On Patriotism

“There are two types of patriotism, although sometimes the two are mingled in the same breast. The first kind one might call nationalism; nationalists believe that all other countries are inferior in every respect and that one would do them a favour by dominating them. Other countries are always in the wrong, they are less free, less civilized, are less glorious in battle, are perfidious, prone to falling for insane and alien ideologies which no reasonable person could believe, are irreligious and abnormal. Such patriots are the most common variety, and their patriotism is the most contemptible thing on earth.

“The second type of patriot is best described by returning to the example of General Fuerte. General Fuerte did not believe in ‘my country, right or wrong’; on the contrary, he loved his land despite the faults that he could so clearly see and that he labored to correct. It was his frequently stated opinion that anyone who supported his country when it was so obviously in the wrong, or who failed to see its faults, was the worst kind of traitor. Whereas the first kind of patriot really glories in his own irrationality and not in his country, General Carlo Maria Fuerte loved his country as a son loves his mother or a brother his sister.”

-Louis de Bernieres, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts

I’ve always been a subscriber to this view of patriotism, long before I ever read this book, in fact, and found this quote, which so elegantly sums up how I feel about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. A true patriot, in my eyes, is someone who recognizes flaws and works to fix them because the nation is a thing worth fixing.

The tone of rhetoric in this country often seems to veer towards a nationalistic perspective, which makes me deeply uncomfortable. And the same tone crops up within political movements; people are told that they must subscribe to all of the stated values of the movement and not criticize them because the movement is perfect. I hope I don’t have to point out the logical flaws here.

I believe that this is incredibly damaging. Talking with a friend about the President the other day, I mentioned that I thought that good foreign policy strides were being made, while his domestic policy is horrific. And I was informed that all I ever do is complain about the President and complain complain complain can’t I say anything good about him ever, and I said “uh, I just did, I said he’s making big strides in foreign policy and shifting the way that the rest of the world views America. But that doesn’t give him a free pass on shitty domestic policy decisions.”

But, yeah, I do have a problem with the state of American domestic policy, and I’m not afraid to say it. Because, yes, damnit, I am a patriot. I think America is pretty awesome, actually, in a lot of ways. I just also think that America has some pretty huge problems, and that we need to address those problems to make America even more awesome. To make it awesome, in fact, for everyone, instead of just a select few.

I think that this country has huge social issues and that ignoring them doesn’t really help us. I think that we need to address these things, we need to be able to criticize, we need to talk about the ways to make America better. This kind of seems to be a theme in my life; I see no point in criticizing if something has no value or possibility of redemption, but I do think that criticism is valuable to improve things which have potential. I wouldn’t bother to criticize, in other words, if I thought there was no hope.

I don’t quite know when this shift happened, when people decided that criticism couldn’t happen because criticism was an “attack” and was therefore bad and dangerous. I don’t like it. I think that it has a chilling and silencing effect (and, indeed, dismissals of criticism are used to silence all the time).

This country was founded on the notion that a bunch of people had some problems and wanted to talk about them. So they did, and they said “hey, how can we make this place better?” And the ultimate decision was to, you know, make it a new place. To structure better values into the very foundation of government. These values didn’t come out of nowhere. They were a direct response to social problems and issues perceived by the founders. When the founders articulated these values, they were working on the operating assumption that criticism is valuable, that criticism can be used to create something better.

I’m not saying the founders were perfect. (Here I go with the criticism!) But they¬† had the right idea, which was to stop chafing under the yoke of a problematic government and social structure, and to do something. To do something productive, too; rather than just criticizing, they provided constructive ideas for improvement. Those ideas proved to be pretty incendiary; they ignited an entirely new nation.

I’m not saying that we need to do that. I’m just saying that we need to identify the things America is doing right, and the things America is doing wrong, and we need to talk about how maybe we can get some more good stuff going on, because America is terrific in a lot of ways and I’d like it to be better. I’d like this to be a country where we really do have liberty and justice for all.

And I’d like this to be a society which is more just, more equal. One way to achieve that is to dismantle structural barriers created by our government, which is why I criticize America’s policies, because these policies do create barriers and they should be addressed. This isn’t the only issue, of course, we also need to address barriers created on an individual level by social structures and social attitudes.

It’s possible to do both.

And it’s not terribly helpful to tell critics that they should “just go move to Canada if they hate America so much.” I don’t hate America. I just think it needs work. If I hated America, maybe I would go ahead and move to Canada. But I don’t, which is why I live in Northern California, not, say, Montreal.

So, do you want to be a patriot, or a nationalist?

2 Replies to “On Patriotism”

  1. You’re forgetting another extremely valid reason for living in California rather than Montreal: The weather.

    hah, no, I kid. I love my BIZARRE CANADIAN WEATHER.

    All jokes aside, this is really a great post. Nationalism freaks me right the hell out, and while I’m not particularly devoted to Canada, I have the greatest respect for people who genuinely love their country, in the way that the second section of that quote talks about.

  2. I’ve taken to calling “patriotism” what it really is – straight-up jingoism. Which, yknow, is freaky as hell.

    (And I actually do plan to move, heh, for a variety of reasons.)

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