A friend and I were talking about patriotism a few weeks ago. He’s a very patriotic guy who admits that it is sometimes hard to separate his American patriotism from his Christian faith. It got us to wondering what patriotism actually is. We didn’t come to any conclusion, but it has kept me thinking.
Do whatever research you want. In the end the disinterested definition seems to come down to some level of devotion to one’s country evidenced by displays and rituals in word and deed that identify patriots and patriotism, with the intent that one’s show of devotion will somehow help it continue as the country to which one is willing to be devoted.
What does that mean? There are too many variables, and I think one reason is that patriotism is loaded with so much emotion that reason and rationality can be quickly left behind. For instance, most of us are proud of what America stands for, but pride in one’s country can easily become ignorant arrogance. It can claim greater goodness and more virtuous use of power than the facts warrant, but it doesn’t matter if you ignore the facts, and accuse those who dare to bring them up as unpatriotic.
Some people seem to express their patriotism as little more than an expanded version of their high school or college pep rally – “Go Team, Go.” It’s not very sophisticated, but they really feel it and believe it.
The anti pep rally is complacency, another emotional factor. One who is satisfied that one’s position in life is both good and well deserved is likely, I imagine, to equate support for the political status quo with patriotism. Those who want to rock the boat too much are likely to be labeled unpatriotic, perhaps even fifth column whatever intent on destroying the American way of doing things, which is the way that does well by me.
Various forms of racism against those whose skin is of another color, and against every wave of immigrants that has come ashore in the last two hundred years, have been energized by emotionally driven patriots claiming that persons of color and new arrivals were a threat to the America they love. In many ways they were right. Each wave has changed the face of America, and each has produced new generations of patriots with their own ideas about what it means to be patriotic.
Is there an ideal patriot? When I was a boy the ideal patriot was white, male, middle class, and said the pledge of allegiance and saluted the flag with regularity, often as a part of a church service. Moreover, he and his family were vocally anti-communist. It wasn’t a bad thing, but its boundaries were not wide, and non-conformity was highly suspect. Most of the adult males were veterans of WWII. Some were off to Korea. There wasn’t much room for dissent. What they had invested to achieve post war prosperity was a cost too high to allow it. Patriotism can sometimes demand conformity and stifle dissent in unhealthy ways. The ideal patriot of any age is not the best role model for future generations, but it undoubtedly embodies at least some wisdom worthy of passing on.
On the other hand, and amidst emotionally charged variables, there is still the sense that patriotism recognizes certain rights and duties of its citizens. They are to show allegiance to the nation, yet that circles back to the emotionally charged variables that determine how patriotism is defined by particular persons and groups. I’ve run into more than a few people who pledge their allegiance to the flag with worshipful fervor, but seem to care not at all for the fullness of what it is supposed to represent. Others express great allegiance to the Constitution, but are disinterested in it as a living document of seven articles, twenty-seven amendments, and two hundred years of Supreme Court decisions interpreting it. In our area there seems to be a strong allegiance to an imaginary nation of fifty years ago that never existed, except perhaps on television.
Am I a patriot? I think I am. But patriotism for me is not uncritical. It recognizes both our moral achievements and failures, and looks for public policies that strive toward the best of what our national mythology claims for us. I have little interest in the flag as an object of devotion, but respect it as a symbol of the best of what we can be. I have no interest in cheering America as the greatest, strongest, richest, or best of anything. For me it is more patriotic to lift up America as one nation among many working toward a harmonious world living in peace. For that reason, I agree with Eisenhower that over reliance and trust in the “military-industrial complex” is an unreliable and dangerous road to go down. I reject as unpatriotic those who are eager to assert American military might as the solution to every international problem.
So what is patriotism? The answer isn’t entirely clear, but it seems to me that it is highly emotional and undergirded by conflicting rationales that end up forming something like a patchwork quilt that works in spite of its inherent conflict.