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The Man of Steel and the neoconservative

By Jack Kerwick
web posted May 2, 2011

SupermanIt has just been disclosed that in the impending Action Comics #900, the Last Son of Krypton—Superman—will stand before the United Nations assembly and renounce his American citizenship.  Given the Man of Steel's iconic stature, it should come as no surprise that news of the world's greatest defender of Truth, Justice, and the American way abandoning the American way has the right-leaning media ablaze.

What is surprising, however, is that many of those critical of Superman's newly discovered global aspirations tend to be neoconservatives, for the neoconservative is as much of a globalist as the adopted son of the farmer from Smallville. 

Although it will doubtless be interpreted as such, this is no criticism of the neoconservative.  If he will bear with my reasoning, I think he will find its logic impeccable.

The neoconservative is committed first and foremost, not to America considered as an historical nation, but to the idea or the proposition upon which America is allegedly erected.  It isn't always clear what this idea is, but usually it is spoken of as a principle of equality, the principle, say, that all human beings are in possession of the same "inalienable" rights.

Now, a country may be said to aspire toward or even embody a certain principle, but the country and the principle are not interchangeable.  The principle is universal and abstract; the country particular and concrete.  The principle is timeless, the country time-bound.  

Questions regarding the relationship between "universals" and "particulars" have engaged philosophers for well over two millennia since Socrates first raised them.  Fortunately, among the myriad of answers to such questions that have given rise, the only with which we need concern ourselves here is that provided by the neoconservative himself.  The principles that occupy the latter are eternal verities to which all rational beings from time memorial have access.  With its affirmation of "self-evident truths," the Declaration of Independence appears to affirm this notion of a principle, for that which is self-evident is theoretically obvious to everyone. 

But if it is universal principles that matter most—principles to which all nations should pledge allegiance and to which anynation could do so—then patriotism—the love for one's own particular country—is as misplaced as DC Comics and Superman apparently believe it is.  That this is necessarily so becomes obvious once we grasp that a commitment to culturally and historically neutral principles demands an attitude of impartiality toward persons and nations while patriotism calls for partiality toward one's own.    

Abstract and universal principles, however attractive they may be, simply fail to elicit feelings of love and affection; at most they invite commitment.  In contrast, the object of love must always be a specific and concrete something.  The family, for example, is an institution that (not unlike any other) can be accounted for in terms of principles.  Yet while we can all be committed to preserving this institution by affirming these principles, no one can actually be said to love the family.  What people love are their own families.
Similarly, patriotism is love, not for abstract universal principles of human rights or equality or truth or justice; patriotism is simply love for one's own country.   

But if it is universal principles or propositions or ideals that assume center stage in one's moral vision, then the bias toward the particular of which patriotism consists must lack merit.  Indeed, consistency demands that the neoconservative view patriotism with all of the disdain that he claims to view "racism," for if the latter is repugnant because of the partiality toward the members of one's own race that its usurpation of "color-blind" principles entails, then the former must be repugnant for the partiality toward one's fellow countrymen that its violation of "nation-blind" principles implies.

The patriot recognizes the historical particularity of his own country.  It is his country that is the object of his affection.  He is, though, well aware of the fact that principles can be abstracted from the uniquely nuanced traditions and history that constitute his country.  Yet the patriot is equally aware that knowledge of these principles is no more a substitute for the knowledge of his country than knowledge of grammatical principles is a substitute for the knowledge of the actual language (or languages) from which they have been elicited. 

That Superman is abandoning "the American way," not Truth and Justice, proves that he understands the difference between the universal and the particular. 

Perhaps once the neoconservative catches up to DC Comics, he just might shed his zeal for "democratizing" the Middle East, for the principles of democracy, being abstract and general, can be implemented in any number of distinct and even mutually antagonistic ways: that a country is "democratic" doesn't mean that is will share anything else in common with any other country that is "democratic."  Or maybe the neoconservative will renounce patriotism. 

What must be grasped here is that he can't do both. ESR

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at www.jackkerwick.com  Contact him at jackk610@verizon.net.

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