Monday, July 4, 2011

Patriotism, etc.

The 4th of July holiday in America seems rooted in ideas of "God and country," and that same soil is where I put down my own roots and started to grow. Although I gather that he hated every minute of it, my father served in the military, and so did many of the adult men that I respected most when I was growing up. I proudly wore an American flag lapel pin whenever I had a lapel, proudly raised the flag at my school for a year while a cub scout, proudly sang the Star Spangled Banner whenever it was being played, and proudly won an American Legion essay contest when I was in high school with a sincere speech that I wrote--and later read at a Memorial Day parade--praising America and the flag and patriotism.

And yet, in the meantime, my ideas about patriotism have changed radically, as I've grown beyond my roots and branched out. Really, I have a hard time calling myself patriotic anymore--and certainly most "traditional patriots" might not call me so. Allow me to explain.

History teaches us several lessons about patriotism. On the on hand, there's the standard lesson of the importance of being willing to die for one's country and what all the great patriots of the past have done. Honoring our history, our ideals, our own sense of our country's greatness. We know that story well, I think.

Our concept of patriotism derives almost entirely from a movement which really gained speed in the 19th century: the idea of nationalism. And history clearly shows us that nationalism accomplished roughly two things: the unification of countries like Germany and Italy that hadn't been unified before, and strong feelings of loyalty to the idea of one's "nation." Which, of course, made people more willing to kill and die for their countries, leading to the killing fields of WWI and perhaps even more so to WWII. You want to see flag waving? Check out Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. Most of the countries of western Europe that I've traveled in feel a deep aversion now to this kind of flag waving, because they've seen where it leads. A British friend of mine visiting America was bemused and a bit uneasy by all of our flag waving on this side of the pond. As someone--it's hard to pin down just who--once said, "When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag and carrying a cross."

The danger of nationalism or patriotism is not in loyalty as much as it is in blind loyalty, the too-often-advocated "my country, right or wrong." And that's one of the things that become harder and harder about patriotism, that my country--despite all the rhetoric--has been wrong quite a bit more than we would like to acknowledge. There is another lesson of history.

Don't get me wrong: we've advocated high ideals since the earlist days of the republic. We've been all about freedom and equality. Kind of. Sort of. Except that we've never wholly lived up to those ideals.  For almost half of our history, we enslaved other human beings, even after all of our European peers had ended it. The rhetoric of accepting immigrants has always thinly concealed a good deal of racism and ethnic bias. Our country and its government has, since the beginning, favored the interests of the rich. That's not something new--indeed, it has been ever thus. And let us not forget sexism, which also puts the lie to our ideals.

Yet, we might say, history shows us a trajectory of progress. Don't we do better than we used to? Fair enough, but it's essential to remember that none of these things happened inevitably. Nowhere was it written that things had to get better, and in few cases did it come from the top down. If "we the people" had not fought to make things better, it's almost certain that they wouldn't have gotten better, because our leaders have consistently been the representatives more of the status quo than of a progressive, better future. To say this another way: things haven't gotten better in our country because of blind patriotism or "my country, right or wrong" attitudes. Things have gotten better because people were willing to question the state of things and work to change them. So it has been and so is it likely to be as long as our nation endures.

And always high in our consciousness on Independence Day are the men and now women who've served our country. Is there something noble in risking one's life for our country? I would say yes. However, because these citizens are risking themselves for the rest of us, we have a duty to work to ensure that their lives are risked only in military endeavors which actually further the interests of the nation and not simply those of some minority of our citizens. Far too often, the military actions of our country have been been dishonest and/or hypocritical. The instances in which our leaders have lied to us or manipulated us have been too many for a short book, much less for my little blog. The times that our leaders have initiated military operations which put our soldiers in harm's way and killed the citizens of other nations in causes directly against our ideas of freedom, equality, and democracy have been, sadly, numerous. These, too, are the lessons of history. We have overthrown democracies in favor of dictatorships in order to further the economic interests of our elites as well as to further dubious, vague goals of "security." The military actions in the middle east following 9/11 are only the latest in a long line of American actions in which the citizens of our free democracy have been deceived about the aims and objectives of the war. My country, right or wrong? That's an easy way to brush aside such questions--and an easy way to ensure we get more of the same.

For that matter, should we look at our democracy? Our "true/false" democracy where we can choose a Democrat or choose a Republican, but don't have any other real options? And let's not forget the whole system of the electoral college rather than  a more democratic, truly popular election. If real democracy is our goal--though it probably never has been--we could be doing a lot better.

And yet, I'm raising all of these points not to argue that America is a terrible place and not to argue that we don't also have a lot to be proud of as Americans. Our people are basically good-hearted and well-meaning. Our ideals of freedom and equality are noble ones. Even the execution of them haven't been terrible. When compared with the vast majority of all governments in the history of humanity, we have it pretty damn good here. Even compared to much of our contemporary world we're doing awfully well. But let's not go too far: we're not, in every way, "the best." And we're not--when measured against our own ideals--as great as we could be. And yet, there's the thing: we can be, but only if we are not complacent, only if we are not smugly self-satisfied with our country and blindly patriotic.

And this, to me, is true patriotism. Loving your country, respecting what it stands for, and being loyal to it, but ultimately being more loyal to the ideals than to the government (any government), more loyal to what is best about the country than simply to what is. True patriotism is being willing to make our country great, not quacking on and on about how great our country is, not excusing its failures or condemning those who criticize us.


  1. Very, very well put. The concept of "my country right or wrong" is anathema to freedom of thought, etc. etc.

    And to those who would respond "love it or leave it" I would suggest looking at parenting. Do you toss out your kids if they do not behave the way you want them to? Or do you listen to them, because they just might have a different perspective on things.

    Another reminder--NOTHING stays the same--it grows in response to the various forces--negative as well as positive--that act upon it.

    Just look at how different U.S. government--and selection of the governing people--is from what it was originally developed. Women vote, people of color vote. The Senate is now elected by the voters. Maybe one day the president will be too.

    Keep up the thoughtful commentary.

  2. Well said, and thank you for saying it.

  3. I recently read an article that posited this as one of the chief differences between liberals and conservatives: Conservatives believe America is great and liberals believe it can be great. Each side views the other as less-than truly patriotic. Conservatives feel liberals hate America because it's not good enough, it has to improve in all these foreign, progressive ways. Liberals feel conservatives don't have any faith in America because they don't believe it can strive for anything bigger.

    Yet another way, perhaps, we polarize ourselves. I admit, I get frustrated with the "America is the greatest country in the world because it just is" mentality.