The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism

Richard Sahn

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.

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You know Uncle Sam isn’t real, right?

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.

Real patriotism

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.

The Blinding Power of Nationalism

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W.J. Astore

One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions.  Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality.  They associated criticism with lack of patriotism.  Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.

Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better.  The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation.  Nationalism, in a word.

George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…

Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism.  The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”  The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”  Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”

Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix.  To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…

The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.

Contrast the nationalist to the patriot.  A patriot thrives on thought.  She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion.  True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder.  As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state.  Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell.  “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one.  Let’s not go down it.

(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)