"My country right or wrong?"
-Midnight Oil My Country
I don’t know how to respond to these drooling thugs, db.This is a comment from the blog Sadly, No! The context is irrelevant, the commenter could be any of a host of people. The content is what is at stake, because he brings up several points here that rarely are answered and shouldn't need to be. The concept of patriotism has been so maligned and mocked that today it has turned from a basic virtue into a basic vice: love of one's people, country, area, or even neighborhood is suspect.
Patriotism. Psshhh. What is it? Is it believing America can do no wrong? Is it looking away when crimes are committed, when everything we stood against in Nuremburg becomes the stated policy of the leadership? Should we prosecute someone who burns a flag, or a war profiteer?
Patriotism is difficult to define or understand for several reasons. The primary one is that it is such a subjective concept, it is how an individual loves or views their community or area. This can mean blind obedience, it can mean casual affection, it can mean a wide variety of attitudes. This ambiguity is reflected in the writings of various people about the subject. Diverse viewpoints produce diverse opinions and thoughts on the subject. Further, patriotism while typically referring to an attitude about one's nation, is not limited to that. It can be about one's home town, or state, or county, or denomination of a church.
At its most basic meaning, patriotism is an affection, loyalty, and respect for a group or area that one identifies with. Patriotism is what makes the football fan paint their face with team colors and the American hang out a flag. Patriotism prompts someone to defend their home state when it is maligned, or to wear a shirt that declares they love New York. The degree and zeal to which they hold to their object of affection varies, and this is where trouble and benefit can both arise.
“Love ceases to be a demon only when it ceases to be a god”
-Denis de Rougemont
As I noted above, patriotism tends to be viewed with suspicion or at least condescension by many today. This attitude, while often overstated, stems from valid concern. Patriotism can go bad, and when it does, it becomes a great evil. It was excessive patriotism in an artificial racial construct that led to many of the evils of Nazi Germany. The belief in the Aryan superman more evolved than other humans is what prompted the attempted extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, and others that were viewed as damaging to human development. It is patriotism that can lead to wars, that can lead to racial hatreds, that can become a riot at a soccer (football) game.
The reason this happens is that instead of viewing one's object of affection with objective and understanding eyes - seeing the good and the bad, one can turn it into a god to be worshipped, an idol to bow to and burn sacrifices at. The nation or sports team or celebrity or ethnic background becomes an object of worship and all others are thereby diminished proportionally. It is one thing to love one's country and admire others, it is another to worship one's country with religious zeal and despise all others.
Such a person will not tolerate any statement of wrong about their nation, will not question any action it takes, and will always obey and support anything that nation does. This point of view forms its morality and understanding of justice based upon what the nation engages in rather than applying an objective standard to the nation's actions. Such a person will ignore the evils of a nation's past and see only the good in its present.
Blind allegiance to and worship of nation can and almost certainly will lead to evil, a danger nearly everyone is well aware of by this point in Western culture. This is taught regularly in popular media, schools, and politics, it is the dogma of our age that is often unquestioned. Mere statements of patriotism set off warning signals and dismay to the point where we have US citizen and CBS Nightly News anchor Katie Couric saying this a the National Press Club just a few days ago:
“The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying ‘we’ when referring to the United States and, even the ‘shock and awe’ of the initial stages, it was just too jubilant and just a little uncomfortable.Why? Because identifying at all with one's country brings up the specter of statism and bigotry to some. That's how far as a people we've gotten. Yet there is another distortion that can result from your view of patriotism: that insufficient love and respect can be bad as well. My mom likes to point out that people never can seem to find a comfortable medium, we always swing from one extreme to another like a pendulum, shocked and dismayed at how far we've swung and hurtling too far the other direction.
"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself."SMASH THE STATE
-Marcus Tullius Cicero
From the excesses of patriotism and state worship that turn the nation into a god - thus resulting in it becoming a demon - we've swung to the opposite extreme where we view our nation as a demon. This point of view tends to see only the bad in a nation and the good in others. In a confused attempt to avoid the excesses of worshiping state, we instead despise it, and consider every other nation - even ones that do and stand for things we would otherwise oppose - at least her equal. In the place of the objective standard of ethics and justice applied to the country, the subjective standard of "my nation must not be the greatest at anything" is applied evenly.
