What is Patriotism?
was originally published in the July 15, 1991 issue of The Nation
The first sentence of The Nation's prospectus, dated July 6, 1865, promised "the maintenance and diffusion
of true democratic principles in society and government," surely a patriotic sentiment, as was the magazine's name. The second
choice--"The Union"--was thought by the founders to be too neutral. Hence, the preferred title, referring to the nation, the
one that is indivisible with liberty and justice for all... In the aftermath of a war whose opponents were often regarded
as in some sense disloyal, we invited friends and colleagues to address the question of just what patriotism is and ought
be: Is there a patriotism that is not nationalistic? How does the historic internationalism of the liberal left relate to
the concept of patriotism? What do you value in the traditions of your country?
whose eloquent meditation on patriotism ten years ago in "The Case for Patriotism" helped inform
the questions underlying this chautauqua, leads off:
Nietzsche wrote that words with a history cannot be defined.
Their meanings are in their stories, their biographies. That is surely the case with "patriotism." Patriotism is as patriots
have done. And in relatively recent times--say, since the American and French revolutions--those who have called themselves
patriots or who have called others to the banner of patriotism have largely fallen into two camps.
The first company,
whose signature is on so many of the bloodiest pages of the modern age, has its spiritual roots in the radical ideologies
of the French Revolution. They announced the advent of a new god on earth and a new prophet/commander whose voice was the
voice of that god. The new god, of course, was la patrie, the nation, and the new commander was the state.
named the new god: "The nation exists before all. It is the origin of everything. It is the law itself." By 1792, in a petition
addressed to the National Assembly, the ferociously jealous claims of the of the new god were made chillingly clear: "The
image of the patrie is the sole divinity which it is permitted to worship."
Those claims have echoed in a thousand
variations from that day to this. It is the worship of national power, of national greatness, nearly always expressed as power
over other peoples and qualities, and as power that acknowledges no limits on its own assertion. This voice has been as clamorous
and continuous in our own country as in many others. The line from Col. Alexander Hamilton to Lieut. Col. Oliver North is
strong and pure.
The other company of patriots does not march to military time. It prefers the gentle strains of "America
the Beautiful" to the strident cadences of "Hail to the Chief" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever." This patriotism is rooted
in the love of one's own land and people, love too of the best ideals of one's own culture and tradition. This company of
patriots finds no glory in puffing their country up by pulling others' down. This patriotism is profoundly municipal, even
domestic. Its pleasures are quiet, its services steady and unpretentious.
This patriotism too has deep roots and long
continuity in our history. Its voice is often temporarily shouted down by the battle cries of the first company, but it has
never been stilled. Jefferson spoke for it, as did Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
We should not be surprised if
this voice is often heard lamenting or rebuking the country's failures to live up to its own best ideals, which have always
been the ideals of the fullest possible freedom and the most nearly equal justice for all. Its specifically political ideal
found its finest expression in Lincoln's "government of, by and for the people," and the American domestic patriot is often
heard calling fellow citizens and their officials to this standard. That call is distinctly a citizenly call, and never more
so than when, as Father Mapple's wonderful sermon in Moby-Dick has it, the citizen stands firm "against the proud gods and
commodores of this earth" and calls every violation of the covenant to account "though he pluck it out from under the robes
of Senators and Judges."
The left has always had
a problem with patriotism. There were a few recordings: Paul Robeson's "The Lonesome Train" still resonates. There are some
songs: No one has blessed America more movingly than Woody Guthrie. But as a general matter the left seems sour on America
and more sour still about patriotism.
More's the pity. It's not that the right hasn't routinely substituted flag-waving
for reason. Or even that a dumb, smug and myopic sort of Americanism hasn't been used to justify every national sin of which
we've been capable. But none of that even begins to excuse the disdain with which the left greets even a tip of a patriotic
hat. Adlai Stevenson understood that patriotism could rightly be defined as the celebration of "the right to hold ideas that
are different--the freedom of man to think as he pleases." And he knew at the same time that "to strike freedom of the mind
with the fist of patriotism" was "an old and ugly subtlety."
Why, then, the resistance on the left to patriotic appeals?
Why such a crabbed view of Americanism at its best? Why not celebrate Justice Brennan? Or Justices Marshall and Blackmun?
Or the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights? Or a message of freedom beamed from America to the rest of the world that
has often been received there but too often has been denigrated here?
What the left criticizes about America is often
worth criticizing. Its unwillingness to celebrate what we offer the world at our best--and to call that patriotism--is not
to its intellectual or moral credit.
Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven
Columbia University School of Social Work
Professor, Graduate Center, CUNY
We take patriotism to mean love
of nation and the loyalty that follows. My country right or wrong. Even as an abstract idea, it is hard to see how thinking
people justify blind loyalty. And considered historically, patriotism is plainly dangerous, helping to unleash military rampages
in the name of nation and obliterating the essential democratic capacity to assess concrete and particular interests.
ubiquitous loyalty to nation-state is puzzling. How is it that people become passionately devoted to the abstraction of the
state and its symbols? Propaganda could not be the human condition, such as the attachments most feel for kin and community.
And perhaps nationalistic propaganda acquires the force it does because it draws on these axiomatic attachments.
there is a difference. However parochial the ties that bind people to clan or place, these ties have something to do with
the concrete experience of people, so that threats to clan or place can sometimes be assessed by direct experience. Not so
with flag and nation. When state leaders appeal to patriotism, they mobilize citizens by invoking foreign threats that cannot
be assessed by ordinary people, except sometimes when it is too late, as in the aftermath of war. In the process, not only
are people made to sacrifice lives and resources to the contests of state-makers but the emotions generated overwhelm popular
capacities for a reasoned and conflictual domestic politics. Never has that been more obvious.
