What is Patriotism?

What is Patriotism?

This forum was originally published in the July 15, 1991 issue of The Nation


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."


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.

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.

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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