On Patriotism

July 27, 2016

We all know we are supposed to love America the same way we are supposed to love our parents and our fellow man. Patriotism is so seldom questioned that it may seem self-evident.
But what does it mean to love one’s country in an age of multinational corporations, a global economy and an increasing awareness of ethnic and cultural origins? Is patriotism still a valid concept?
There is no biological imperative that drives our feelings of patriotism. There is nothing natural about geopolitical boundaries. A nation is a man-made thing, respected only by human beings disposed to respect such things. We must learn what it means to be an American (or a German or a Pakistani). National identity is acquired; patriotism must be learned.
Yet American patriotism—perhaps all patriotism—has its roots in the idea that our country is somehow special, that our common history and first principles bind us together in very real and important ways. We share a set of historical fables, of legends whittled down to life lessons, an array of fuzzy dates and fusty names of (mostly) dead white guys who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to found an experiment in self-government.
Revisionists will insist on the problematic humanity of the founding fathers (who were pragmatic and cunning men), but it was more than the will to power that motivated their actions. While the human drive for sex, power, fame and money might explain the exploits of most of history’s great nationbuilders—Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon—the founding fathers famously risked everything they had, not to establish themselves as rulers of a new nation, but to put themselves among the people to be governed by the people.
The real trouble is, the more you read and the more you think, the more you understand how history is filtered through the minds of people with preconceived notions and ideas to sell. You realize that not every omniscient narrative voice has earned its sonorous authority, that your teachers can lie to you without even meaning to, that throughout history mistakes have been made and people rarely rise above their petty grievances merely to serve “the truth.”
Patriotism is a refuge for scoundrels, and for the sort of charlatans and self-styled deciders who claim a special connection to some Higher Authority. If you only mean to live comfortably with as little stress as possible, you can elect one of these public people as your own intellectual mascot. You might subscribe to Rush Limbaugh or Noam Chomsky, to Keith Olbermann or Fox News or National Public Radio—you find the source that soothes you or grants you license for your free-floating anger. They are happy to tell you what is permissible to love, what is acceptable to hate.
We love our country because—as the great analyst, friend and critic of the American character Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America—it is our birthplace and the “mansion” of our fathers. We love our country for the same reasons we love our parents—even if our relationships occasionally go rocky. Something in our genes respects the bonds of blood and care, the instinctual feelings between parent and child.
Patriotism assumes that it means something to be an American, that no matter how diverse our various backgrounds, we share an essential “Americanness,” based not in any mutual religious or ethnic heritage nor even in a prevailing political sentiment, but a civic commonality, the belief we are all equal under the law. The belief that we are free.
Like a soul, a nation can be dismissed as a superstition. It is not a particular plot of land, nor the government installed over people who live within the ultimately arbitrary borders of a state, but the mysterious component that binds all citizens of a state together.
It is something like a common cultural identity, which is a fine definition as far as it goes. But when you start talking about a big country like the United States of America, you might be given to wonder what a Ypsilanti innkeeper might have in common with a Seventh Avenue fashionista or a struggling hip-hop artist in Mabelvale.
We are a nation of assimilators; the products of both history and private aspiration. America and Americans are constantly being reinvented: midwest-born sons of German burghers grow up to conduct themselves like Brahmins, affecting walking sticks and the patrician politics of the economic elite. White suburban kids ride in tricked-out Jeeps juddering with hip-hop music, talking among themselves in patois of movie gangstas.
Our heroes change their names and make up stories about themselves; they jettison their past lives and become John Wayne, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe. For the most part, we are a bright blank people, looking forever forward, paying little attention to whatever may be gaining on us. This is our great charm—and our most dangerous failing. It is not enough to simply believe in our own goodness, we must be willing to be good—better than our enemies, better than the instincts gnawing in our gut.


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