Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is patriotism?

This July 4th, I had the opportunity to reflect on the concept of patriotism.  Reading and participating in several forums online left me pondering the meaning of patriotism.   In this article I try to outline my thoughts on the subject.

What is patriotism?  Here are a few definitions: "vigorous support for one's country." "devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty."
Merriam-Webster: "love for or devotion to one's country"
Wikipedia: "devotion to one's country"

These definitions all share the concept of love or devotion to one's country.

What does patriotism mean, practically?  On days such as July 4th in the USA, or perhaps during the playing of the national anthem at a sporting event, one might argue that patriotism is expressed in several ways:

  • Wearing of the national colors
  • Displaying the flag
  • Singing patriotic songs
  • Fireworks

What about the rest of the year?  What does it mean to love or be devoted to one's country?

Blind Patriotism
One kind of devotion is blind devotion.  Blind devotion, or blind patriotism, includes:

  • Emphatically declaring that one's country is simply "the best".  Without specifying exactly at what one's country is best, we can only assume that this declaration implies that the country is best in any and all categories.  This is impossible, as no single country can realistically exceed all other countries in every possible dimension.
  • Anger at hearing criticism of one's country.  One may respond to badly-founded criticism by providing counter-arguments and logic.  Response to reasonable criticism might include acceptance, with resolve to improve the source of the criticism.  Simple anger at criticism of one's country demonstrates refusal to accept that the country might have flaws, and is the epitome of blind patriotism.

Patriotism is often associated with pride in one's country.  Pride, however, is a feeling of satisfaction obtained from achieving something. Having pride in one's country only makes sense if one has contributed in some concrete way to the achievements of the country.  Being born is not a personal achievement for the person born, so simply being born in a specific country does not, in itself, warrant pride in that country.  Some examples of pride in one's country which are merited include:

  • a soldier participating in a war to overthrow an invading country
  • achieving a change in laws by actively participating in the democratic process (voting, protesting, petitioning, writing to lawmakers,…)

One could argue that a form of patriotism is dedication to continuously making the country the best possible.  "Best" of course is subjective, and the success of the country can be measured across multiple dimensions (satisfaction of the citizens, freedom, economic success, …).  However, the essential idea of dedication as patriotism includes a recognition of the flaws, a celebration of the successes, and a constant effort for improvement.   This includes criticizing our leaders for bad decisions, and commending them for good decisions, regardless of party or ideology.  Is this really patriotism, though?  Or is it simply common sense?

Romantic nostalgia for the founders of the country
I think particularly of the USA in this case, as patriotism is often associated with a reverence for the revolution and the founding of the country.  Whether one is dissatisfied or content with the current state of the country, it is tempting to reflect on the origins of the country and have a nostalgic reverence for the founders of the country.  We may sometimes forget that they were human, and furthermore, politicians.  While they may have been revolutionary in their time in their framing of the Constitution, the document is, in my opinion, not without flaws.  As somebody who believes that the Constitution is respected very little today, I believe part of this problem is the behavior of the people (citizens and lawmakers alike) as well as the language and content of the Constitution itself.

Is the USA the "best"? What is the patriotic answer?
This depends on what category.  When it comes to the Olympic games, there is no doubt that the USA is the best.  When it comes to economic or personal freedom, or other categories, several indices place the USA at 8th or 10th place or later.  A few examples:

Happiness survey: Based on a survey of happiness, the USA is 23rd place

How should a patriotic person react to these or similar rankings?
  • Blind patriot: disregard (possibly angrily) the rankings without looking into the studies
  • Dedicated patriot: check the credibility of the sources providing the rankings.  If the rankings make sense, have an action plan to improve the situation.

Which type of patriotism is the best?
It is my opinion that "dedication as patriotism" is the form of patriotism which is most beneficial to the country.  Recognizing the flaws, and the possibility that the country may indeed not be the "best", is more beneficial to the country than refusing to accept that the country may not be "number one".  At some point, the problems of a country may be so grave, that events or holidays reserved for patriotic celebration would be better spent in reflection and resolve to change, rather than in celebration.  This point is different for each individual.  What would be the turning point for you?  In the USA, how bad would things have to get, before you would have no more will to celebrate on the 4th of July? 

Am I patriotic?
Here are a few thoughts on my personal feelings about my own patriotism, concerning the United States.

  • I am not proud to be an American.  I am thankful to be an American.  I am specifically thankful to my parents for bringing us to the USA, which allowed me to obtain the citizenship of the United States, thus opening a huge door of opportunities.
  • I would like to be proud to be American.  I would like to be part of a movement which succeeds at making the country better.  I am looking for ways to do this.
  • I would like to believe that I am dedicated to making the country better.  This might either be considered "patriotism as dedication" or simply common sense.
  • I have always enjoyed patriotic songs, the flag, and fireworks.  This year, however, the 4th of July was a day of mourning for me.  The USA has some  problems which one can think about intellectually, with some emotional detachment.  However, I truly felt depressed when I think of one specific problem: the abuses (in my opinion) at the airports, by the TSA, which may cause me to never visit the USA again.  I would like to think that I would do what I believe is the right thing, and refuse to submit to tyranny (submitting to showing my naked body or having my genitalia touched as a prerequisite to traveling).  By doing this, this separates me from my hometown, which is truly sad.  On July 4th, seeing people praise the supposed freedom of the USA only increased my sadness on this day.  Hearing people proclaim that the USA is free, while this specific attack on freedom impacts me personally, both angered me and made me almost physically nauseous. I personally don't see my reaction as non-patriotic.  If anything, it is but as an example of "patriotism as dedication". 
  • I am not interested in either insisting that the USA is the "best" in the world nor in trying to make or keep the USA the "best" compared to other countries.  I would like to see the USA be the "best" it can possibly be for the people living in the country (and its citizens living abroad ;) ).