Patriotism, Patriotism, Wherefore Art Thou Patriotism?

patriot: n. a person who is devoted to and ready to support or defend his or her country. Syn: nationalist, loyalist; flag-waver, chauvinist. Oxford Desk Dictionary.

patriot: n. 1596, fellow countryman; also 1605, person who loyally supports his country, in Ben Jonson’s Volpone; borrowed from French patriote, and directly from Late Latin patriota, from Greek patriotes fellow countryman, from patria fatherland, from pater (genitive patros) FATHER, with the ending –otes expressing a state or condition as of one’s origin. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

One of the greatest attractions of patriotism — it fulfills our worst wishes. In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous. Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza, 17, 1936.

Patriotism is in political life what faith is in religion. Lord Acton, “Nationality”, 1862.

To deride patriotism marks impoverished blood, but to extol it as an ideal or an impulse above truth and justice, at the cost of the general interests of humanity, is far worse. John Mobley, Notes on Politics and History: A university Address, 5, 1913.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort [sic] of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, p. 98, 1911, Dover Edition, 1958.

Obviously there exist many ways to look at patriotism. One of the most intriguing may be Lord Acton’s statement that patriotism analogizes to religious faith, which is to say that patriotism is belief without evidence. But of course religious people will quarrel with that, and to my mind they will always be on the wrong end of that argument. Be that as it may, Lord Acton may have a point.

Patriots, and I am speaking of American patriots generally, especially the loudest of them, do seem to subsist on faith. They seem to know very little of the actual history of the United States; little of the actual content, intent, and context of the founding documents; little even of the institutions of government that live right in front of them today. They seem to believe things of the ilk that George Washington cut down a cherry tree and never told a lie; that the United States has never fought an unjust war; that the United States has always supported democracy, freedom, liberty; that a real citizen and patriot must have a gun in every room in order to repel the invasive government that is coming in force to take his handgun away; and the like. In other words they tend to believe nonsense and folderol, and they are willing to twist any fact they may accidentally come upon to fit their ignorance, if not downright ignore it as hard as they can.

But I’m willing to go further. I’m willing to say that the vast majority of Americans are not patriots. Most Americans haven’t made the effort required to be a true patriot. Most Americans couldn’t pass a civics test or an American history test if their life depended on it. Further, I suggest that most American don’t love the United States: love requires knowledge and understanding, two items sorely missing from the repertoire of so-called American patriots.

There’s a reason for that, more than one, but a big one is the simplest one. Most Americans are not patriots for the simple reason that they were born here.

Being a citizen by birth means you never have to choose to love your country; you never have to choose to be a citizen; you never have to pass a test demonstrating you know enough history and civics to become a citizen. You just are one.

And your education feeds you the myths and fairy tales designed to inculcate patriotic love of country. Washington and the cherry tree. The United States is the greatest country in the world. We’re the good guys, always. And every morning in school you have to take a loyalty oath, called the Pledge of Allegiance, when you don’t even understand it or its implications.

Between the sense of birthright and the failure of education, it’s no wonder that patriots are few and far between.

Now someone will immediately spring to the defense of our military and say they are patriots. Not necessarily. If you are born here and you grow up here and you run through the standard educational processes, such as they are, that are offered throughout the country, you won’t question military service. Today you don’t even have to think about it unless you are looking for a career choice in a lousy job market. In the past you only had to think about getting drafted, and that only if you were unlucky. Most soldiers simply accepted that service was what they had to do if they couldn’t avoid it.

No one says to our teenagers that if they want to be a citizen they have to serve a hitch in the military. Unless they’re immigrants – it seems popular these days among politicians to offer citizenship in exchange for accepting a role as cannon fodder for a few years.

Those who made a deliberate choice to sign up, usually in time of war or threatened war, for the most part made their decision based on jingoism and government propaganda, not on complete information about the conflict, not from historical perspectives, not on critical thought about the reasons for the war and the reasons for the leadership pushing for war.

None of what I say about soldiers intends to demean their sacrifice or their intent to serve their country. If anyone can be said to have earned citizenship, it is our combat soldiers. On the other hand, it may well be fair to say that most of them didn’t know what they were getting themselves into – in part because they were and are too often lied to and abused by politicians, many of whom never saw a day in uniform. Case in point: the Republicans, responsible for $800 billion dollars in war debt (so far) and responsible for two unnecessary, useless wars, and responsible for sending thousands of our soldiers to death, severe injury, severe psychological trauma, have recently blocked a one billion dollar jobs bill for returning veterans, claiming it’s not paid for. Oh, but it has been paid for, in coin that the Republicans will never understand. The point, though, is that the actions of the Republican leadership is an abuse of the soldiers.

Aside from soldiers, nobody born here is asked to take a test for citizenship. There is no test for patriotism, for love of country. In fact too often those who do most love the country are those who are most derided and demeaned by so-called patriots. I mean those who take a serious interest in civic affairs, who dare to speak in dissent from government policies, who dare question the myths and propaganda spewed out by politicians and pundits. Who loves their country the most – those who work at knowing and understanding the facts and truths about their country, or those who have done nothing but be born here and have simply assumed that they are therefore real Americans, with all the privileges thereof?

Most people fall into the latter category. To them I’d say that the lowliest immigrant who applies for citizenship and studies to pass the citizenship tests and meets not only the requirements but negotiates successfully, perhaps after several tries, the bureaucracy of immigration, is more worthy of being called an American and a patriot than vast swathes of the people who were born here.

A patriot might be the kid who decides to join the military, not as a career choice, but because he has read our history, because he has read our military history, because he has researched the contemporary issues of his time and sought to understand them, and concluded that the virtuous path for him to take would be to sign up. A patriot might be the kid who has done the same work and concluded that the current political situation calls for dissent and resistance to the calls of politicians for more soldiers, and becomes an active dissenter. Neither of those two people should have their love of country questioned.

A patriot might be a woman with a family, called to jury duty, who, instead of complaining about it, does her research into the legal system and the place of juries in her contemporary legal framework and in the history of the country, and concludes that she should accept jury duty as a responsibility of citizenship. And a patriot might be her opposite who has done the same study, and determined that the jury system needs to be questioned and perhaps changed, or that the people in charge of it are treating the system with contempt and need to be changed. Both may be considered to love their country.

Blind faith in the leaders and institutions of the country is not love of country. It is the antithesis of patriotism.

Ignorant belief about American history is not patriotism. It is the opposite of love of country.

Waving a flag or wearing a lapel flag pin demonstrates nothing besides blind faith or ignorant belief.

Shouting ‘We’re the greatest nation on earth’ while waving the flag, literally or metaphorically, demonstrates nothing but ignorance of facts and an unwillingness to consider facts about the country and its place in the world.

Disparaging others because they are black, or white, or red, or yellow, or brown, or gay, or straight, or male, or female, or speak with an accent, or are immigrants, disparaging other Americans because they are different demonstrates a complete failure to understand America and its founding ideals.

Ignorance of our history, ignorance of how we became a nation, of what was the intention of our nationhood, of how we have acted in the world and at home, willful ignorance supplanted by willful acceptance of falsehoods, that should be disparaged, discouraged, and corrected.

It is not enough to call oneself a patriot because you love your country. Ignorant love is not real love. When you pursue knowledge of your country, of its history, of its intent, of its actions in the world, of its actions at home; when you look at the facts and the messy truths and accept them; when you choose to make your country better and when you act to make your country better from a sense of concern and compassion and understanding, not from a sense of unfounded pride, not from bigotry, not from hatred, not from fear; when you care more for your fellow Americans than for your bank account or your possessions; when you don’t shrink from civic duty, whether it is jury duty or military service or paying taxes, whether it is honest dissent or reasoned civil disobedience or calling out the false patriots in power, then you can begin to call yourself a patriot, then you will have discovered what it is to love your country.

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One Response

  1. First, I cannot believe there has not been a comment to your article on Patriotism before June 16 late in the evening on the West Coast of the US. What you have written Ed, is a very important piece on the need for every American to truly know the history of our nation and know how we as a nation interact in the world. I grew up in the Middle East and it was such a surprise to me in the 50’s and early 60’s that the Arab World did not rise up against what I saw as the “rape” that the American corporations and the US government were doing of the oil stores of the people of in the countries in the Middle East and North Africa. People generally liked Americans and were friendly with them at that time. I could not understand the lack of anger on the part of the people in the Arab World. How times have changed. Our arrogance has come home to roost. We are hated in the Middle East and in many countries around the world because we looked to our own interests first. If we as American could realize this and our Government and we could have some humility then perhaps we could begin a new era in this nation. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. I see an America that wants to believe that we are a nation that is THE BEST instead of the declining empire that it has been since the early 60’s. As long as we continue to have that vision of our selves then there is no hope for humility, for change, for recovering core American values that can only be learned by reading our early history and avoiding our mistakes.

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