Against Patriotism

America: At least it's got a pretty good flag...

It’s the Fourth of July, which means it’s time for barbecues, fireworks, and celebrating America. I’m definitely in favor of the first; I’m iffy at best on the second (though not necessarily as opposed as Josh). But I’m adamantly against the last one.

There have been a lot of famous, pithy criticisms of patriotism: George Bernard Shaw said, “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” Bertrand Russell said, “Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.” And, of course, Samuel Johnson most famously called patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

And yet none of that wit has changed the fact that people generally regard patriotism as a virtue. Every year—most vocally on the Fourth of July, but not just during this time of year—we hear about how important loving your country is. Pundits and politicians are constantly arguing over what constitutes “true patriotism,” and attacking each other for not being sufficiently patriotic. And if you start questioning someone’s patriotism…well, few things piss people off more.

But why is this? Why should someone love his country? I’ve never understood why patriotism is seen as an admirable quality.

Let me be clear: This is not because I don’t like America. I’m not trying to make the argument that America, either for its foreign policy or for its past mistakes, does not deserve the love and adoration that self-professed patriots heap on it. I just don’t understand what it means to “love” America. What, exactly, are these people referring to when they say “America”? The law? The land? The people? The policies? The geographical border? The citizens? All of these? Some of these?

The fact is that what “America” refers to is too big and complex to really specify anything. Every one of these answers inspires more questions. Should we love America because of the tradition of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the other Founders? Well, then, are we to ignore all of the colossal errors, of both morality and policy, that the Founders made? Are we supposed to pretend that America’s leaders were infallible saints?

Once again, I’m not saying that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the rest of the Founding Fathers were not, on the whole, admirable men; they were. But admirable political leaders are not unique to America. Respect for the Founders does not mean we should love every aspect of the country they founded. I respect Paul McCartney, but that doesn’t mean I love Wings.

What about the laws of America? Most defenders of patriotism like to point to America’s freedom as what makes it unique. This is simply false. The relative amount of day-to-day freedom in America is really no greater than it is in the rest of the Western world. Is our government less repressive than North Korea’s or Iran’s? Of course. Is it less repressive than, say, the United Kingdom’s, or France’s, or Canada’s? Maybe marginally, but not in most substantive areas. In fact, according to Reporters Without Borders, we are currently 20th in terms of freedom of the press. That’s tied with Luxembourg, and three spots behind Japan. Pretending that freedom is unique to America is simply ignorant.

What about American culture? Once again, this is a mixed bag. Am I proud to be from the same country as the guy who wrote Pet Sounds? Sure. But am I proud of Lady Gaga? Hell no. And other countries have had some good bands and good writers and good TV shows as well (though nobody can really touch American movies).

Basically, in all these categories, America, like most countries, is not some monolithic force, but a diverse and complex tapestry. America encompasses good and bad aspects of history, culture, politics, and the world population.

Of course, defenders of patriotism would (probably) not deny that America has flaws. They would insist, however, that the good outweighs the bad, and that patriotism celebrates the good in America. In this line of thinking, denigrating patriotism is akin to denying that there is anything about America that is worth celebrating.

The problem with patriotism, though, is that it propagates a line of thinking that is insufficiently nuanced. It’s not really about celebrating what is good about America; it’s about equating what is good about America with America itself. Often, this means supposing that because America is a free country, then America is the home of freedom, and that therefore it is the nation’s duty to spread the benefits of freedom. In other cases, it leads people to believe that because America has been such a prosperous and stable democracy that therefore democracy is a prerequisite to a successful and prosperous country. These lines of thinking are dangerously unoriginal, not to mention provincial.

Even the supposedly good things about patriotism are only superficially good. After September 11th, for example, many Americans found solace in the camaraderie that patriotism encouraged. This kind of comfort is certainly good, but it is inherently fleeting because it doesn’t stand up to a real rational test. Are the victims of 9/11 any more important than the victims of the Madrid bombings of 2004, or the London bombings of 2005, just because they happened to be from our country? Would a victim of 9/11 be less tragic if he happened to be a foreigner? The sympathy we have for the victims and our desire to comfort the mourning ought to come from the humanity of the victims, not their nationality.

Instead, patriotism’s role in 9/11 was deceptively nefarious. After the attacks, many citizens equated the terrorists’ stated opposition to certain American policies overseas with opposition to American values like freedom and democracy. They made this calculation because patriotism views “America” as some monolithic entity (E.g., “Love It Or Leave It,” and other variants) that is either supported or opposed. In reality, of course, a nation is far more complex than that.

Patriotism, though, is a kind of dogma, and thus doesn’t accept complexity. Like religion, it encourages devotion to a vague and ill-defined abstraction. This is why rational people like Russell, Shaw, and Johnson are so alarmed by it.

Even in its most innocuous forms, patriotism is irrational. It supposes that the virtue of something stems from its source, rather than the thing itself. Sometimes it happens to be directed at something that is generally good (like, say, political freedom). More often, though, it leads people to believe that something that is, at best, conditionally good (like, say, democracy) is actually inherently valuable. Sometimes it even lets us ignore outright crimes (like, say, torture) because of who is committing them.

So celebrate the Fourth of July, and enjoy your barbecue, but the next time someone questions your patriotism….be proud!  

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Reks on February 24, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    I agree, what else is there to say


  2. Posted by Free Thinker on February 25, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    Riveting read. Thank you.


  3. Posted by Groucho on October 20, 2012 at 2:08 AM

    I’ve often felt that I’m alone in the wilderness because of my views against patriotism; I consider it a vice rather than a virtue. In this world of chest-thumping flag-wavers chanting “USA, USA…” it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.


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