Special Report

The Meaning — and Demeaning — of Patriotism

In the U.S. and elsewhere -- at least outside the Muslim world -- patriotic attachments are under siege.

By 12.28.05

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In the aftermath of 9/11 patriotic sentiment was in the air. On a visit to the destruction at the World Trade Center site, some people asked if I would hold hands and sing "God Bless America." Tears rolled down my cheeks involuntarily; at that moment, I thought I knew what patriotism is.

But to some degree 9/11 has faded from our collective memory and while patriotic sentiment is occasionally evident, it has lost its immediacy. Moreover, while I once believed I was touched by the fervor of patriotism, I am now in search of its roots and meaning.

Samuel Johnson noted that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," a quote that has filled Congressional chambers for a century or more. Alas, patriotism can be used as a cover for amoral deeds and as the justification for tyranny. Curiously the word patriotism evokes negative and positive responses.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to his friend William Stevens Smith wrote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Alexander Pope wrote, "A patriot is a fool in ev'ry age." While William Tyler Page in The American Creed noted the United States... "is established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect it flag and to defend it against all enemies."

From the Treaty of Westphalia, arguably the provenance of nationalism, to the present, a consensus on the meaning of patriotism has not emerged. The American Heritage Dictionary and Webster's note simply that patriotism is "love of and devotion to one's country." And patriotic is a "feeling, expressing or inspired by love for one's country."

Pegged into the historical antecedents of patriotism are words such as love, honor, loyalty, pride, devotion and sacrifice. These words clearly suggest an emotional attachment. But patriotism is also associated with reason.

In the former case, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, customs, traditions and a reverence for the past are emphasized; in the latter, or reasoned position, patriotism is a state of mind in which "citizens... grapple with the various aspects of America which are not so rose colored," what might be described as the oppositional side of patriotism.

This dichotomous model is found in most of the literature on the subject. Theodore Adorno, for example, distinguishes between "genuine" and "pseudo" patriot with "genuine" having a critical understanding of the nation's beliefs and "pseudo" responding with unquestioned and reflexive fealty. Others argue that there are conservative and liberal patriots. Liberal patriots believe that they must work for political change consistent with their interpretation of the national creed and conservatives maintain an uncritical allegiance to the nation and what the Founding Fathers intended.

The nation of "my country, right or wrong" intersects with nationalism or national identity since the enduring characteristics of national identity are the core values upon which the nation was founded and the attachment one feels for those values and institutions that emanated from them. Samuel Huntington in Who Are We? cites egalitarianism, moral traditionalism, limited government, and individualism as core principles on which the national identity rests. Obviously a patriot might use these principles as the basis for his sentiment, but patriotism is usually reserved for a specific devotion to country while national identity is a more general definition of who we are. Clearly they bleed into one another, especially when attempting to define terms.

Ernest Renan, the distinguished scholar of national identity, contends persuasively that in order to become a nation, people must indeed collectively argue to "remember" a number of things, but also to "forget" a number of things. In his sense, the fibers that weave a nation together depend on a pride in past achievements, what might be called the positive side of patriotism.

Renan relies on European examples in his analysis. However, the American case departs from its European counterparts in both national identity and patriotism. Unlike the European examples, American patriotism has a lot to do with creedal devotion, to the political ideas that inspired the founders and found expression in living documents that shaped the destiny of the nation. European nationalism and patriotism tend to be based on blood and soil, e.g. the Italian struggle for unification. The American example is predicated on faith in human possibility and a belief in a better future; by contrast, the European examples tend to be based on the glories of the past and tradition seared into human experience.

WHILE GENERALIZATIONS ABOUT PATRIOTISM abound, including those to which I may be culpable, there are several dimensions that should be noted in a formal sense. If one were to extrapolate from Christopher Parker's interesting paper, "Shades of Patriotism: Group Identity, National Identity and Democracy" given at the 2003 meeting of the American Political Science Association, there are four forms of patriotism. First, there is creedal patriotism based on a belief in the doctrines that serve as a foundation for the nation. Second, there is institutional patriotism that refers to the federal system, limited government, the Congress and the law making apparatus. Third, there is reasoned patriotism (already mentioned) which refers to an analysis of achievements and flaws with the ultimate realization that positive accomplishments outdistance imperfections. Fourth, there is emotional patriotism predicated on instinct and affection rather than cost benefit calculations. What should be appreciated is that these seemingly discrete categories often overlap. Even reasoned argument and emotional attachment may coexist depending on circumstances. Immediately after 9/11 these competing belief systems often merged into a strongly held case for attachment to the American nation.

Another mitigating factor in any generalization about patriotism is that for some, group identity may inform political attitudes. If, for example, race and gender are part of the calculus, patriotism may be a function of group progress as opposed to national achievements. In other words, African Americans, to cite one case, may believe generally in the precepts of the nation, but sometimes regard the institution of slavery as a blemish on national character that affects their level of patriotism.

