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.

us
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.