What is Patriotism? | The Nation


What is Patriotism?

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Floyd Abrams

Constitutional lawyer

The left has always had a problem with patriotism. There were a few recordings: Paul Robeson's "The Lonesome Train" still resonates. There are some songs: No one has blessed America more movingly than Woody Guthrie. But as a general matter the left seems sour on America and more sour still about patriotism.

More's the pity. It's not that the right hasn't routinely substituted flag-waving for reason. Or even that a dumb, smug and myopic sort of Americanism hasn't been used to justify every national sin of which we've been capable. But none of that even begins to excuse the disdain with which the left greets even a tip of a patriotic hat. Adlai Stevenson understood that patriotism could rightly be defined as the celebration of "the right to hold ideas that are different--the freedom of man to think as he pleases." And he knew at the same time that "to strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism" was "an old and ugly subtlety."

Why, then, the resistance on the left to patriotic appeals? Why such a crabbed view of Americanism at its best? Why not celebrate Justice Brennan? Or Justices Marshall and Blackmun? Or the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights? Or a message of freedom beamed from America to the rest of the world that has often been received there but too often has been denigrated here?

What the left criticizes about America is often worth criticizing. Its unwillingness to celebrate what we offer the world at our best--and to call that patriotism--is not to its intellectual or moral credit.


Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven

Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work
Professor, Graduate Center, CUNY

We take patriotism to mean love of nation and the loyalty that follows. My country right or wrong. Even as an abstract idea, it is hard to see how thinking people justify blind loyalty. And considered historically, patriotism is plainly dangerous, helping to unleash military rampages in the name of nation and obliterating the essential democratic capacity to assess concrete and particular interests.

The ubiquitous loyalty to nation-state is puzzling. How is it that people become passionately devoted to the abstraction of the state and its symbols? Propaganda could not be the human condition, such as the attachments most feel for kin and community. And perhaps nationalistic propaganda acquires the force it does because it draws on these axiomatic attachments.

Still, there is a difference. However parochial the ties that bind people to clan or place, these ties have something to do with the concrete experience of people, so that threats to clan or place can sometimes be assessed by direct experience. Not so with flag and nation. When state leaders appeal to patriotism, they mobilize citizens by invoking foreign threats that cannot be assessed by ordinary people, except sometimes when it is too late, as in the aftermath of war. In the process, not only are people made to sacrifice lives and resources to the contests of state-makers but the emotions generated overwhelm popular capacities for a reasoned and conflictual domestic politics. Never has that been more obvious.


William Sloane Coffin

Minister, president, SANE/FREEZE advisory board

The worst patriots are those who hold certainty dearer than truth, who, in order to spare themselves the pain of thought, are willing to inflict untold sufferings on others. Adolf Eichmann comes to mind.

But if uncritical lovers of their country are the most dangerous of patriots, loveless critics are hardly the best. If you love the good you have to hate evil, else you're sentimental; but if you hate evil more than you love the good, you're a good hater.

Surely the best patriots are those who carry on not a grudge fight but a lover's quarrel with their country. And the main burden of their quarrel in today's and tomorrow's world must be to persuade their fellow citizens that the planet itself is now at risk, and in an order of magnitude never previously even imagined. Hence, everyone's security depends on everyone else's. No one is safe until all are safe.

The ancient Roman Tacitus defined patriotism as entering into praiseworthy competition with our ancestors. I think we should enter into praiseworthy competition with Washington and Jefferson. As they declared their independence from England, let us declare our interdependence with all countries. Beyond saluting the flag, let us pledge allegiance "to the earth, and to the flora, fauna and human life that it supports; one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water, liberty, justice and peace for all."

Today our most relevant American patriot might well be Thoreau, who, a hundred years ago, said, "I am a citizen of the world first, and of this country at a later and more convenient hour."


Stephen F. Cohen

Director, Russian studies, Princeton University

Patriotism is never having to say you didn't know.


