Today, on the eve of July 4th, the subject of patriotism is a very appropriate one. What is patriotism? Is it simply the pride, tingling and welling tears we sometimes experience when listening to our National Anthem, watching our flag fluttering in a parade, or hearing a rousing speech? In short, is it a purely emotional response to chauvinistic stimuli? Or is patriotism something more complex, containing both an emotional, and an intellectual component?
The only book length philosophical study of the subject, written in 1993 by Stephan Nathanson, defines patriotism as “Love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well being and that of its fellow citizens.
I would qualify that statement by saying that patriotism is love of one’s country because the principles which engendered that country were consistent with universal moral philosophy, and that an unbiased examination of its history demonstrates that it has, to a reasonable extent, manifested those principles in its actions.
Over time, there has always existed among certain people, particularly those of liberal persuasion, an animus towards patriotism, a belief that it fosters aggression, and blinds us to the negative aspects of our nation’s policies. What many who hold this view fail to recognize, is that they are equating patriotism with nationalism, patriotism’s evil twin, which though at first glance, might appear to be the same, is profoundly different.
How do we distinguish between the two? George Orwell contrasted the differences in terms of aggressive vs. defensive attitudes. “Nationalism, he wrote,’ is about power; its adherents want to acquire as much power and prestige as possible for their nation, in which they submerge their individuality. And so while it is accordingly aggressive, patriotism is defensive: it is a devotion to a particular place and a way of life one thinks best, but has no wish to forcibly impose on others.”
Many thinkers throughout the ages have expressed vastly different views on patriotism. Perhaps the best known, and most misunderstood, is Samuel Johnson’s definition of patriotism as: “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Contrary to popular belief, Johnson was not denigrating patriotism, but rather indicting those who used it falsely, as a way of obfuscating or justifying their own immoral behavior.
Norman Thomas called patriotism “that most complex of motives,” and Leo Tolstoy declared patriotism to be “both stupid and immoral“. Stupid said Tolstoy, because every patriot holds his country to be the best of all, whereas only one country can qualify, and immoral because it enjoins us to promote our country’s interests at the expense of all other countries, by any means, including war, and is thus at odds with the golden rule. It can be argued here that Tolstoy, like many others, was equating patriotism with nationalism.
So what is the moral standing of patriotism? Is it a contradiction of a major tradition in moral philosophy which defines morality as essentially universal and impartial, and, therefore, seems to rule out local attachment and loyalty? Or is it essentially meaningless and trivial, “nothing more than the love of an ass for its stall,” as one cynical observer claimed. Or can patriotism be something noble that is consistent with the major traditions of moral philosophy. It all depends, does it not, on the nature and basis of one’s patriotism?
As Americans, are we justified in believing that our country’s core values, and many of its achievements were based on noble and uplifting human ideas? I say we are; the rights and freedoms that are incorporated in our constitution, have universal appeal, have been the driving force of many of our nation’s achievements.
Those same core values ensured that a raw Republic espousing egalitarian concepts in an age of royalty, would survive and prosper, beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
I mentioned before that patriotism must also be subjected to an unbiased examination of our country’s past and present record, in order to determine whether it has lived up to the standards of moral excellence established by its creators.
It is, of course, impossible to do this without finding numerous instances where the underlying principles of our great republic were traduced, including unjust wars, abuse of individuals and minorities, systemic corruption, imperialism, and oligarchic control of our national policies. Nations, however, are comprised of people, and people are always and everywhere flawed, so it should not surprise or unduly discourage us to realize that the United States of America has had, and continues to have its dark moments.
However, a realistic evaluation of our history, particularly if undertaken in comparison to that of other great powers, would reveal that despite the threats imposed upon it by foreign enemies, and the catastrophes imposed upon it by domestic fools, thieves, and liars, our nation has been the most powerful force for good on earth, and remains, still, a template for those seeking freedom, safety, and economic opportunity.