Minister, president, SANE/FREEZE advisory board
The worst patriots are those
who hold certainty dearer than truth, who, in order to spare themselves the pain of thought, are willing to inflict untold
sufferings on others. Adolf Eichmann comes to mind.
But if uncritical lovers of their country are the most dangerous
of patriots, loveless critics are hardly the best. If you love the good you have to hate evil, else you're sentimental; but
if you hate evil more than you love the good, you're a good hater.
Surely the best patriots are those who carry on
not a grudge fight but a lover's quarrel with their country. And the main burden of their quarrel in today's and tomorrow's
world must be to persuade their fellow citizens that the planet itself is now at risk, and in an order of magnitude never
previously even imagined. Hence, everyone's security depends on everyone else's. No one is safe until all are safe.
ancient Roman Tacitus defined patriotism as entering into praiseworthy competition with our ancestors. I think we should enter
into praiseworthy competition with Washington and Jefferson. As they declared their independence from England, let us declare
our interdependence with all countries. Beyond saluting the flag, let us pledge allegiance "to the earth, and to the flora,
fauna and human life that it supports; one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water, liberty, justice and peace
Today our most relevant American patriot might well be Thoreau, who, a hundred years ago, said, "I am a citizen
of the world first, and of this country at a later and more convenient hour."
Stephen F. Cohen
Russian studies, Princeton University
Patriotism is never having to say you didn't know.
Professor of history, CUNY; biographer; playwright
Who isn't a patriot?
Everybody claims the designation and claims loyalty to the particular set of ideals and institutional arrangements they choose
to identify as the essence of Americanism. Those of us who deplore the country's current descent into macho militarism refuse
to cede patriotism to those who equate it with George Bush's policies. We hold to a set of values older than Bush and more
enduring than a single (misguided) administration. We hold to an insistence that the needs of people come before the display
of hardware, however technologically brilliant. We hold that all human life is valuable, and that the view that some nationalities,
races, religions, sexual orientations and genders are more valuable than others disgraces the notion of democracy--just as
the growing disparities in wealth and privilege in our own country discredit the notion that we are the exemplars of democracy.
We hold to an insistence that the rights of conscience take precedence over the profits of business. We hold to a celebration--internationally--of
human diversity, and we champion the integrity of indigenous cultures over imperialistic demands for conformity.
we're the real patriots. How come THEY can't understand that?
of international relations, Princeton University
Confusing patriotism with unconditional support for government
policy does core damage to the meaning of citizenship, especially during time of war. In 1736 Lord Bolingbroke identified
the essence of patriotic fervor as devotion to the public good, whether as official or citizen. To uphold a policy that is
believed harmful to the country is then, with such an understanding, highly unpatriotic, exhibiting either weakness of spirit
or fear of consequences.
Wartime accentuates the pressure to be a patriot, especially if one's country is in physical
danger. At such times of national emergency, arguably, unity may be relevant to survival. U.S. wars since World War II have
not been of this character. These wars have been distant encounters in the Third World, of dubious legality and morality.
It is the appropriation of the symbols and language of patriotism for such wars that poses a profound challenge to our political
Admitting the predicament of young people conscripted or professionally obliged to take part in an improper
war in such a circumstance has nothing to do with patriotism. Indeed, a patriot may express solidarity with fellow citizens
caught on the battlefield by working hard to oppose a war or bring it to a rapid end. It was a mistake often made in the Vietnam
era for opponents of the war to confuse their opposition with expressions of contempt for Americans in the military, as if
they were responsible for the war policies. Supporters of the war tended to make the opposite mistake, blaming the soldiers
subjected to the hell of Vietnam for the loss of the war.
Straightening out this mistake might have been one of the
few bright spots to emerge from the Persian Gulf war. But the Bush effort to honor and praise the troops asked to risk their
lives on the authority of the elected leaders was deliberately confused with enthusiasm for the war and a celebration of the
battlefield victory. That confusion repeats the Vietnam mistake in the guise of correcting it. By seeming to associate battlefield
results with our attitude toward taking part is to build war fever into military victory and shame into military defeat. To
mingle patriotic fervor with militarism is pernicious and dangerous for us all. As citizens in the nuclear age we must struggle
harder to convince others that the true patriot is now, above all, dedicated to peace and justice, to diplomatic solutions
and to a foreign policy respectful of international law and of the United Nations so long as it acts within its own constitutional
That much seems obvious. What is more difficult is to give patriotism a positive content in America at this
time. Despite the outcome of the cold war, it is more evident than ever that capitalism is cruel in its human effects, especially
here in the United States, and has entered a phase in which market forces are weakening welfare gains. The disquieting popularity
of Desert Storm with the people confirmed an ugly streak that cannot be explained away as media manipulation. It is one more
reminder that the dispossession and destruction of the Indian peoples of North America is not a matter of history, buried
in the past. The massacre of the Iraqis fed the same political imagination that was threatened by the "savages" in the wilderness.
Patriotic energy is required if we are overcome such a bloody legacy, compounded many times, including by the atomic bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is doubtful whether, even if we could come to face our past as honestly as, say, the
Germans have faced the horror of the Holocaust, there would be much occasion for reaffirming a nationalist pride as the basis
of a reformed patriotism. Especially given the power and wealth of the United States, our pressing need is for nationalist
humility and the forming of a more global political identity that is engaged in the great work of solidarity with peoples
everywhere, first of all here at home, who are working to overcome the afflictions of humanity.
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