Such a viewpoint has dangers as much as extreme patriotism does. The first of which is that it most often is taken not out of a reasoned response to extremism or a deep personal concern over the dangers of taking patriotism too far, but a general tendency toward cynicism and bitterness born long before experience would generate it naturally. The attitude is that it is more enlightened, more wise and worldly, cosmopolitan to hold this viewpoint - only simple small town buffoons would hang a flag outside their door. This faux sophistication is clung to by many, particularly college age kids, because it gives a semblance of wisdom and understanding.
Yet, when one holds their country in contempt and dismissal, they tend to be ready to believe the worst and reject the best. In all events and histories, there is good and bad, and the distortions of accepting only one or the other are equally damaging to the truth and one's understanding of the world. World War 2 resulted in massive economic disruption, death, and horror while the world tried to stop the evils of fascism. There was bad along with the good of this effort - and one should know both, to be ready for another effort of this kind.
Thinking there was only unrelenting good and success in our WW2 efforts leads people to believe that unless every military effort fits this mythical pattern, it is a disaster, a failure, and at best misguided, if not wicked. Thinking that only evil results from war, seeing only the misery, death, disruption, and failures results in the idea that every war is wrong, every military effort a mistake, and every use of force is tyrannical and evil.
To refuse to see the good in one's country can lead one to support its disruption if not overthrow out of a sense of sophistication. Look at the black block anarchy riots that accompany most A.N.S.W.E.R.-staged protests. These are young people who believe that their nation is so wrong it should be torn down and replaced with ... well each has their own idea, but they almost inevitably end up being more socialist. Filled with images of Indian genocide and American slavery, and worse, they understand their country only in terms of failure, misery, evil, and destruction.
Because of this viewpoint of the country, because of a righteous dread of patriotism or even seeming to be patriotic, it is too easy to try to look at things "objectively" where to do so is to do the opposite. For example, when you look at a conflict between good and evil, to try to treat the evil as neutral is to at least in small part support it. There was a news report out of Afghanistan a few weeks ago on a US attack that killed a bunch of Taliban. The US military reported the event, and the news source treated the information with skepticism:
There were no independent accounts of how many people were killed or what happened. The Taliban were not immediately available for comment.Note the presumption here: the Taliban is at least as trustworthy as the US forces. By treating them as neutral, they're elevating the status and worth of the Taliban. Sure, they are brutal oppressive, murderous, and civilization-destroying extremists of a radical religion, but you can't treat the US as if it's trustworthy. Thus, the Taliban gets lifted up to be a valid source of information and the effort to treat all sides neutrally treats one side better than it is.
This is like hearing a report of a slave ship dumping slaves over the side to prevent capture, and not trusting the British Navy's report, hoping to get "independent confirmation" from the slave ship captain. Because we wouldn't want to take sides. So you end up supporting the enemy of what you claim to stand for, in the name of not being a patriot.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
Patriotism can t'ake another odd turn, however. Even someone with valid and real love for their country can find themselves in a troubled position. This is part of where the anti-American sentiment comes from in many parts of the world: a love of one's own country and ways of life. If you have a happy existence in Lyons or Kyoto or where have you with your own culture, then some guy puts up a McDonald's restaurant and all the kids are wearing American clothes, that's an affront to your love of your land and culture. It grates against your patriotism.
If your nation was once preeminent and now is just another country that has to watch America be richer and more powerful, that grates against your patriotism. If you want to do something but cannot because you haven't the strength - so America does it - that grates against your patriotism. It's a fact that at least some of the opposition to America comes not so much from anything innate in America as jealousy or protectiveness of one's way of life. Given that much of what American exports is shoddy and cheesy, I find it hard to disagree with that second objection: McDonald's and American Pie movies just aren't a benefit to anyone's culture.
"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism"TWO KINDS
-Things Thomas Jefferson never said, volume 1
There are two kinds of patriotism or love of country dominant in America today. They seem to divide evenly along partisan lines, and the result is that both claim to be patriotic in their own way, and attack the other's patriotism.
The first is the old fashioned kind of patriotism: this is my nation and I live here, I love where I live, and I honor the great things my country has done. I hang a flag out front not only for special events, but because I'm proud to be an American. This patriotism loves the nation that exists, and both hopes and works for better.
Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism -- a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.The second is the kind of patriotism that owes allegiance not to the nation but to a set of ideals that they admire. This patriotism loves not the nation as it is, but the nation as it would be if they could make it so. This is the kind of patriotism that delights in one's dream of how things could be and loves that rather than the actual way things are.
In a sense, this kind of patriotism echoes that sentiments of the founding fathers, who spoke enduringly of liberty and virtue, of the dreams of a nation who brought justice to all and a place where men could be free to live without tyrants and oppression. Their allegiance was to no sovereign (save God, most pointed out), and not to America, but to the ideals of liberty. The thing is, much of these statements and things that were written were so before the independence of America. Their loyalty had to be for a nation that did not yet exist... because it literally did not yet exist. Even after the war of Independence was over, the nation is not truly formed for decades and loyalties and admiration takes time and history to establish.
Indeed, the colonial soldiers and the rebels against the English crown called themselves patriots (and most said they loved the king and England, but were fighting for liberty, not against England). The problem with the first kind of patriotism is that it can too easily blind one to the faults of or lend one to the support of their nation when they ought to be more critical.
The problem with the second kind is that it is not patriotism for one's actual country at all, and the allegiance to ideals can lead one to see faults and threats to these ideals where none exist.
Both extremes ought to be avoided, and certainly there's room for someone to hold both positions - to both love their land and what it stands for, to work for a better country and to love the good in the country they now live in.
Ultimately all our affections should be first on truth, justice, liberty, virtue, and goodness. From that we can apply this love to what is around us and understand the world we see through that lens. It is not wrong to love one's people or neighborhood, or country, or planet, should we ever come to that. It's wrong to turn any of those into one's highest love, to elevate them to the status of an idol.
Christians, for instance, are urged to submit to lawful authorities, pay taxes, and heed their governors, while recognizing that they are not truly citizens of this world, but of the next. All people should take this position: your ultimate loyalty should be to right and wrong, to justice and truth, but that does not negate a lower loyalty and love for where you live and what you do. In Germany during WW2 or in the Confederate South, or in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom it was right to defend and be loyal to your nation. What is wrong is to never see any faults or flaws in that nation, to ignore any evils it does, or to blindly support and fight for that nation.
Sometimes, being a patriot means opposing what your nation is doing but never opposing your nation entirely. I'm a patriot of the United States but I oppose the legalized abortion and other evils in our society. That's not only my right but my duty, my responsibility as Locke pointed out. Every member of a country has not only the opportunity but the duty to oppose evil and fight for good in that country, even if that means opposing one's own government.
The problems arise when one's sense of patriotism is tied too closely to the present government rather than the nation. This can lead one to despise the nation when one party is in power and love it when another is. That's simply ignorant: the nation is the nation, regardless of the government; your love should be for the people, the place, and the ideals of the nation, not who happens to be president at the time. The deeds that a government does can very well be opposed to that nation and what it stands for - it's certainly happened in the past.
The line I started this essay out with is originally taken from a rather famous quote by Captain Stephen Decatur. In its entirety it reads:
"Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!"In response to the shorter version, G.K. Chesterton famously quipped"'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" The problem is that most people don't know the full quote and miss the point. Decatur was not saying he would defend everything his country did, nor that he was worshiping his nation. He was pointing out that he was an American, and whether America did right or wrong, he still owned it as his home. He always wished America to do right, but would not cease to be a citizen because of wrong the nation did. That's the essence of patriotism, to me.