And when we feel compelled to cite instances where the government of these United States has violated its own Constitution, neglected its citizens, or waged an aggressive and immoral foreign policy, we need to stop and consider the monumental force for good in the world that it has done. Travel back with me 100 years.
The 20th century, the bloodiest in recorded history, ushered in German militarism which threatened all of Europe, and resulted in the Great War of 1914 -18, in which 9 million died. After almost 4 years of static, deadly struggle, in the Spring of 1918, the German Army launched a highly successful offensive which may well have achieved victory if not for the arrival at that crucial time of the Americans, whose intervention assured an Allied victory. Americans entered and left that war with no territorial ambitions.
The intervening years between the two world wars, saw the emergence of two of the most powerful, barbaric and malignant political philosophies in human history, Fascism, and Soviet Communism. In 1939, the world was plunged into another cataclysmic disaster lasting 6 years and consuming 60 million lives. The intervention of the United States in Europe, along with its almost single-handed defeat of aggressive Japanese militarism assured an Allied victory against world Fascism. And once again, the U.S. harbored no territorial ambitions.
At the end of WWII every major nation involved in it lay in ruins, both structurally and economically; every nation that is except one, ours. We were king of the hill, our infrastructure was intact, our economy, and industrial strength healthier than they’d ever been. Militarily we were supreme, the only nation in possession of atomic weapons. Our troops, stationed around the globe, also occupied large portions of Germany, and the whole of Japan. We could have declared ourselves masters of the world.
Instead, we joined in forming the United Nations, created the Marshall Plan to save Europe from starvation and further ruin, and ruled our defeated enemies with benevolence encouraging them to create their own democracies and re-establish healthy economies. It is no accident that West Germany and Japan became two of the most prosperous democracies in the world during the post-war period. Looking back on this monumental period of world history, and the splendid role the U.S. played in it, it is difficult to comprehend how a citizen of this nation could not feel patriotic, even up to this day and beyond.
By the end of WWII we knew that the Soviet Union had replaced Nazi Germany as the greatest threat to democracy and world peace, but we hoped that this could change peacefully, that the new world organization, the United Nations, could serve as a mediator for peaceful resolution of disputes. Those hopes were soon shown to be ingenuous, and for the next 44 years world peace, such as it was, was maintained by the terrifying Dr. Strangelove prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Throughout these decades, our fears of the Red Menace led us to perpetrate numerous breaches of our Constitution. Here at home McCarthyism crawled out from under the rock of our fears and paranoia to persecute and ruin innocent Americans, and our foreign policy was often skewed, embracing tinpot tyrants around the world because of their alleged anti-Communism. Two wars were fought, Korea and Vietnam, the former a necessary one, the latter a tragically misguided one. Neither, however, was fought for economic or territorial gain.
In the late 80’s, after being held at bay for almost a half century by the prospect of confronting American arms, Communism imploded, leaving the U.S. as the world’s single superpower, and since that point in time, despite the depredations of a group of Islamic psychopaths, most of the damage done to our republic has occurred from within.
Since the end of the Cold War, it has become fashionable among some, to make unfavorable comparisons between the U.S. and the much vaunted Western European social democracies. While some of these comparisons, like those relating to health care are valid, it would do us well to remember that, to a significant extent, countries like Norway, Denmark, and France, among others, were able to spend the last 65 years morphing into their present iterations, because they were under the protection of their American allies for all that time, and did not have to spend a huge percentage of their GDP for military purposes.
I said earlier that this country remains a template for those seeking safety and economic opportunity. My parents were first generation Americans, the children of immigrants. Their education was, by virtue of economic necessity, limited to grade school or less. Despite this they were able to build decent lives for themselves, and live to see their children obtain graduate degrees. And we were not unusual. Many of my relatives, friends, and contemporaries could relate the same kind of story -- from grade school to grad school. In a single generation, a virtual socioeconomic quantum leap forward. I defy anyone to name another nation where such opportunity exists during those years.
