Looking Back on 9/11

This talk was given on Rosh Hashanah by leader Mark Weber.


George Orwell is a most captivating writer. He is still read and quoted today. His name is invoked by writers and pundits on both the right and the left. I first heard about Orwell not in high school as you might expect. No, I heard about it in Nub's Flat Top Barber Shop in my hometown of Lancaster, Wisconsin. Perhaps you will remember Nubs from an earlier Rosh Hashanah talk a number of years ago. Nubs ran a pretty interesting shop. Going to get my haircut required some real preparation. You couldn't just pop in and get your flat top flattened. There were three rules I had to follow: First, take EXACTLY fifty cents. Nubs didn't believe in credit and he didn't believe in change either. Second, when approaching the barbershop, I always followed this procedure: peek in through the window and spot an empty chair. Then open the door to the shop, hunch down, and make for the chair. The reason for this is that Nubs was a man of strong opinions and equally strong in gestures...frequently with an open straight edge razor in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Finally, I was under strict orders not to read Playboy while waiting to get my flat top flattened. Actually, Nubs kept Playboy in a drawer by the cash register. However, sometimes one of the bachelor farmers left it lying around. So, my choices were these: Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, or (my favorite) The Wisconsin Farm News. Nubs also kept a few ragged paperbacks around. Most were John R. Tunis novels about sports. However, one day Nubs tossed me a copy of Animal Farm. I was engrossed in the novel when my turn came, so Nubs told me I could take it home to finish it and return it on my next trip.


Years later, I developed a liking for Orwell's essays and columns. One of my favorites was and still is "Notes on Nationalism", written by Orwell in May of 1945. It appeared in October of 1945 in the small magazine, Polemic. In this perceptive essay, Orwell drew a sharp distinction between patriotism and nationalism. He wrote: "By patriotism, I mean a devotion to a particular pace and to a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally…"1 Orwell continues: "Nationalism, on the other hand is inseparable from the desire for power. It is the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of people can be confidently labeled "good" or "bad.”2 Concerning nationalism, Orwell made one other point. He wrote: "Nationalism is also the habit of identifying oneself with the interests of a single nation, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty other than that of advancing its interests."3 These words didn't haunt me when I first read them thirty years ago. However, they haunt me now. In the five years since 9/11, I have returned to this essay many times. On talk shows many times, pundits seek to classify people as "pro-American" or "anti- American" in order to score some political points. I think a more useful distinction is that between patriotism and nationalism. This distinction does not respect traditional boundaries between "left" and "right." Indeed, there are traditional conservatives like the late Russell Kirk or like Bill Kauffman who would fit in the category of patriot. On the other hand, there are leftists, like Christopher Hitchens, who might fall in the other category. The point here is not to draw these distinctions in order to label people ("oh, well, you're just a nationalist…no point in talking to you.") Rather, it is to help us sort out what we should think and do in the aftermath of 9/11. We still need to come to terms with what happened. Maybe this will help.


Here are some thoughts about patriotism. They are by no means profound. Perhaps they will be useful.

  1. As patriots, we are not completely free. Yes, I know that it is an article of faith that everyone is "pro-choice" on abortion. Many people embrace "choice" when it comes to education. However the uncomfortable fact is that we are not completely free. Patriotism involves obligation. In a very real way, we are not free to choose the condition into which we were born. Unless we are naturalized citizens, we did not choose our obligation. We are free to be liberal, conservative, or radical.4 We are free to imagine our country in any way we want. We are not free to deny that it is our country. Patriotism in a nation like ours is demanding. Why? Because we are bound not by ties of race or blood; but by an idea shaped by the American experience.
  2. Patriotism means sacrifice. The problem with what passes for patriotism in America is that it is affirmed much too easily. In fact patriotism seems to be defined by symbols: an American flag flying on your porch, a lapel pin, or a bumper sticker. This, although it may be comforting to some, is not patriotism. Genuine patriotism honors the values of a nation by activity directed toward others. We put aside our laptops and our cell phones and we embrace the sacrifice of working with others in a conscious effort to improve some feature of our shared community. These are acts of self-government and through them we honor a nation whose foundation is (or should be) self-government. All too often, we want a kind of patriotism that has high visibility yet involves no effort or sacrifice.
  3. Patriotism needs equality. Patriotism requires some degree of social egalitarianism. Hierarchy and disparities of wealth and power simply mean that we have few things we share and do together. It breaks down the notion of a community based on more or less equality of sacrifice. There must be zones of social life in which equality can be demonstrated and experienced.6 This happens in the following three categories in my opinion. First would be the military service or nonmilitary national service. Wealth or privilege should not exempt anyone from serving. That is why the so-called "volunteer" army (by which we actually mean a professional army) does not contribute to the importance of shared sacrifice. Second, public education is important because privilege cannot be maintained in this environment. Finally, public transportation and public parks and spaces are important because they invite all, regardless of social class to share a common experience.


As we look back five years to 9/11, we must admit to ourselves that almost all of the goodwill directed to America in the wake of that searing tragedy has evaporated. The doctrine of "preventive war" has been developed to justify our war in Iraq. How much this fits in, not with the modest nation of patriotism as defined by Orwell, but with his concept of a belligerent nationalism with imperial overtones. Now is the time for all of us to exercise the principles of a genuine patriotism…a patriotism dedicated to the values, the promise, and the democratic principles of America. I guess I probably would have run across George Orwell at some point…but…well…thanks Nubs for giving me a little head start.

  1. Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1943-1945) Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. (Harcourt, Brace, and World) pp. 361-379
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Intellectuals and the Flag by Todd Gitlin (Columbia University Press, 2003)
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.