by George Kateb. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. 464pp. Cloth $35.00. ISBN: 9780300120493.

Reviewed by Tracy Lightcap, Department of Political Science, LaGrange College. E-mail: tlightcap [at]


Recently, I have been trying to think through the potentially massive shifts in the operation of the American state under the Bush administration. George Kateb’s new book is a useful place to start finding a way around the evaluative aspect of this problem. PATRIOTISM AND OTHER MISTAKES is one of those exceptional books that combines scholarly examination of complex topics with evisceration of conventional wisdom and startling insights into the depths of public confusion in the face of the new. Usually, we find ourselves arranged on different sides of ideological issues no matter how convoluted our stands on those sides may be. Kateb’s new book pulls the masks off of the usual justifications of even sophisticated political discourse, showing the tenuousness of our actual positions in political combat and the true conundrums we face as we try to see where our polity is headed. But perhaps I should be a bit more specific.

Kateb offers us a series of sixteen essays built around the troubling prevalence in modern politics of values that justify extreme responses by political actors. This in itself is nothing new, of course; politics has always had an element of instrumental fury in it, and theorists have not ignored it. What Kateb calls our attention to, however, are three current perversions of important values in politics: the undermining of individual dignity, the drive to create more aesthetically pleasing societies, and the rise of anti-instrumental thinking (i.e., a tendency to subordinate rational means to irrational ends). Driven by the exigencies of national security and the complexity and scale of modern political life, these trends have become more virulent in recent years, leading to dimly perceived changes that are quite threatening to democratic processes and, more importantly, to individuality itself. By comparing these disturbing trends to the standard of rights based individuality, Kateb reveals new insights into a rapidly evolving political environment. I do not plan to give summaries of all these essays; as is usually the case, there are some that I found more useful then others. What I will try to do is convey some of the ideas and impressions I got from the essays concerning the concerns Kateb has pinpointed.

Kateb’s first selection of essays concerns the pressures on individual liberty that have arisen in the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster. Kateb’s ideas about the basis for concern in this area are laid out best in his essays, “A Life of Fear” and “On Being Watched and Known.” The latter is an especially useful contribution. As [*484] Kateb points out, individuality is largely a matter of not being found out. We tend to forget this today; the tendency, particularly for the new internet networking tools, is to expose many things about our lives that civil liberties were often intended to hide or obscure. The result is a progressive corrosion of the limits of individual space that civil liberties are supposed to protect. We have become less concerned with intrusions into our own civil rights, and, especially, less concerned about the rights of others, particularly those from different cultural backgrounds. When this distressing trend is combined with the calculated enhancement of pervasive fear concerning security issues in the populace, the stage is set for a variety of initiatives. Perhaps the most dangerous of these is the unleashing of imperial ambitions fueled by expansive and racist categories for identifying enemies. Kateb deserves special credit here for his intellectual bluntness. Virtually all scholarly work on the run-up to the war in Iraq pulls its punches when discussing the political advantages that the Bush administration saw in the conflict; being clear about their unavowed purposes smacks too much of “conspiracy theory.” But, conscious or unconscious (Kateb wisely makes this distinction), those unavowed purposes are central to the entire enterprise, especially the combination of fear for personal safety and demonization of an unfamiliar other. It is only by combining avowed purposes of undisputed ideological purity with pervasive fear and the desensitizing of popular concern with civil liberties that other unavowed motives – control of resources, weakening the voice of political opponents in domestic matters, strengthening the executive – can be achieved.

Kateb is especially sharp on the way this toxic mixture has worked. His essays on patriotism, cultural pluralism, and assaults on the constitution fill out a description of the atmospheric problems created for democratic values by the war. Taking on patriotism first, Kateb points out that there has been a long history of attempts to legitimize patriotic motives by attaching them to physical courage or to principles supposedly embodied by governments. He savages both positions, pointing out that appeals to patriotism invariably lead to calling for a compromise between personal morality and an involuntary, socially inculcated adherence to a particular group. That adherence calls for submersion into a national entity that supposedly gives individuals a collective identity, an identity that can only be established by war and that makes a mockery of the entire idea of individual rights. Kateb’s treatment of cultural pluralism is similar, but more nuanced. Primordial memberships are a fact of life, and avoiding such attachments is probably impossible. This has led to a variety of arguments that attempt to reconcile group affiliations with individuality. But, as Kateb shows, the danger of group-think is precisely what we should be aiming against. It is much easier to identify the vices associated with group identification in democratic [*485] societies (dishonesty, group narcissism, submergence into group identity, and the like) than its supposed virtues. It is the vices to which we should pay attention, using group identity, if possible, as a stepping stone to individual civic virtue. Finally, Kateb ties these themes together with ringing defense of the Constitution based on an original version of originalism. What he reminds us of here is that the Constitution is, in the context of its times, a paean to individual dignity. It should be read that way today – not in terms of the meaning given actual phrasing at the time, but in terms of how that meaning can best be interpreted given the commitment to protection of individual status the Constitution provides. This method of interpretation is what we should use to support resistance to the undermining of individual claims in present conditions.