Furthermore, within the context of educational opportunity, we are the only major nation that I know of that, permits people second, and even third chances. Americans can acquire advanced education at virtually any age. One could not do that in England or France, where a child’s educational destiny is determined by age 16.
Despite the serious political and economic problems inherent in contemporary American society, masses of people still flock to this country seeking a better life; and when you hear our government being assailed for its inept handling of the illegal immigration problem, stop and remember that since the historic revisions of our immigration laws from the 1960’s through the 90’s, no modern industrialized nation has come close to accepting the vast number of legal immigrants that we do.
Finally, let me say this. The dark moments in American history when our Government has breached individual liberties, have a positive corollary. Historically, a healthy dose of retrospective shame, the genius of our independent judiciary, and above all the resilience of our Constitution, have helped ensure that any statutes or policies rashly undertaken while in the grip of fear, such as the cold war witch hunts, don’t survive for long. The rule of law ultimately prevails; and, this was true even in reference to the most shameful chapter in our history, the obscene evil of slavery and racism.
The former, slavery, was redeemed by the blood of 600,000 young Americans killed and perhaps 2 million maimed; and, while we still have a long way to go, the success of our efforts to rectify the latter, racism, can best be evaluated by the reality of a President of African -American heritage occupying the White House for 8 years.
Today, we're in the midst of another dark moment. The American military is still mired down in the war in Afghanistan, the longest in our history, and while we're scheduled to withdraw at the end of this year there is little expectation of success. Furthermore, we're now confronted by the destructive events engendered by our ill conceived invasion of Iraq. Fundamental freedoms taken away in the aftermath of 9/11 have not yet been restored and oligarchs continue to exert enormous influence on our policies by virtue of their wealth and political contributions. Witness, for example, the revolting spectacle a few months ago of prospective Republican 2016 presidential candidates scurrying to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of billionaire gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who fancies himself a kingmaker.
On both the federal and state levels ultraconservative demagogic politicians supported by large numbers of our fellow citizens, who are most often misinformed or ignorant, wish to take us back to the Robber Baron era, and the Supreme Court, once the rational arbiter of thorny constitutional issues has, by virtue of a single consrvative vote, become a political Keystone comedic version of itself, declaring corporations people and removing campaign contribution caps, thus enshrining in our laws the corruptive practices that are traducing our Democracy.
Greed and lack of oversight have left our economy in tatters, excessive materialism has created a cheap celebrity culture, and many of the gains painfully acquired by American labor over decades of strife, have been degraded and reversed. The morale and determination of the American people is being steadily eroded, while the obscenely wealthy few continue amassing even more wealth.
Even academia has joined the ranks of the predators, raising the cost of a college education to Olympian heights, burdening those who do graduate, 40% of whom can't find appropriate jobs,with major debt.
The morale and determination of the American people is being steadily eroded, while the obscenely wealthy few continue amassing even more wealth. For the first time ever, we are neither the most socially mobile society in the world, nor can we lay claim to having the wealthiest middle class. The former belongs to Western Europe, and the latter to Canada. Tragically, there is considerable evidence that for the first time since The Great Depression, the fabled “American Dream” no longer exists.
This is, in short, an optimum time when there is a need for patriots to come forward and announce “not in my country you won’t” in whatever ways they can, a time to rally and utilize public opinion to counter the deadly effects of apathy, corruption, and greed. If we fail to do so, there will be little enough to feel patriotic about.
And so, I would urge you to dwell, not on the dark moments, but on what America was intended to mean, and what it has meant to you and yours, and, in doing so, remember always that a true American patriot is not defined by stickers exhorting us to "support our troops,” or flag pins in lapels, but by their belief in the principles on which this nation was created.
In closing, let me repeat that a true American patriot is one who believes in the principles on which this country was created.
Declaring yourself a patriot, therefore, should not be difficult, particularly for those here today, because if the essence of our Constitution were distilled into a single sentence, might it not sound something like (our Second Principle): “Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations.”?
Patriotism, a sermon by Rich Palermo at 1stUUPB on June 29, 2014.