Question for the day: What is patriotism?

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.


3 Responses to Question for the day: What is patriotism?

  1. Stephen Kriz says:

    How kind of you to devote a post on your blog to my comment and to misrepresenting what I wrote. Having read several of your posts now, I would expect nothing less from you. As is so typical of people with your mindset, you see things in binary terms – you either “love” your country (whatever that nebulous term means) or you “hate” it. If you re-read my comment, you will note that I am simply pointing out all the atrocities that have been committed by the United States, of which there are many. That doesn’t mean I “hate my country”. I just want to change it. I wouldn’t characterize my disagreement with your post, “If America Never Was”, as “violent” either. Vehement, perhaps, but never violent.

    Your notion of “love of country” is an utterly ambiguous one. Do you mean the dirt, rock, grass and trees that make up the United States? I certainly love many parts of our beautiful country, such as the mountains of Colorado, the corn fields of Iowa, the lovely Florida Keys, Grand Canyon and on and on. But, I’m not sure I “love” all the dirt and rock that makes up the U.S. There are also other countries that have equally beautiful scenery that I “love”.

    As far as loving all of the people that live in this country, even though my Christian values tell me that I should try to love everyone, I admit to being weak and I am not capable of loving everyone. People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are maddeningly ignorant and foolish and I confess to not loving them very much, even though I should. Jesus said we should love even those who would do us harm, and I am quite sure they would do me harm if they could, even though they don’t know me in the least. I’d be willing that even Mr. Vulgar Morality doesn’t love everyone in America – does that make you an “American hater”?

    The principles this country were founded on – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are noble ones. The problem is that we have strayed far from those principles, time and time again. I am not so blind and naïve to think that this is all a Democratic or Republican party problem. Harry Truman was president when we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan (twice!) and incinerated little children and old women. That was wrong and immoral, regardless of which political party you vote for – wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Vulgar Morality? We have committed immoral acts throughout our history, starting with not granting liberty to black people, who were only considered three-fifths of a real human being in the original rendering of the Constitution. What we did to the American Indian as we developed this country was also immoral – slaughtering them with impunity, selling them blankets infested with smallpox, herding them on to small, infertile reservations like cattle. Wasn’t that immoral? How about all of the slaughter of people in the labor union movement by government agents and private companies in the 1800s and early 1900s – people who were simply wanting to collectively bargain for a decent wage or basic benefits? Was that immoral?

    I would encourage you to not be so binary in your thinking – the world is not black and white. Look around you – the world is made up of thousands of colors and shades of grey. Conservatives like yourself (and I would bet $100 you vote Republican and always have) can’t understand nuance, even though the world is all about nuance. That is a major shortcoming.

    I agree with you that the phrase “America – Love It or Leave It” is fatuous, but that seems to be what you are telling me. I must either “love” my country (the dirt, the people, the principles???) or I should “leave” it. Again, there are certainly things I love about America, but there are also things I find morally repugnant. That doesn’t mean I am going to leave any time soon. Being a quitter is for people like Sarah Palin. I would change the phrase to be “America – Change It or Lose It”. Peace.

    P.S. The Alan Ginsburg poem is lame.

  2. Stephen Kriz says:

    I am not you. I am also not Alan Ginsburg.

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