Questions About Patriotism

by Phil Anderson

“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”  
George Bernard Shaw

“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.” 

Bertrand Russell

Do you ever wonder why Americans are so enamored with patriotism? We extol patriotism as the highest civic virtue. Our patriotic holidays, like the 4th of July, get me thinking about the impact of this common sentiment on our society. What is the purpose of the ubiquitous flag waving and platitudes that pass for pride in our country?

Why is patriotism considered the highest of virtues? What is so important about love of country? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about people? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about humankind, or the planet as a whole, rather than a single country? Shouldn’t fairness, equal opportunity, justice, morality, or tolerance be emphasized more? Christ said we should to love our neighbor not our country. 

People in every country are patriotic. As George Bernard Shaw said, it is more about where you were born than anything else. It is part of mankind’s tribal nature to consider your group the “People” and other groups as lesser beings. Too often patriotism is defined as love of the nation and loyalty to the government. My country right or wrong. This kind of blind loyalty is hard to justify and frankly dangerous. This kind of patriotism worships national power, national “greatness,” and promotes distrust of other people. As Guy de Maupassant, a 19th century writer put it, “Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.” 

Why is patriotism always expressed in military terms? On patriotic holidays we promote this militarism with speeches honoring the “sacrifice” of our troops. They died to “defend freedom” and protect our way of life. Implied in these stories is that our many wars were necessary and justified. In our zeal to honor military service we glorify war and give legitimacy to violence and militarism. 

War is considered the ultimate sacrifice for country. But our “freedom” has actually been achieved by social and political activists, not the military. The struggles for justice and equality were fought by abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights workers, voting rights activists, labor union organizers, whistle blowers, and peace marchers. These struggles were fought in the legislatures, courts, workplaces, and the streets. 

Traveling around the country you see many memorials to veterans and war. You rarely see memorials to people who have served their country in peaceful ways. We have a too narrow view of national service. We have a limited range of heroes and role models.  A broader, more accurate, and more beneficial view of patriotic service would include all the people who work every day serving their communities.  

Why are other occupations who sacrifice for others not honored as patriots? It is ironic that we make cult heroes out of military service members but denigrate other public servants. Our daily lives would be much harder without the work of many public servants. Without the garbage collectors or snow plow operators our economy would come to a halt. The police, nurses, road maintenance workers, public health inspectors, fire fighters, game wardens, prison guards, and teachers have hard jobs. If you think they do not sacrifice for others, try plowing your own road at three in the morning in a blinding snow storm. Try controlling 40 kids on a classroom while trying to motivate them to learn. And yes, some of them are killed every year in the line of duty.   

  
Why is patriotic criticism of country so widely reviled? Why do we denigrate the dissidents who loved America enough to criticize it and work to make it better? Questioning our government is essential to democracy. As the historian Howard Zinn said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Too often these patriots have been blacklisted, beaten, killed, or jailed. Many people worked to establish, expand, and protect the democratic ideals established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But they don’t get the credit due their sacrifices. 

I suspect we know the answer to these questions. In America patriotism is just another propaganda tactic to protect the ruling elites. Our shallow patriotic rituals are one way to keep us from thinking about the real issues. It is another “wedge” issue to divide the 99% of us and keep us politically docile, disorganized, and under control. The ruling elites, whether capitalists, communists, dictators, or monarchs must control their people. They must keep them working hard to support the ruling elite and patriotism is great propaganda and a good diversion tactic. Like football and dancing with the stars it keep the minds of the masses off their real problems.  

Why don’t our leaders whip up patriotic fervor to make the country better? 
Patriotism should foster a sense of community and bring out the the best in a society. The belief that we are all in this together, united for the common good, is the essence of real patriotism. Patriotism doesn’t have to be militaristic. Nor is it necessary to diminish other societies in order to be proud of your own. So why doesn’t patriotism motivate people to work for better schools, national heath care, ending poverty, or expanding individual rights and democracy? 

Robert Reich and MoveOn.org have a very short, but excellent, video that talks about these issues (Google “Robert Reich 4th of July message”). He emphasizes that real patriots bring people together for the common good. They are willing to pay taxes to support the necessary functions of government. They work to strengthen, not restrict, pubic participation in our democracy. Real patriots don’t hate government. They understand that government is the tool we use to solve problems. Real patriots don’t divide and conquer with racism, sexism, religion, or other wedge issues. Real patriots are active citizens that get involved to make the country better. 

Do we love our country enough to actually participate in the political process? Do we believe in democracy enough to join a group, advocate for an issue, or work for a candidate? Or is politics something you don’t discuss in polite company? Do something really patriotic and become an active citizen.