Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Shaky Role of Patriotism

After a couple of inside-jokey, stream-of-consciousness posts I've decided to let loose the dogs of war and unleash an issue I've been mulling over for more than a few months: the role of patriotism in our society. As the graphic above implies, I speak specifically to my resident nation, and more generally to the rest of the world. I will be taking a harsh, though hopefully not cynical, examination of the attribute of patriotism (nationalism) and its possible effects on society.

As a society we value character qualities and "proper" emotions within individuals. Qualities like bravery, kindness, courtesy and respect are celebrated for their positive effects on society and individuals, while "negative" qualities such as jealousy, anger or apathy are widely condemned for negative effects on others and, by extension, by society as a whole.

So where does patriotism stand? Many of us celebrate this quality without any real personal regard for what it means; certainly most would define it as a "love" of one's country or a willingness to uphold one's land of birth as a standard or value in and of itself. Millions of people throughout recorded history have sacrificed their livelihood or died in the service of their nations (tribes, clans) - often on different sides of the same conflict, and for dozens of causes and goals.

So who's right? Can everybody be right?

In fact, we're so inclined to think of patriotism as an end in itself that we often ignore the difficult questions that it poses: Just what is a "country" anyway? Tracts of land of various size, divvied up with negotiated borders over the years, decades or centuries by people in power that we've never met? What if the occasion arises wherein my patriotism and that of another fall in direct conflict? If we're both killing each other under different banners, which "patriotism" is a greater good, and which is pushing its possessor toward positive, beneficial acts? Who holds the moral high ground here: myself or my foe? It seems unintuitive to state that both can claim that right simultaneously.

There's the rub. And it's exactly where we always run into trouble: as with other emotions or character qualities (greed, jealousy, anger, desperation), patriotism cannot be evaluated merely as a static, positive attribute that one can have in quantities, but as a state of mind which should lead the bearer toward positive actions. For every bonafide died-in-the-wool "patriot" who attempts, out of love, to preserve that which is positive in his country through the pen or the sword, there's a slackjawed, incoherent bigoted wreck of an individual who uses patriotism as an accomplice to ignorance and a shield to hate, hate, hate anybody with a different origin. Like any other emotion, patriotism is best evaluated rationally and not emotionally.

To sum it up: Inasmuch as patriotism encourages good behavior, it's good. If the pursuit of patriotism encourages you or your country to participate in something oppressive, evil or hateful, it's bad. It's funny how much we can learn when we contextualize these things.

Blind patriotism can be extremely volatile - patriotism and national identity are often invoked most strongly during times of war (mobilization against some outside foe) or gross actions of government leading to loss of personal liberties (specific examples of this in just my country are so widespread that it would be redundant even to discuss them here). Patriotism is always invoked during the most disgusting, invasive acts of government, the same acts that a real love of your country would lead you to oppose. Tolerating oppression under the guise of patriotism and national identity is not something to be celebrated.

Some individuals even invoke patriotism to excuse bad behavior, or to judge a man or woman by their indulgence in shallow symbols or effluent, empty praise of the motherland. I shouldn't have to tell you that this ain't right.

Because of the volatile nature of patriotism, I suggest that we take a break from it for some time and evaluate how much we're really doing for people, and how much we're able to look past labels like country and nation and see people. Lose the blinders labels create and really help your country by staying true to principles of freedom and basic human respect. Invoke any good and just principles that serve as the foundations of your country, but never use patriotism as an excuse to support something that will limit your freedoms or destroy your country's goodness (or its moral authority, "soul", etc.).

Americans love those that "died for their country" because they upheld the Bill of Rights and principles of freedom, saving millions of people from death at the hands of those with ignoble motives. Anybody who would twist their deaths into shallow sacrifices for some tract of geography is either opportunistic or evil.


  1. Great thoughts and much needed discussion (sadly). Reminds me of that quote... America is good because she is great... if she ceases to be good she will cease to be great- something like that. Blind patriotism is dangerous.

  2. ya, I screwed up that quote pretty good but you know what I mean.

  3. It's close enough, my friend :). To go along with your quote, it's just as true that blind hatred of America for its wrongs is misguided - by and large we've accomplished far more good than evil, and we're leading some of the self-righteous countries that criticize us in a number of measures of character, such as private charitable donations.

    The positives convince us that the country is worth preserving, and the negatives drive us to our patriotic duty to perfect it as best we can.


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