What is Patriotism? | The Nation


What is Patriotism?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

About the Author

Also by the Author

Victor Navasky on our friend and ally Don Shaffer, Sarah Woolf on Canada’s women premieres

John Nichols on the US Postal Service, Elana Leopold on rebel teachers in Seattle, Lucy McKeon on Ramarley Graham’s legacy, and the editors on Charlottesville’s anti-drone resolution

Howard Fast

Novelist; columnist for The New York Observer

Patriotism in its most common usage is best defined as the last refuge of scoundrels, who label every infamy and abomination as patriotism. Let me list some of the things these above-mentioned scoundrels define as patriotism:

Fighting wars of aggression thousands of miles away.

Fighting wars of colonial oppression.

Poisoning the atmosphere with auto emission and pollution and acid rain.

Ruthlessly destroying the forests.

Promoting racism as a means of winning elections.

Cutting away at civil rights.

Lying about every question of the public good.

Bleeding the people dry and destroying all that America stands for with an armaments industry large beyond reason or need.

Spending our wealth on armaments while our cities crumble, our infrastructure disintegrates and our schools are left without teachers.

I could go on and on, but what the hell! What they call patriotism down there in Washington stinks to high heaven of brainlessness, racism, greed, fear and hatred of the common people. Internationalism, brotherhood, a left-liberal approach to life--all these can only enhance the well-being of any and all countries. Patriotism, however, as a word, applies to true love of one's country and a code of conduct that echoes such love.


Vivian Gornick

Author; reporter

The word "patriotism"--which I associate to blind love of country--does not echo in me. But feminism made me an American. Let me explain.

I grew up in New York, the child of working-class immigrants, devoted to a Marxist vision of international socialism. In our house the injustices of class far outweighed the virtues of the democracy. True, we were lucky to be making our struggle here, on this section of the map rather than on many others we might have found ourselves on, but America as an emotional reality did not go deep. When we marched in May Day parades and hecklers told us to go back where we came from, we replied in perfect confidence, "This is our country. We're more American than you." But we didn't really mean it. Honest dissidents speaking out of a true love of country was not what we were about.

In late adolescence I grew away from the family passion. Socialism no longer explained my life to me. I joined the culture of urban intellectual Jews. New York became my country. When I went abroad I saw that brash expectancy, directness of speech and a strong sense of social fluidity all marked me as an American, but the recognition was not centering; rather it disoriented, made me feel odd, lonely.

In the early 1970s I became converted to the feminist analysis, and slowly a surprising thing began to happen. Instead of taking my place on the feminist spectrum somewhere near the Marxists, I found my politics growing out of an America that had taken root inside me without my knowledge or consent. Looking now with opened eyes at indigenous sexism, I found myself thinking, "This is my country. I'm more American than you." And this time I meant it. It seemed to me, then, that every fifty years or so another section of the body politic rises up here to demand its share of the democracy, and in the act of demanding demonstrates both the systematic exclusion and its native sense of right. I felt myself at the end of a long line of American populists. I felt the struggles between capital and the individual as I had not since childhood--how long its history, and how alive it is in this country.

It's the live quality of the struggle that I prize. The thing that makes me feel American.


Jesse L. Jackson

President, National Rainbow Coalition

One afternoon in Greenville, South Carolina, when I was 9 years old, my father was raking leaves. The man came outside to offer us a drink of water, and when he left I asked, Why does that man speak differently from us? "He's German," said my father, and he stopped and leaned on his rake. "He's German. I fought in Europe so they could have freedom. I'm proud to be a veteran of that war." His eyes clouded over. "But now he's here, and he can vote, and I cannot. I helped free his people, now I'm raking his leaves."

It is a paradox of the human spirit that even after such brutal oppression and disregard for human rights, we are still so patriotic and love our country so much. It is our land; we cultivated it and helped to build it. But it is not our government. Indeed, fighting for a better government is the patriotic thing to do.

America at its best guarantees opportunity,, and so fighting to expand the horizons of oppressed people is an act of patriotism. Yet too often, those who dare expand our nation's democracy and make it true to our principles are victims of naked aggression, aggression led not by street fighters but by the White House, Congress and the courts. The founding writers of the Constitution envisioned a nation in which people of African descent were three-fifths human, in which their own mothers and daughters and sisters had no right to vote, in which Native Americans had no right to live. Thomas Jefferson expressed the American dilemma when he wrote:


For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just...


Through patriotism we have made America better. We have gained the right to vote. Women and African-Americans have changed the course and character of the nation. And my father's faith in his country has been sustained in the lifetime commitment of his family to make America better. Yet those who have fought for the highest and best principles of our country, the true patriots, have been vilified and crucified. The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths.

Today, politicians are proud to pronounce that we have abolished slavery. But in its time, slavery was the political center, and abolitionists were punished for their moral strength. Today, politicians hold up the gains of women. Yet in its time, denial of the vote to women was the political center; the women's suffrage movement sought the moral center, and was punished for its patriotism. Those who fight for civil rights, open housing, environmental laws, peace and international cooperation, and veterans of domestic wars--the true patriots--receive no parades.

We must never relinquish our sense of justice for a false sense of national pride. "My country right or wrong" is neither moral nor intelligent. Patriotism is support for the highest ideals of the nation, not for whoever happens to be in the White House. As citizens we must continue to fight for justice and equality so that we might make a better nation and a better world. We must give credence to our invitation: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," for the character of our nation is rooted in the affirmation of those ideals for all of our people.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size