Alexander Rosenberg is an American philosopher, and the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is also a novelist.

The making of a non-patriot

Best to start with a small boy, preferably an immigrant, a stateless refugee from a war-torn continent. Place the child in an environment that makes it obvious he owes his family’s prosperity, freedom and even its survival to the generosity of the American nation.

Eager to assimilate completely, the child will embrace the patriotic symbols — the flag, the president, the military, the national pastime. Develop in the child a sustained and sincere interest in the triumphal progress of the nation’s history, from Valley Forge to the Halls of Montezuma, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Progressive Era, from the War to End All Wars through V.E. and V.J. days, to what President John F. Kennedy called “the long twilight struggle” of Cold War containment. Encourage the teenager to see Vietnam as a military stalemate but a vindication of our democracy.

Instill a reverence for the Declaration of Independence, but only the good parts. Suppress, for instance, its chilling description of “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The words go well with the iconic narrative of cowboys and Indians and with John Wayne movies of the 1950s, like John Ford’s “The Searchers” (movies are an especially effective way to foster devotion in the young; they should appear frequently through this process). Don’t let the child learn how Oklahoma went from “Indian Territory”— an arid Bantustan in which Native Americans were herded for the better part of a century — to being the 46th state in 1907, owing to the discovery of vast petroleum deposits under its hardscrabble prairie.

Raise the child’s sights from his model trains to the spectacular construction of the Transcontinental Railway, completed in 1869. (Cecil B. DeMille’s “Union Pacific,” with Joel McCrea, will help do the trick.) Omit any mention of the roughly 30,000 Chinese “coolies” who actually built the western half of the railway and then, no longer needed for the killing work, were denied citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Make sure to extol Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose president, who built the Panama Canal. Do not mention that much of the heavy lifting was done by some 50,000 black men from the Caribbean islands, also disposed of when they were no longer needed.


Paint a vivid picture of Woodrow Wilson as the great progressive precursor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president whose dream of a League of Nations was destroyed by a narrow-minded vindictive senator from Massachusetts. (The Oscar-winning 1944 film “Wilson” should work well here.) Don’t tell the boy the real story of Wilson’s egotism and intransigence. It would spoil the way the narrative culminates a quarter century later in the United Nations. And never, never let on that Wilson endorsed D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” with a White House screening that personally invited the defunct Ku Klux Klan back into American life. Don’t remind him that Wilson resegregated the federal Civil Service — the only domain in which African-Americans hadn’t been forced to abide by “separate and equal.”

While you’re at it, when raising F.D.R. to demigod status (“Sunrise at Campobello,” 1960, is a start), be silent about how his administration excluded African-Americans from the two most important progressive victories of the New Deal — Social Security and the Wagner Act, the latter of which protected unionization from strikebreakers. It wasn’t hard, once the Dixiecrat senators in Roosevelt’s coalition showed him how: just drop “domestics” and “farm labor” from the coverage of the two laws, as 60 percent of these workers were black, more like 95 percent in the South. “ Domestics” were excluded from Social Security for the next 20 years. Along with agricultural workers, they’re still excluded from the (now toothless) Wagner Act that used to protect union rights.

Remember also to hide the tricks used to keep black soldiers out of World War II. Do not tell him that the convoy system used to supply United States forces in Europe, dramatized in the postwar movie “Red Ball Express,” with a mainly white cast and a cameo by Sidney Poitier, was roughly 75 percent African-American.

Trumpet to the child the Warren Court’s overthrow of “separate but equal” in 1954. But don’t mention that this was the same Earl Warren who demanded the Supreme Court endorse concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens in the Korematsu decision of 1944, never overturned to this day. As your patriot grows to adulthood he will read about how, the very next year after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the same court let Southern state governments off the hook with the requirement that desegregation be completed “with all deliberate speed.” He will find that 20 years after Brown, school segregation was even worse.

The most effective tools in the making of a non-patriot are time, honesty and a truthful self-education. Allow the boy, as he becomes an adult, to learn about the injustice and unfairness glossed over before. The process of increasing historical consciousness will make American exceptionalism untenable.

After extolling for years the genius of the United States Constitution, begin to point out the impediments to democratic government that it has imposed upon the American nation itself, and the other countries on whom we have forced it.

Be clear that the Constitution is soiled with the stain of slavery — the three-fifths clause, the requirement that fugitive slaves be returned, the clause allowing the international slave trade to persist for a generation after its ratification. The hypocrisy of our Constitution’s wording, in which euphemisms must be found every time the institution of slavery is protected, reveals the founding fathers’ chagrin. Once the student of American history discovers what the euphemisms mean, he cannot help reading the Constitution as an inexact copy of George III’s regime, not a set of truths requiring centuries of fealty.

Of course, watching Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) and Raymond Massey in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940) will have resulted in the boy’s “increased devotion” to the American ideal, but disillusion will eventually set it. By the time he’s seen Steven Spielberg’s’ “Lincoln” (2012) it will be evident that, given our Constitution, the only way the country could have abolished slavery was by a civil war that took a million lives from both sides. Every other nation — even the autocratic Tsarist Russia and the Empire of Brazil — managed to abolish slavery without a war. How were they able to do it? Because they were not blessed with a constitution intentionally designed, as the Federalist Papers reveal, to make effective government difficult.

The youthful patriot has been raised to admire the United States Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” by watching “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) or “Advise & Consent” (1962). By the turn of the 21st century he’ll realize that the Constitution condemned the nation to a Senate in which 10 percent of the population of his country controls 40 percent of seats. It’s an arrangement that does exactly what Madison designed the Senate to do: “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

The child may not notice that the Constitution explicitly made the equal representation of each state uniquely unamendable. He will, however, grow up to discover that, as its irremediable result, one citizen of Wyoming has about 65 times the representation in the Senate as every Californian.

When he digs into history, the boy will learn of the aberration that, just twice in American history, way back in 1824 and 1876, the popular vote for president was thwarted by the Constitution’s Electoral College (the second time “incidentally” ushering in the reign of Jim Crow). But that was ancient history, wasn’t it? Alas, no. By the time he’s grown, our child patriot will have found the Electoral College flouting the will of the majority in two of the first five elections of the 21st century.

Eventually the adult will appreciate why all fully developed nations have given up on the American Constitution as model. They know what we should have learned: that history long ago revealed its defects, anachronisms, hostility to democracy and unsuitability to life after the 18th century. Abroad, no one wants the United States Constitution any more. But we’re stuck with it, Second Amendment and all.

It’s not as though other countries are better than ours. Every nation bears the healed scars and the still-open wounds of its history. The lesson our refugee boy will learn as he grows up and old is that American exceptionalism is at best an innocent mistake that uninformed patriotism makes difficult to surrender.

Once the process of disillusionment is completed, so is the making of the non-patriot. Why most history gets things wrong

Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind

Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind