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Patriotism and Nationalism.

23 April 2010

Patriotism is a term that is so often misused that it is sometimes tempting to refuse using the word at all. But if patriotism is indeed “the last refuge of a scoundrel” as Samuel Johnson famously claimed, that is due more to the sorry state of politics in general than to anything inherent in the concept of patriotism itself.

In my view, much of the harm that is done can be attributed to the confusion that exists between patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment behind the former is quite ancient, while the latter notion is relatively recent and dating perhaps no earlier than the seventeenth century. Patriotism, as I understand it, is about love of country, love of the land and the people who live on it, along with love of the language and the culture. Nationalism, on the other hand, really has nothing to do with love. It is allegiance to a state or government, commonly symbolized in a flag. The essence of nationalism can be seen in obedience to authority conceived as a primary virtue. Its expression is most often of a military nature, because the state defines itself essentially as separate and distinct from other states. This in-group against out-group stance lends itself perfectly to racist ideas as well, and nationalist movements take on racist ideologies of one form or another.

The two words, patriotism and nationalism, have been hopelessly muddled together in political discourse. The common view of patriotism nowadays is most often synonymous with nationalism. When you hear someone say that “the United States is the greatest country in the world“, this is an expression of what is popularly considered patriotism. It is, however, nationalistic, because it finds value only by abstractly separating the country from other countries presumed to be inferior. The idea of dissent as patriotic, on the other hand, is foreign to the nationalist mind. To criticize the state is considered unpatriotic by nationalists, and it is significant that dissent is especially frowned upon in times of war, which is, these days, just about all the time.

A useful illustration of the difference between nationalism and patriotism can be had in two American songs, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, our official national anthem, and the popular patriotic song, “America the Beautiful”To reprint the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in full would perhaps sreve only to confuse the reader, since its poetry is infamously convoluted. For those few who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the song, Francis Scott Key, while observing a night bombardment against  Fort McHenry near Baltimore asks, in a rhetorical way, whether our flag is still up and waving. The impression aimed at is that no matter how fierce the attack may be, the flag will always fly proudly.

It’s a harmless piece of lyricism,  although a thoughtful listener may be excused for feeling a little bit embarrassed that our national anthem glories in “bombs bursting in air.” I wouldn’t normally associate the love I feel for my country with that sort of image. But of course, as I said before, this isn’t about love of country. This is about the pride of loyalty and allegiance to a national abstraction, and in typical nationalist fashion, the subject of the song is the piece of symbolic cloth on a pole.

A friend from Barbados once shared with to me how amused he was about the fetish we Americans have about the flag. Flags are of course symbolic objects. There is a symbolic power for some in the idea of all eyes turning toward the flag in an almost mystical unity of purpose. But I don’t think any other country has taken the flag thing and run with it to the degree that Americans have. In any event, it would seem to follow as a matter of course that the “pledge of allegiance” would be to the flag, and the wording even says, “…and to the republic for which it stands…,” which is a frank confession of the simplistic nature of the symbolism involved here. The idea of a country’s citizens being told to pledge allegiance conveys a certain insecurity that underlies nationalist thinking—a person’s value is tested and conferred by the state, rather than recognized as a birthright.

Now let’s turn to the other song, and here I will actually quote from the first stanza. The other stanzas might get us into troublesome territory, but almost no one knows them or sings them anyway.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!”

Love of the land is the first and primary characteristic of patriotism. Nationalism is more concerned with the abstraction of loyalty to a state. The land is just the place you happen to live, and it seems a place to be exploited for all it’s worth.

“America! America!
God shed his grace on thee”

Atheists might have a problem with that, but religion IS one of the main cultural aspects of a people, whether you like it or not. And in this case, notice that God is not punishing sinners or calling us to arms against the heathen. God is being asked to shed grace on the country. It is a humble expression that is incomprehensible to a nationalist who believes only in pride, not humility, despite any lip service he may pay to such religious beliefs.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

The reference made here to brotherhood seals the deal. Brotherhood (and Sisterhood too, if you like, but “humanhood” would just be too silly.) is a state enjoyed by equals, and it suggests compassion, fellow-feeling, and even hints at social justice. Nationalism doesn’t care about brotherhood, with its connotations of peaceful coexistence. Nationalism’s interest is in triumph over enemies. Nationalists don’t want to be brothers with anyone except other nationalists. Not with dissenters.  Not with minority groups who demand that their rights be recognized. Not with civil rights activists. Certainly not with left-wing intellectuals. These are all people who may live in the country, but who, in the mind of the nationalist, represent a threat to the nation. They are the “enemy within.”  To the nationalist “Brotherhood” is just a code-word for weakness.

I’m not really arguing for making “America the Beautiful” our national anthem. We didn’t have a national anthem until relatively recently (1931). The whole need for such a thing seems to have been unknown to earlier generations who apparently had more important things to think about. I just think that it is interesting that the difference between patriotism and nationalism is expressed so clearly by these two songs whose lyrics are, more often than not, recited mechanically. The difference between these anthems gives us a view into a fundamental conflict deep in the soul of America.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mauricio Iacobucci permalink
    26 April 2010 12:20 am

    I usually don’t post on Blogs but ya forced me to, great info.. excellent! … I’ll bookmark your site.

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