Is patriotism a positive political force? In much of the world, the answer is no or a highly qualified maybe. In Britain, English patriotism verges on the comical (see the collected works of Rowan Atkinson for more details), while the United Kingdom, an array of feudal fiefdoms stretching from the Channel to the North Sea, is far too antiquated a structure to stir up much patriotic passion in anyone other than a far-rightist. Does the average cockney’s heart beat faster when contemplating the offshore bankers of Jersey or the noble fishermen of Shetland pressuring Brussels for more favorable cod quotas? Don’t make us larf!
In France, la patrie is a political concept, meaning that one’s view of it is a direct function of one’s place on the left-right spectrum. If you’re a Gaullist you may have some lingering attachment to la France profonde; if you’re a liberal, you want to see it subsumed under the EU, while if you’re among the 10 percent of the electorate that voted Trotskyist in the 2002 presidential elections, the very word smacks of Pétainism and the reactionary “integral” nationalism of Charles Maurras. In Germany, patriotism is controversial due to certain nationalist excesses of the mid-twentieth century, while in Italy it exists only on a local level. In Canada, no one quite knows what it means, for the simple reason that no one quite knows what Canada means other than that part of North America that looks like the United States but doesn’t believe in capital punishment, mass incarceration or the virtues of maintaining military bases in more than a hundred foreign countries.
Only in the United States does patriotism, among both liberals and conservatives, elicit an unqualified yes. Perhaps the most important reason has to do with the role of voluntarism in American constitutional thought. Despite being bound to the United States by countless laws and regulations, Americans cling to a concept of citizenship as a matter of choice. They are not Americans because they were born here or because economic necessity forced them to immigrate, supposedly, but because they want to be. Since the United States is not so much a nation as a calling, anyone wishing to participate in the American polity must make his or her loyalties clear. This is why politicians will launch into the most amazing bombast on a moment’s notice about the United States being “the best country ever created and still, as ever, the hope of humankind” (to quote the hapless Al Gore in August 2000). The more they want the people’s vote, the more they must trumpet their devotion. If patriotism is an unalloyed good, then more patriotism is better, while ultra-patriotism, the kind that equates the nation with the will of God, is best of all.
In his new book The Intellectuals and the Flag, Todd Gitlin uses patriotism to wallop the radical left, which he cannot forgive for being right about the direction of US military policy after 9/11, when he and other liberal intellectuals gathered around Dissent magazine were almost completely wrong. Living a mile north of the World Trade Center, Gitlin–a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, author of a well-known chronicle of 1960s radicalism (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage) and a member of the Dissent editorial board–got a stiff dose of patriotism as he watched the Twin Towers disintegrate in a cloud of smoke and debris. Overcome with emotion, he wandered downtown a few days later and joined a crowd of onlookers applauding dust-covered rescue workers emerging from the blast site.