What is Patriotism?
© 2014 Vernon Miles Kerr
Like the previously examined concept, “Love,” “Patriotism”, is one of those emotionally and semantically charged words that can mean many things to many people. In America, however, a few people practically deify the concept of patriotism, raising it to the level of an icon or idol that should be worshiped and held sacred and used as a measuring stick, to be held up to each American in order to determine whether they are a Patriot or a Traitor. To them, Patriotism or Treason are viewed as opposite ends of a finite spectrum, you are either a patriot, by their definition or you should leave America and go somewhere else. “America, Love it or Leave it” was a popular bumper sticker a few years ago.
Let’s examine that extreme view of Patriotism before considering whether one can be a true patriot without holding such a black-and-white view. The phrase, “My Country, Right or Wrong!” comes to mind, another popular bumper sticker of recent years. This essay will not have as much argument with that statement, as we proceed, because it at least admits that patriotism might not be such a matter of black or white but rather one of faithfulness to a vision, even though reality might fall short of that vision.
In our country, the American Flag is the main symbol and focus of our patriotic expression. As children, we face that symbol every morning, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the canon, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag…” During the soul-rending days of the 1960s, the African American comedian, Dick Gregory, quite fairly posed the question as to why so many people were willing to go across the sea and kill people on behalf of what he called “a rag on a stick.” Shocking as that metaphor may be on first hearing, his question does deserve some serious consideration. Is our graphically spectacular national flag something to be worshipped as equivalent to our land, our people, our government and our collective love of freedom, or is it something to be merely respected as a reminder of those things? Those who view Patriotism in black-and-white (or red-white-and-blue) terms would tend toward the first choice.
Let’s return to the “My Country, Right or Wrong!” catch phrase. The patriot-of-extremes might say, “What has America ever done wrong?” Well, how about America’s government-allowed practice of human slavery in its early centuries? How about the removal of hundreds of Native American tribes, consisting of tens of thousands of human beings, from their ancient homelands into convenient holding areas? How about the annexing of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the nullification of a modern monarchy which was recognized by the British Empire and the international community as a defacto nation? What about the genocide perpetrated on the indigenous tribes of northern California by American settlers and land-grantees in the Mid-nineteenth Century? Did “America” do these repugnant things or did financially motivated individuals, who happened to be at the reins of our government at the time, do or allow these things? If we answer “the individuals” then we are on the track toward a more balanced concept of Patriotism.
The United States of America or “America” for our purposes, satisfies the following commonly agreed definition of a nation, or state under International Law:
“… an aggregate body of persons, exceeding a single family, who are connected by the ties of a common lineage and perhaps by a common language …. a society of persons occupying a common territory and united under a common government.”
However, Renan, in Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (1882): gave a more ethereal but ironically more pragmatic definition:
“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which are really only one, go to make up this soul or spiritual principle. One of these things lies in the past, the other in the present. The one is the possession in common of a rich heritage of memories; and the other is actual agreement, desire to live together, and the will to continue to make the most of the joint inheritance…. The existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite, just as that of individuals is a continual affirmation of life.”
The beauty of that definition is that it says nothing about a flag, or geographical boundaries. Most of those African Americans and Native Americans who historically and continually have comprised a large portion of lives heroically lost in America’s wars went into battle with full knowledge of the injustices described above. Were they willing to spill blood for a “rag on a stick” or for that “rich heritage of memories…” and “joint inheritance” described by Renan? A preacher I heard once said “nations are merely families grown large,” describing how Jacob’s twelve sons, and their wives and children, each grew over the centuries into large tribes eventually comprising the ancient Nation of Israel.
Now in America, at the beginning of each baseball, hockey, football or basketball game we still typically face the American Flag and sing Francis Scott Key’s ode to that symbol, “The Star Spangled Banner.” When we do so, are we thinking of the flag itself, or the human beings with whom we have shared a utopian dream over the centuries and up to the present? True patriotism is mutual love and respect and even forgiveness of those who did evil in America’s name. It is truly familial love: My Country, Right or Wrong.