What is Patriotism? | The Nation


What is Patriotism?

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Erwin Knoll

Editor, The Progressive

This Fourth of July, as on some twenty that preceded it, I'll join with family and friends to celebrate America's revolutionary heritage. It's something we started doing when Richard Nixon and his pals were sporting American flag pins in their lapels. Damn it, we thought, it's not their flag, it's not their country, and we're not going to let them steal America from us.

So we get together on the afternoon of the Fourth--it has never rained on our parade--to do all-American things (drink beer, eat hot dogs) and to recall, without rhetorical excess, that this country has a great radical tradition. We nail facsimiles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights to a tree, and I've noticed that once in a while someone actually ambles over to read them.

It's a peculiarly ambivalent institution, this Fourth of July party of ours--part observance, part parody. A couple of years ago, when flag burning was the idiotic issue of the moment, a friend brought his own flag to burn. Some thought it was a fine way to mark the Fourth; others demurred.

That ambivalence is symbolic of my own mixed feelings about the attitude or set of attitudes we call patriotism. I can invoke the usual heroes from the left's pantheon--Tom Paine and Sojourner Truth, Gene Debs and Jeannette Rankin--and for their sake proclaim myself a patriot. Or I can summon up the monstrous crimes committed in the name of flag and country and denounce patriotism as the root of much of the world's evil.

I'm one of those unreconstructed leftists who still get a lump in the throat on those increasingly rare occasions when someone plays the "Internationale." It may turn out, in the long run, that one of the major crimes committed by the Stalinists was to give internationalism a bad name. I think it's still the way for humanity to go.

"It's a great country," my late friend and colleague Milton Mayer used to say, and then he'd add, under his breath, "They're all great countries." That, in a few words, sums up the trouble with patriotism: It's an absolute claim in world where few absolutes make any sense. And to invoke the absolute of patriotism as a rationale for killing and dying--as it is perpetually and horribly invoked--makes the least sense of all.

Still, I suppose we'll go on with our Fourth of July party. A twenty-year tradition isn't lightly discarded in this rapidly changing world, and it is a great party. They're all great parties.


Mary McGrory

Columnist, The Washington Post

My patriotism is often questioned by readers. I come down to saying that I think it is possible to love my country without loving its wars. That's pretty defensive, but if you saw my mail, you would know why. I also tell them I will match my love of country with that of any of those hearties in the Administration who are sending Americans to war without having to serve in one themselves.


Natalie Merchant

Lead singer, 10,000 Maniacs

Patriotism asks that we embrace a unified America, yet no simple vision of America can accommodate its diversity. Few of us are able to call ourselves native; most of us trace our family lineages to nations great distances from these shores. With passing generations we are "assimilated," yet our former cultures are never fully relinquished. The heritage we retain and the characteristics of the one we adopt intermingle; we are defining and becoming American.

The acceptance of a common historical view may be considered the cornerstone of nationalism, yet when I consider the most broadly accepted view of history I realize that my America is quite different. In my America Columbus was not a benevolent explorer who happened upon an earthly paradise that yielded itself bloodlessly to his will. In my America the native peoples of this continent were not hostile savages, unprovoked to violence against the benign European colonialists. In my America the tobacco exports of the newborn Virginia settlement addicted a world to a powerful drug to secure a market and survival. In my America the capture, torture and enslavement of a race is unforgivable. In my America the blood and sweat of millions created an industrial power, and fortunes for relatively few.

In my America there is a hope that democracy is not forever destined to be corrupted by wealth influencing power. In my America women will no longer need to fight to possess themselves. In my America the basic rights of all its citizens must be respected, and this respect extends beyond borders. And in my America the burden of world power will be accepted more gracefully, with the people of the United States learning to recognize their brothers and sisters worldwide.

There is one tradition in America I am proud to inherit. It is our first freedom and the truest expression of our Americanism: the ability to dissent without fear. It is our right to utter the words, "I disagree." We must feel at liberty to speak those words to our neighbors, our clergy, our educators, our news media, our lawmakers and, above all, to the one among us we elect President.


Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor at large, The Nation

Forty-seven years ago, as another war drew to a close, President Franklin Roosevelt called for an Economic Bill of Rights. It included "the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation...the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; the right to a good education." Try to imagine President Bush calling for such a bill.

Patriotism means that no citizen is denied these basic rights. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

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