Clearly perception is critical in this analysis. The patriot who fought for the Confederacy was considered a traitor when the South lost the Civil War. Clearly patriotism is associated with victory. It is also the case that belief in the nation itself is critical in the patriotic calculus. It was the notion of America that once lived in the mind of immigrants and transformed them into loyal Americans even before they landed on our shores. This was a brand image that had an ideological component and historical echoes. As John O'Sullivan notes in "The Real British Disease" (New Criterion, September 2005), the British benefited from the same condition till about 1970. Britishness served as an iconic appeal to all groups who came to serve the Crown whether Indian, Jamaican, Moslem or Christian. Needless to say, as O'Sullivan notes, a relatively recent loss of British confidence, indeed even what Britishness is, has resulted in pockets of immigrants without any attachment or allegiance to the country in which they reside. In fact, a present emphasis on multiculturalism predominates in civic Britain destroying a shared sense of national belonging.

CONDITIONS HAVE NOT EVOLVED as dramatically in the United States, but it is also true that the U.S. is not immune from the problem of sub-group cultural isolation and challenges to patriotic fervor. Since the 1970s the dominant voice within the American Academy has worked to generate cynicism about the nature of democratic republics.

According to Keith Windschuttle in his remarkable essay "National Identity and the Corruption of History," the most dramatic manifestation of this matter occurred in 1992, the quincentenary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. In one book after another, he notes, the European discovery was denounced as a calamity that befell native Americans and, perhaps the entire globe. In American Holocaust: Columbus and The Conquest of the New World, David Stannard accused Columbus of starting a process of unprecedented human destruction. Stannard wrote: "The road to Auschwitz led straight through the heart of the Americas." In The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and Columbian Legacy, Kirkpatrick Sale argues that Columbus found a land where man lived in harmony with nature and transformed it into one where he rapaciously exploited nature and exported this form of environmental abuse around the globe. This has left us, Sale notes, "at risk of imperilment -- worse, the likely destruction -- of the earth."

So influential is this critique that when I asked a group of my daughter's friends, who attended private schools in New York, what they could tell me about Columbus, they responded in unison that "he exported smallpox to the New World." So much for the man who brought culture, learning, science and technology to primitive civilization.

A second manifestation of the same sentiment emerged in the national history standards for American students written in 1992. George Washington made only a fleeting appearance. The founding of the National Organization for Women was considered a noteworthy event, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress was not. What was significant for the committee that wrote these standards were the claims of oppression against women, minorities and ethnic groups rather than the achievements of the Founding Fathers. In a book written by the principals, History on Trial, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn contend that they are intent on "a history education that is fit for a democratic society." What they mean by this is a history of discrimination, exploitation and hostility against American's sub-groups instead of a history of great men and their accomplishments.

The problem with this approach is that is an effort to falsify the past. Ending slavery or emancipating women, for instance, were morally justified and fulfilled through a reliance on the Enlightenment and Christian principles of human equality. These developments were not brought about by slaves or women, but by white Protestant men. In attempting to write history from a multicultural perspective distortions abound. The War of Independence, to cite another example, was fought and won by Protestant males, despite a feverish effort to include minorities in the struggle by historical revisionists. In fact, African Americans and Indians, to the extent they expressed an opinion on the war, almost uniformly supported the British side. Facts, however, are inconvenient when they aren't consonant with an ideological agenda adopted by historians of a revisionist bent.

NONETHELESS, THESE REVISIONISTS HAVE gained ground on every front and in the process have undermined the emotional side of patriotism and, alas, even the reasoned arguments for patriotism. Courses in American history and Western Civilization are increasingly bound to ideological interpretation. Even those who decry these courses are forced to be cautious for fear that extolling the values of the American nation and the civilization that gave birth to it might be seen as blind flag waving undeserving of scholarly consideration.

Another of the downsides of this historical revision is that group histories proliferate. In the United States at the moment African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, among others have called for histories of their own which often rely on the concept of grievance. In many of these ethnocentric programs the history of the nation is ignored. In one textbook on African-American history, Crispus Attucks, a mulatto inadvertently killed at the Boston Massacre, receives more space than Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison combined.

The spread of this "historical grievance" position is not confined to the United States and Europe. Israel is also in the throes of historical revisionism. The Jews who fled Europe seeking a refuge from the Holocaust have been recast as colonialists by scholars eager to reformulate the past on scant evidence, but with broad ideological considerations. The Six Day War has been put in the cauldron of revisionist theory and has been remodeled as a war of imperialism rather than a defensive war for survival. In each claim, there is a consequent incremental decline in the spirit that sustains patriotism. Why should anyone care about a nation of colonizers and imperialists, words that have been transmogrified into crimes?

Patriotism is refurbished by belief. In the end, even reasoned patriots who carefully weigh errors, mistakes, tragedy and achievement, must find something positive on which to hang their patriotic sentiment. The erosion of belief which afflicts the U.S. to some degree, Europe to a great degree and Israel as well, stands in stark contrast to Muslims who have a devotion to their faith and a geopolitical belief in its ultimate dominance. Perhaps this comparative examination -- more than any other condition -- explains why patriotism may turn out to be the overarching issue of this era.

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About the Author

Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.