the cult of patriotism. . . . What is original about the work is not the critique of patriotism per se, but the creative manner in which the author broadens the discussion, moving away from political texts to include forms of cultural production such as film, music and the architecture of memorials and statues.” — Tim Dunne, Times Higher Education

“Johnston offers up a strong dissection of what we profess to believe and how we act toward our own country . . . . This is an incisive and demanding work that challenges a number of core assumptions about history and the role it plays in shaping the critical analysis that is fundamental to a fully functioning democracy. Recommended.” — K. Anderson, Choice

“Johnston, in showing how patriotism subverts democracy, provides a critical intervention for America’s post-9/11 political discourse. . . . [Johnston] contour[s] new possibilities for translocal and transnational political projects.” — Elisabeth Anker, Political Theory

“The inclusion of the word 'truth' in the title of Steven Johnston's book The Truth About Patriotism suggests that what we know of patriotism is perhaps not the total or complete story. What Johnston does in his new book is not to suggest that we do not know the whole story. Rather, he argues that, in thinking about patriotism, it might be useful to move beyond exploring how patriotism might be reinvigorated or made radical and, instead, start to develop hypotheses that frame patriotism as an impossibility or irredeemable.” — Catriona Elder, Australian Journal of Political Science

"[The] three chapters on architecture should be read by anyone interested in pondering issues of patriotism in the context of American public space." — Peter A. Furia, Political Science Quarterly

“Have you become wary of how benign patriotism is invoked to counter bellicose patriotism? In this book Steven Johnston shows you why that wariness is well grounded. He explains the traps attached to benign patriotism, and he presents an alternative suited to democratic life. An indispensable book for a post-Bush era.” — William E. Connolly, author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

“This courageous book directly confronts a political impulse—patriotism—that has been a largely unchallenged cornerstone of American culture and, at the same time, an integral strategy for the deployment of hatred and resentment that threatens the democratic enterprise. Drawing on diverse sources (intellectual and popular; contemporary, historical, and classical), Steven Johnston questions the very possibility of a coherent American patriotism.” — William Chaloupka, Colorado State University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Steven Johnston is Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida. He is the author of Encountering Tragedy: Rousseau and the Project of Democratic Order.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. “Without External Picturesqueness,” Or, Why I Am Not a Patriot 1

2. This Patriotism Which Is Not One 21

3. Iconic Drama I: The Mortal Logic of Enmity 64

4. Iconic Drama II: The Socratic Way of Death 89

5. The American Memorial/Monument Complex I: The Architecture of Democratic Monuments 115

6. The American Memorial/Monument Complex II: Political Not Patriotic 138

7. Patriotism and Death: Wounded Patriotic Attachments 161

8. Bruce Springsteen and the Tragedy of the American Dream 198

Notes 233

Bibliography 269

Index 279
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4110-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4089-8
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