Martin Duberman

Professor of history, CUNY; biographer; playwright

Who isn't a patriot? Everybody claims the designation and claims loyalty to the particular set of ideals and institutional arrangements they choose to identify as the essence of Americanism. Those of us who deplore the country's current descent into macho militarism refuse to cede patriotism to those who equate it with George Bush's policies. We hold to a set of values older than Bush and more enduring than a single (misguided) administration. We hold to an insistence that the needs of people come before the display of hardware, however technologically brilliant. We hold that all human life is valuable, and that the view that some nationalities, races, religions, sexual orientations and genders are more valuable than others disgraces the notion of democracy--just as the growing disparities in wealth and privilege in our own country discredit the notion that we are the exemplars of democracy. We hold to an insistence that the rights of conscience take precedence over the profits of business. We hold to a celebration--internationally--of human diversity, and we champion the integrity of indigenous cultures over imperialistic demands for conformity.

Obviously we're the real patriots. How come THEY can't understand that?


Richard Falk

Professor of international relations, Princeton University

Confusing patriotism with unconditional support for government policy does core damage to the meaning of citizenship, especially during time of war. In 1736 Lord Bolingbroke identified the essence of patriotic fervor as devotion to the public good, whether as official or citizen. To uphold a policy that is believed harmful to the country is then, with such an understanding, highly unpatriotic, exhibiting either weakness of spirit or fear of consequences.

Wartime accentuates the pressure to be a patriot, especially if one's country is in physical danger. At such times of national emergency, arguably, unity may be relevant to survival. U.S. wars since World War II have not been of this character. These wars have been distant encounters in the Third World, of dubious legality and morality. It is the appropriation of the symbols and language of patriotism for such wars that poses a profound challenge to our political identity.

Admitting the predicament of young people conscripted or professionally obliged to take part in an improper war in such a circumstance has nothing to do with patriotism. Indeed, a patriot may express solidarity with fellow citizens caught on the battlefield by working hard to oppose a war or bring it to a rapid end. It was a mistake often made in the Vietnam era for opponents of the war to confuse their opposition with expressions of contempt for Americans in the military, as if they were responsible for the war policies. Supporters of the war tended to make the opposite mistake, blaming the soldiers subjected to the hell of Vietnam for the loss of the war.

Straightening out this mistake might have been one of the few bright spots to emerge from the Persian Gulf war. But the Bush effort to honor and praise the troops asked to risk their lives on the authority of the elected leaders was deliberately confused with enthusiasm for the war and a celebration of the battlefield victory. That confusion repeats the Vietnam mistake in the guise of correcting it. By seeming to associate battlefield results with our attitude toward taking part is to build war fever into military victory and shame into military defeat. To mingle patriotic fervor with militarism is pernicious and dangerous for us all. As citizens in the nuclear age we must struggle harder to convince others that the true patriot is now, above all, dedicated to peace and justice, to diplomatic solutions and to a foreign policy respectful of international law and of the United Nations so long as it acts within its own constitutional mandate.

That much seems obvious. What is more difficult is to give patriotism a positive content in America at this time. Despite the outcome of the cold war, it is more evident than ever that capitalism is cruel in its human effects, especially here in the United States, and has entered a phase in which market forces are weakening welfare gains. The disquieting popularity of Desert Storm with the people confirmed an ugly streak that cannot be explained away as media manipulation. It is one more reminder that the dispossession and destruction of the Indian peoples of North America is not a matter of history, buried in the past. The massacre of the Iraqis fed the same political imagination that was threatened by the "savages" in the wilderness. Patriotic energy is required if we are overcome such a bloody legacy, compounded many times, including by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is doubtful whether, even if we could come to face our past as honestly as, say, the Germans have faced the horror of the Holocaust, there would be much occasion for reaffirming a nationalist pride as the basis of a reformed patriotism. Especially given the power and wealth of the United States, our pressing need is for nationalist humility and the forming of a more global political identity that is engaged in the great work of solidarity with peoples everywhere, first of all here at home, who are working to overcome the afflictions of humanity.

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