For most Americans, patriotism means love of country. But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons. First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct. Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump. And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.
“Country” as an imaginary construct
“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?
In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.
Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.
Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California. I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)
Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe. Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.
The misuse and abuse of patriotism
Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war. Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”
To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.
If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity. This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back” to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens? Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.
Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality. And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.
We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet. Our real “homeland.” Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism. It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.
False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed. Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day. A dangerous myth, indeed.
Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology. You may also wish to read his article on sports and reification.
13 thoughts on “The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism”
When I returned to the United States at the end of January 1972 after eighteen months of “advisory” duty in the now-defunct Republic of South Vietnam, I could identify, utterly, with Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, who wrote in his Devil’s Dictionary (1911):
“Patriotism. n. combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name”
… and …
“Patriot. n. the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors”
Not long ago, I had occasion to reflect again upon this jaundiced view of my country and what the motherless cretins running it would do to the poor and vulnerable of this world if given half a chance. Then this happened:
(after the style of John Donne’s “The Triple Fool”)
I was two kinds of fool:
The statesman’s dupe, the conqueror’s tool,
A bitter Ambrose Bierce.
A “patriot,” of sorts, more dumb than fierce,
Whom once a lie could pierce
Too easily – but knowledge not so much.
Yet I might fetter grief, I thought, with verse;
Vex hate with rhyme and use that as a crutch;
Tame with alliteration bad and worse;
Allay with assonance the guilt and grime
While accents, like the heart or drum, beat time.
Yet this, too, I accept:
The goad to prove oneself adept
At standing ground (one’s own)
With little wit and and sounds-of-words alone
Which used like “rock” and “stone,”
Can do a double duty, rough and smooth,
Inflicting on the powerful who lied
Rude rhetoric; them sting; their victims soothe;
Who had good luck escaped, who didn’t died.
Ex-patriot, expatriated, free;
Once fooled by “war” for wealth. No twice for me.
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2019
With all due respect, but what Mr Sahn writes here is trotskysm pure and simple. And it’s not only NOT an antidote to Trump supporters’ “God, country and guns” patriotism, but it plays right into their hands. Mr Sahn is promoting the exact type of globalism Trump’s base is warning people about, so this is just reinforcement for the other side.
To say that love of one’s country is nonsensical because a country does not exist is either daft or perverse. Or both. Countries DO exist, regardless of trotskysts’ or trumpians’ desires. The real problem is love of some people for OTHER people’s countries, or rather their greed, which makes them go “spread democracy” or try to get back their empires.
And “if you adhere to Western materialist worldview”.. What should we adhere to ? Marxism ? Does Mr Sahn think that marxism is not materialistic ? Has he ever heard of dialectical materialism, which is the basis of marxism ? Western or Eastern, but entirely materialistic, to the destruction of everything spiritual.
Love of country is what makes one fight for her when she is attacked, criticize her when she is wrong, and not betray her to any foreign interests. Trotskysm is distraction, division and destruction.
I’m not sure how Trotsky was liberated from his grave, but that’s not what this article focuses on.
Sahn cites Lennon, not Lenin. Or Trotsky. Basically, Sahn is asking us to be more critical when we think of patriotism. When we say we “love America,” what does that mean? All of America? America at what time and place? Should we “love” America when its invading other countries, for example?
He’s also showing how Trump’s “patriotism” is often a virulent form of racist nationalism. And he’s asking us to think of patriotism in tangible, human, terms.
Again, I fail to see how resuscitating Trotsky has any relevance here.
Unfortunately Trotsky never died. Borderless globalism is only mutated trotskysm. Throwing open the borders to the whole world is actually the trotskyst concept of permanent revolution disguised as humanist claptrap. Its endgame is the same: oppressed communist masses with a low standard of living on the one side and party bosses with unlimited power and wealth on the other side.
Why not help the world where it is ? This does not mean sending armies and exploiting corporations, but help. Help them build their own countries. Help them raise their standard of living. It definitely makes more sense than anything else. The planet Earth is a fragile ecosystem, and moving huge masses of people across the globe would disturb this ecosystem by crowding some areas to the point of making them unlivable and emptying others to become deserts. The result is destruction.
Mr Sahn doesn’t seem to want us to be more critical, just to accept his globalist viewpoint instead of Trump’s. He gets into semantics rather perversely when he changes the meaning of the words he intends to run down: like patriotism, or love of one’s country, or even country itself. Not embracing Trump’s bigoted version of these concepts does not mean that we must dismiss the concepts altogether because that would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
American society is extremely polarized, which can only benefit her enemies – and that goes for any country in fact. Any house divided against itself will not stand, as a wise man once said. Going towards the centre and finding common ground would be more helpful. Without becoming globalist, and without invading other countries – but this is too much of a challenge for the human race so I’m not holding my breath that it will ever happen.
But where’s the center? With both major political parties in America compromised by moneyed interests, that “center” is problematic at best.
Also, Sahn says nothing about globalism or being a globalist or shifting populations and so forth. You are reading that into his article.
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Hmm, I thought Trotsky was Bar-B-Q’d in Mexico City in 1940, but nobody asked for extra sauce. Ah! Those gringos! BarBQ never sits well with Tequila.
But I’ve got (HONEST!) a new piece of Fake News/History that came out last week- in MSM!
A “Historian” claims Hitler didn’t actually start WW2 – it was Stalin! Ya’ see he signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in Aug 23, 1939 & Hitler invaded Sept 1. Forgetting years of scholars pouring over Stalin’s memoirs, he did it because he never trusted Hitler – giving him more time to prepare for his attack. He was right: After this EUROPEAN destroyed Europe, he too was attacked, in 1941, but better prepared. Today, blame the Russians!
There’s no need for Sahn to say those words exactly but he is mentioning the concepts that are most dear to proponents of globalism: unchecked immigration and borderless countries. He is shrewdly changing the meaning of the words which define the concepts he is attacking. When he says ” I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings”, there are several things which are wrong here.
First : patriotism comes from the Latin word patria.
patria (genitive patriae); (fem.)
1.country; fatherland (literally)
23 BCE, Horace, Odes, 3.2.13
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s fatherland.
Origin & history
From patrius (“of or pertaining to a father”), from pater (“father”), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ph₂tḗr. Cognate with Ancient Greek πατριά (patria, “generation, ancestry, descent, tribe, family”) and πατρίς (patris, “place of one’s ancestors”).
Much as Mr Sahn would like to be a pioneer in globalist semantics, patriotism means love of one’s own country, NOT of the whole planet. Love of “our fellow human beings” is something entirely different from patriotism. It may be Christian feeling/teaching, or humanism, or whatever, but it’s not patriotism. It’s always good not to blur the lines and be clear about what we criticize.
Also he implies that only “our fellow human beings” are tangible, and goes on to spin entire paragraphs about countries supposedly being “imaginary products”, which is in fact just his imagination. Countries are real and tangible. Their borders are often a problem because of other people’s greed, but becoming borderless it’s not going to solve this problem. Only real patriotism might help, which means people defending their own country and not invading others.
I agree with you about America’s parties being too compromised and corrupt. They will never find the center. I also like Tulsi Gabbard and I think it’s a pity that she is not properly supported by those who should support her (not Russia).
Immigrant and Union General Carl Schurz had this to say, ” “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right”.
As a Boomer and a Vietnam War Combat Infantry Vet (Draftee Type), I remember all to well the Silent Majority and Neo-Cons of that era trying to silence us with Love it or Leave It. The idea being that once the ship of state set course, you had no right to question it, or alter it.
Country Joe and Fish captured this blind allegiance rather well:
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
Sadly, for those of us who came home from Vietnam with the idea of, Never Again, was a mirage.
The Vietnam War became like the Confederate Lost Cause and/or the German Stab in the Back after WW 1. Hollywood played it’s part – What roughly 2.59 million “in country”, American soldiers, sailors and airmen could not accomplish Rambo types could.
We then had the Ramboization of our military, dog faces, gyrenes, fly boys, and swabbies, became the modern day Warriors, like the Spartans – Blind obedient Nationalism.
Both political parties are terrified to admit, we have lost the Wars in the Middle East. Victory was our goal, what ever that meant at the time, FUBAR or SNAFU better describes it. The strutting peacocks of the Pentagon inflate their be-medaled chests and torture the English Language with their rationalizations.
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Well put, ML. Thank you.
Beautiful essay ML, as are the 3 below. But I’ll tell you something about US corruption that goes back to Vietnam. Minding my own business in advertising – I was drafted! Bosses very worried, switched me to JP Stevens, MIC supplier for tents & uniform material. Doing a good job on other accounts, that was maybe 2hours a month. Free! A friend worked for Boeing. Same story!
I was SO happy, but even at that young age, NEVER MARCHED in anti-war Vietnam rallies to
give to Vietnam, until it was over. NEVER signed an anti-war document that included American Vietnam draftees. I was a LUCKY MAN! I give to Vietnam Veterans causes.
Where I get cynical, and try to be funny, is Ukraine. Like you say, Vietnam taught them nothing. And yes, you’re right US lost all the the Wars in ME .
One should always be careful when quoting the ancients, especially when it comes to philosophy and what Fred Mertz would call, “smart quips.”
Horace, as part of the forces opposing the future emperor Augustus, unceremoniously fled the field of battle at Philipi – sans shield – but later graciously accepted a pardon for his actions, such as they were. Upon his death – in his own bed – he bequeathed his worldly possessions to, yes, Augustus. So much for the power of one’s convictions.
Knowing which side of his bread was buttered, Horace wrote for the patrician class, much as Livy did.
Country Joe McDonald, among others, wrote for those who were being shipped off to fight and die as the price of the “patriotism” of others.
I doubt if the last thought of any of the 58,320 servicemen and women listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall (to pick just one war) was that their death was “sweet and fitting.” For that matter, apart from a Hollywood set – or a novel like “A Tale of Two Cities” – I doubt if anyone has ever felt their death was “sweet and fitting,” regardless of the circumstances, in war or peace.
Such sentiments need to be left to the dust of history, along with such nonsense as “Manifest Destiny” and “The War to End All Wars.”
Well put. I’d be very worried for anyone who wants to die for “the Fatherland.”
Equally worrisome: I have a nephew who enlisted because (quoting his mother), “He just wants to kill people who hate America.”
The possibility of his dying for his country has, as far as I know, never been considered.
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