The next section of PATRIOTISM AND OTHER MISTAKES, concerning politics and aesthetics, is the one I found most interesting. “Aestheticism and Morality,” Kateb’s magisterial treatment of the connection between aesthetics and politics, is both the most complex and rewarding essay in the collection. He begins by describing a variety of justifications for action (religion, preservation of a way of life, and so on) that are often held to transcend morality. Kateb associates these justifications with a basic human craving for aesthetic values in everyday life. The argument here is not so much that people want art or beauty at the center of their lives as that they feel an innate need for aesthetic standards – for consistent, coherent ways of life, for “fit,” for interesting and stylish appearances. This is a profound and fruitful way of looking at the kind of special problems that arise when a way of life has been deeply disturbed. For aesthetic values are not dangerous in themselves; aesthetics only become dangerous when (to put words into Kateb’s mouth) it is vulgar. He finds some unlikely candidates for this kind of thinking – Burke, Nietzsche, Foucault – but makes a convincing case that the drive to create societies that fulfill our aesthetic cravings is, in many ways, the root of a politics cut loose from moral underpinnings. The relevance of this outlook comes into bold relief when one considers the justifications for the occupation of Iraq.

This tour de force is followed by an eye-opening essay on Hannah Arendt. I am no expert on Arendt and have never had any urge to look into her work deeply; she always seemed basically confused about politics and particularly political movements to me. Why, I thought, should we pay attention to an author who only supports a politics that is done “in the right spirit” and leads to a version of human freedom based on it? My problem was that I did not understand the aesthetic basis for Arendt’s ideas. As Kateb points out, Arendt is concerned with a politics that springs from human freedom, a freedom defined by its creativity and capability to transcend usual boundaries of human ideas. The point of theorizing about politics, from her point of view, is to provide standards [*486] of judgment concerning political activity that support human creativity in much the same way as judgments concerning art. If I read Kateb right, he is suggesting that it is by exercising such judgment that we can avoid the dangerous vulgarity which he has already condemned as a major source of actions threatening human dignity. I have seldom had a ruder awakening from a previously held (and mistaken) position. I will never read – or underestimate – Arendt the same way again.

The final section of PATRIOTISM AND OTHER MISTAKES is the most eclectic and difficult to summarize. Here Kateb is testing ideas that are part of the “canon” of political philosophy for their usefulness in combating the forces of irrationality he has described. He presents useful essays on Socrates, Thoreau and Emerson, Hobbes, and St. Augustine, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses as theorists from this perspective. The arguments in this section, however, are best summarized by the last essay in the book, “The Adequacy of the Canon.” Kateb argues (correctly, I think) that, despite a persistent pessimism concerning human capacities, the great thinkers of political theory have not bequeathed us a conceptual framework that can encompass the disasters of the 20th century. He postulates that this is because they failed to grasp the power of imagination when focused on the possibility of an aesthetic reframing of entire societies. That imagination has worked in two unanticipated ways: as “hyperactive imagination” among elites now convinced that the technical means to achieve social order are available, and as “inactive imagination” among masses grasping for personal meaning as part of artificially created social wholes. The two together have produced an atmosphere of fanaticism, a fanaticism fed by a combination of an increasingly proficient but normatively disoriented technology and human beings convinced that societies can be put aright by using rational means to achieve essentially irrational, aesthetically inspired goals. This is a very important insight and uncovers real lacunae in the canon of political thought. Turning to Heidegger and Arendt, Kateb again points to the need to analyze the aesthetic nature of modern political movements. It is that aestheticism that is at the bottom of the fanaticism that plagued the 20th century and, by present experience, appears to still be strongly represented in the 21st.

As I said before, I found some essays in PATRIOTISM AND OTHER MISTAKES more useful than others. In addition to those covered above, I especially recommend to readers Kateb’s essay on Thoreau and Emerson, two neglected figures in political thought, for a useful and optimistic critique. On the other hand, I think his essay on courage is marred by an inadequate concept of military comradeship, and his treatment of technology by a caricature of Marxism. This is a common fate for writers of anthologies, of course; everyone finds something they do not like. I need to [*487] say at once, however, that I seldom came across arguments that were not both penetrating and profound in Kateb’s work. I found myself stopping continually as I read his essays to consider some other area of concern that they had brought to mind. I predict that interested readers will find themselves engaged at higher levels then they might anticipate on a quick perusal of the contents of Kateb’s book.

I think PATRIOTISM AND OTHER MISTAKES recommends itself on several grounds. For teaching purposes, the book would be a useful way to start discussions of contemporary political change in both advanced undergraduate and graduate political philosophy classes. It should also be useful as a way into considering continental philosophy as a tool of political critique. However, the essays in Kateb’s book are of most utility to the educated reader concerned about the turmoil of modern American and world politics. As I said earlier, Kateb rips the mask off of the conventional frameworks of political discourse and reveals, particularly in his critique of aesthetic values in politics, new depths to the dilemmas of our time. His call for a rejuvenation of individual dignity as a focus of critiques of policy is especially welcome, albeit not the easiest remedy to apply. But difficult courses of action are called for in difficult times. We would do well to heed Kateb’s advice.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Tracy Lightcap.