Combative Patriotism

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (photo by Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

The rush of patriotism. We’ve all seen it, perhaps even gotten caught up in it. It is a ritual of nationalism that enacts the story of America and the mythic vision of its special calling.

For many (perhaps most) who are U.S. citizens, there is something vital and irresistible, even right, about this public celebration of national identity, especially in times of crisis. Expressing pride of country brings us together, suggests a common past and shared purpose, reassures us that we will overcome adversity, that we are not alone in the face of danger.

Yet, the price we pay for this prideful rite is high. It makes us combative in our assertion of national identity. We define who we are as a people in opposition to an enemy. The rush of patriotism becomes an act of righteous indignation and polarization. It’s US against THEM—the United States vs. the World. It constitutes an attitude of war.

Mark L. Pearcy / Wikimedia Commons

Mark L. Pearcy / Wikimedia Commons

Even so, there is something not altogether settled about the meaning of patriotism.

The contrarian response to combative hyper-patriotism is cynical anti-patriotism.  Voltaire lamented that the good patriot must be the enemy of the rest of humankind.  Samuel Johnson defined patriotism as the scoundrel’s last refuge, and Oscar Wilde thought it was the virtue of viciousness.  Mark Twain equated it with hollering loudest without knowing what one was hollering about.  David Star Jordan compared patriotism to a dog barking at a stranger.  George Bernard Shaw saw it as killing and being killed over trivial matters.  Ambrose Bierce called it combustible rubbish.  W.H. Auden associated it with collective egoism.  For most of us, there is an indigestible truth embedded in this derisive attitude toward patriotism.

After all, our country is our home.  It nurtures us, for which we give it our allegiance.  But what does loyalty and devotion to the homeland entail?  Perhaps it means we are obliged to insist that our country live up to its democratic values.  The true patriot should dissent, according to Howard Zinn, should protest against injustices at home, according to Clarence Darrow, and should express his or her love of country by calling it to a higher plane, according to George McGovern.  The ability to engage in self-critique is the measure of patriotism, insists Henry Louis Gates, even though those in power inevitably consider criticism subversive, notes Henry Steele Commager.  H.L. Mencken put it this way:  critical patriots are neither naïve nor idiotic but instead disturbed when they see their country debauched.

Critical patriots, as a corrective to combative patriots, remain true to a vision of democracy.  They are heroes of higher consciousness.  They journey through the darkness of troubled times to confront the demon within so that they, and we through them, might become better connected to the rest of humanity and less inclined to slay the perfect scapegoat.  Whether this is an act beholden to the God of Jacob in Isaiah 2:4 (who would make the nations unlearn warfare and beat swords into plowshares), or inspired by Irene, the Greek Goddess of peace (who would burn the armaments of war), or motivated by some other archetypal image of peacemaking, critical patriots must also consult their democratic muse if they hope to slip out of war culture’s trap of dehumanization, demonization, and polarization.


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