A commenter to my post “If America never was” took violent exception to my benevolent opinion of our country, which he blamed for every human catastrophe with the exception of the common cold. I won’t reproduce the commenter’s language, but one can find a more poetic version of the same thing in Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl”:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
It’s a subtle message, but I think I get it. Nothing good ever comes from the old US of A.
My first reaction was to wonder why anyone would choose to live in the vicious, bloodstained country described by the commenter. If I felt that way about America, I certainly hope I’d behave like our grandparents did: pack up and seek a new life in a kinder land.
This in turn led me to reflect on patriotism: love of country. Does such a feeling even exist? Or is it a fiction manipulated by the loveless elites of Moloch, to keep the population docile?
The feeling is real. I know, because I experience it. But it can be expressed at many levels.
Patriotism can be nothing more than rooting for the home team, often literally – counting medals at the Olympics or wins at the World Cup. This is a superficial but powerful emotion, tapping into an elemental driver of human behavior. It’s pure us versus them.
It’s also value-free and empty of content, and thus easily manipulated by those who wish to sell tickets, win elections, or start wars. Napoleon, a Corsican militarist, waxed eloquent about the glory of France under his rule. Stalin, a Georgian promoter of world communism, successfully appealed to Russian patriotic fervor in the face of a German invasion. Additional examples can be plucked almost at will from the pages of history.
“My country, right or wrong” expresses a natural sentiment, but it isn’t patriotism as I understand the term. At best, it’s a shallow loyalty; at worst, jingoism, heartlessness, mob mentality.
A more substantial attachment is felt for the history, customs, traditions, and shared rituals of one’s native land. This is love of hearth and things familiar: a worthy and sometimes ennobling emotion. It imbues the Panamanian and Ugandan, no less than the Frenchman and the American, with pride in his origins.
Personal identity and individual dignity at some level depend on a sane relationship with one’s native environment – with the language one is born to, for example, or the cut of one’s clothes. This transaction is a form of patriotism. When in good health, it inspires affection and respect for the symbols which forge a national community, without suspending moral judgment.
But what if our country demands and defends behaviors which are morally repugnant? If the symbols and rituals of nationhood are perverted by a tyrant or a totalitarian? What is the proper response, if one lives in Nazi Germany in 1935, or in the Soviet Union in 1955, or in North Korea today?
That is the problem posed by my commenter, for whom the US has been such an abomination. And the weakness of patriotism interpreted as an accumulation of national identity is that, by definition, it is backwards-looking. It can be deployed to confuse good people about evil ambitions in the here and now.
We must be forgiving of our country, as we would be of our parents or our children. But the highest level of patriotism, in my opinion, is faith in a shared way of life: in ideals which orient us toward the desired future, toward the people we aspire to become in the country in which we wish to live. Forgiveness thus has limits.
If my country is a promoter of holocausts and gulags, a terrible choice will be forced on me. Am I a German or a Nazi? A Russian or a Marxist-Leninist? Can such distinctions be made in practice?
I don’t believe they can. Modern governments are too powerful, too intrusive, too demanding. They trample on fine distinctions, and call for unquestioning loyalty. In a nation embarked on an evil course, the individual can’t evade painful choices: either complicity in evil, dissent, or exile.
The way of life in which I, with millions of Americans, invest my patriotism, is liberal democracy: the ideals of tolerance, self-rule, freedom under the law. I believe the US, more than any other country, embodies these ideals, and has been their champion and defender in a largely hostile world. That was the theme of the post to which the commenter objected.
But suppose the country were a nightmare of Moloch, a place of moral filth and ugliness, a devastation to other peoples: I would be complicit if I partook of its bounty, and lived and worked and raised my family here, like those good Germans under Hitler.
Under such circumstances, I’d be duty bound to catch the first flight to somewhere better.