What is Patriotism?
This forum was originally published in the July 15, 1991 issue of The Nation
The first sentence of The Nation's prospectus, dated July 6, 1865, promised "the maintenance and diffusion of true democratic principles in society and government," surely a patriotic sentiment, as was the magazine's name. The second choice--"The Union"--was thought by the founders to be too neutral. Hence, the preferred title, referring to the nation, the one that is indivisible with liberty and justice for all... In the aftermath of a war whose opponents were often regarded as in some sense disloyal, we invited friends and colleagues to address the question of just what patriotism is and ought be: Is there a patriotism that is not nationalistic? How does the historic internationalism of the liberal left relate to the concept of patriotism? What do you value in the traditions of your country?
John Schaar, whose eloquent meditation on patriotism ten years ago in "The Case for Patriotism" helped inform the questions underlying this chautauqua, leads off:
Nietzsche wrote that words with a history cannot be defined. Their meanings are in their stories, their biographies. That is surely the case with "patriotism." Patriotism is as patriots have done. And in relatively recent times--say, since the American and French revolutions--those who have called themselves patriots or who have called others to the banner of patriotism have largely fallen into two camps.
The first company, whose signature is on so many of the bloodiest pages of the modern age, has its spiritual roots in the radical ideologies of the French Revolution. They announced the advent of a new god on earth and a new prophet/commander whose voice was the voice of that god. The new god, of course, was la patrie, the nation, and the new commander was the state.
Abbé Sieyès named the new god: "The nation exists before all. It is the origin of everything. It is the law itself." By 1792, in a petition addressed to the National Assembly, the ferociously jealous claims of the of the new god were made chillingly clear: "The image of the patrie is the sole divinity which it is permitted to worship."
Those claims have echoed in a thousand variations from that day to this. It is the worship of national power, of national greatness, nearly always expressed as power over other peoples and qualities, and as power that acknowledges no limits on its own assertion. This voice has been as clamorous and continuous in our own country as in many others. The line from Col. Alexander Hamilton to Lieut. Col. Oliver North is strong and pure.
The other company of patriots does not march to military time. It prefers the gentle strains of "America the Beautiful" to the strident cadences of "Hail to the Chief" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever." This patriotism is rooted in the love of one's own land and people, love too of the best ideals of one's own culture and tradition. This company of patriots finds no glory in puffing their country up by pulling others' down. This patriotism is profoundly municipal, even domestic. Its pleasures are quiet, its services steady and unpretentious.
This patriotism too has deep roots and long continuity in our history. Its voice is often temporarily shouted down by the battle cries of the first company, but it has never been stilled. Jefferson spoke for it, as did Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
We should not be surprised if this voice is often heard lamenting or rebuking the country's failures to live up to its own best ideals, which have always been the ideals of the fullest possible freedom and the most nearly equal justice for all. Its specifically political ideal found its finest expression in Lincoln's "government of, by and for the people," and the American domestic patriot is often heard calling fellow citizens and their officials to this standard. That call is distinctly a citizenly call, and never more so than when, as Father Mapple's wonderful sermon in Moby-Dick has it, the citizen stands firm "against the proud gods and commodores of this earth" and calls every violation of the covenant to account "though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges."