Defending Diction: Patriotism

Throughout the American-led invasion of Iraq during the Bush Administration, the right fiercely rejected the legitimacy of any opposition to the invasion and its management. Those who argued against the war were branded as “unpatriotic.” Because support for the war was supposedly equivalent with support for the troops and America by extension, those who were against the war were also against the troops and also America. I hold no delusions about the fact that many on the left do hate that which America stands for and the men and women who fight to defend those principles, but on this our nation’s birthday, it is time to revisit the concept of “patriotism” so that it can be understood once and for all.

Firstly, ignore all the concrete particulars around Gulf War II. It is not in relation to the particulars that patriotism should be examined. Picking apart the reasons for going to war, let alone how the war was fought, is too expansive a digression.

Instead, examine some common renderings of how patriotism is defined in the modern political discussion. “Patriotism means supporting your country, right or wrong.” “Dissent is patriotic.” “Being a patriot means serving your country.” Etc.

All three of the “definitions” display a variant of intrinsicism – the belief that something is inherently valuable in and of itself. As the first and third are manifestations of ideologies that deserve greater levels of elaboration, set them aside for now.

Examine the second — the notion that “dissent,” regardless of content or purpose, is considered naturally patriotic. If one dissents – i.e. express views which are contrary to those more commonly held by the masses – then one is automatically a “patriot.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, there are no moral judgments implicit within the concept of “dissent.” It is, for all intents and purposes, a “content neutral” word. This means that to say a man dissents is in no way an evaluation of his dissent. Man can dissent in an irrational, immoral manner on any number of issues, none of which would make him honest. Are white supremacists who believe men should be enslaved based on the pigmentation of their skin “patriotic” for dissenting against the principles upheld by our government expressing the exact opposite? No. One man is no more patriotic or noble than any other simply because he challenges the prevailing notions of his fellow countrymen. All that is contingent on from what he dissents and for which alternative.

Transition now to examine the concept of patriotism more intensively. The word itself is directly derived from the Latin patria meaning “fatherland,” which in turn is directly derived from the same root as the Latin pater which means “father.” Through much of European history, this deeply affected the concept of “patriotism.” Citizens of a given state considered themselves the “children” of their respective nations — not so literally, perhaps, but certainly figuratively, in word and deed. And because Europe was rife with philosophic altruism at the time, “patriotism” implied duty, service, and sacrifice for one’s county. Why? For no other reason that one was born there.

The vestiges of this conception of patriotism are still seen in America today, as exemplified by the first and third examples given above: “Patriotism means supporting your country, right or wrong,” and, “Being a patriot means serving your country.” The implication of these conceptions is, more or less explicitly, that patriotism is equivalent with sacrifice, either moral or physical.

The physical sacrifice is easy enough to detect. If “good” means serving others, then serving one’s own self-interests is necessarily the “bad.”  Using this understanding, “patriotism” means rejecting oneself for the good of one’s country or, as is more commonly the argument, the “common good.”

The moral sacrifice means one must place the “good” and the “bad” on the same moral plane, thus devaluing the “good” and giving undue legitimacy to the “bad.” Man is asked to defend and support his country even when one’s government is acting immorally, i.e. violating individual rights. No reason is given for why man should support his country under such circumstances beyond that it is his country. This is not patriotism. This is nationalism.

Like “Global Balkanization,” the term coined by Ayn Rand to describe the fragmentation of society along ethnic lines, nationalism “is, at its root, driven by collectivism – the belief in the primacy of the group over the individual.” Though it relates specifically to ethnocentric collectivism, the following excerpt from “Scots Wha Hae: Should Scotland Secede” is useful in providing a substantive background the philosophy of collectivism in general:

“[T]he focus on ethnicity is the direct result of the philosophies which have dominated the intellectual culture of Europe (and America, though to a lesser extent) for over a century. By teaching man that his knowledge is impotent, he forfeits his knowledge along with his own identity. From that point forward, man is driven to the most primal form of collectivism – racism, i.e. collectivism based on shared genetics or ancestry. Ethnicity is merely racism with the added element of shared tradition, noting how the Balkan groups differed primarily in shared traditions rather than race, though the two are conflated in the new concept of ethnicity. Once man has his capacity for self-esteem and knowledge crippled, he seeks both only in that which he finds familiar. In this case, that which man finds familiar is other people who look and behave like he does. Those outside of a man’s ethnicity are inherently viewed as a threat to that man’s irrational standard of the good and, as such, should either be excluded from participating in a given ethnocentric society or eliminated.”

Nationalism is driven the same philosophy which drives Global Balkanization. Collectivism teaches man to devalue himself and his own judgment and instead serve the superior value and judgment of the group.

Unlike with many nations around the world, being a member of the American nation is not contingent on one’s genetic code. Though the borders of many nations throughout Europe and Asia were, and still are, based upon ancient boundaries separating one tribe from another, there is no such thing as an “American” tribe – that is, a shared ancestry among individuals who are largely similar in genetic terms. As such, attempts by racist and ethnocentric groups to claim the American nation as their own have been largely unsuccessful.

Even so, this does not prevent other forms of collectivism, nationalism being the primary concern here. Properly defined, nationalism is “an intrinsicist belief in the nation as the highest value, demanding altruist sacrifice as its implementation.” Nationalism calls on the citizens of a given nation to love their respective nation – and sacrifice for it – simply because they are part of it.

For centuries since the Romans came up with the notion, this was the general understanding of patriotism. But western understanding of “patriotism” underwent a conceptual shift during the Enlightenment. The political culmination of this shift was the United States of America, and so it is to the early United States of America that we look to better understand the concepts of patriotism.

Those men who served in the Continental Army and the militias were not considered “patriots” simply because they fought for their nation. For all intents and purposes, they were fighting against their nation, declaring treason and raising arms against the Kingdom of Great Britain. Rather, the patriots of the American Revolution should be considered as such because they found rational value in their nation – their new nation – and defended it. Moreover, they dissented from the violations of individual rights perpetuated by their former nation. Quite simply, they loved themselves and their freedom, and so too their fledgling country.

Patriotism is, in its most basic understanding, a love of one’s nation. But this is still inadequate; the concept of “love” has been distorted and misconstrued for at least as long as it has existed. When one considers “love” baseless – a mystic emotion that manifests itself for no understandable reason – or when one considers sacrifice the most fundamental characteristic of “love,” then one arrives at the conclusion that “patriotism” and “nationalism” are one in the same.

But we know better. Love, like all emotions, follows directly from man’s internal value judgments. If those value judgments are rational, so too will be man’s emotions which follow from them. “Rational” means that which is in accordance with reality, and thus “rational value judgments” are those which further man’s pursuit of his singular ultimate value within reality: his own life. As a “sacrificial love” contradicts man’s ultimate value by requiring him to relinquish his own values as ephemeral when compared to some “greater” value than himself, then this is not actual love – it is altruism.

Therefore, when one defines “patriotism” as “a love of one’s country,” one should recognize that the love mentioned here is necessarily rational love. It is a love which results from those values embodied and practiced by one’s country, not from some sort of altruist/intrinsicist belief in the innate value of one’s nation. Accordingly, patriotism requires that one properly identify those faults of one’s nation and oppose them, so as to remedy them. A patriot gives his nation support where it is deserved, and doles out criticism where it is warranted.

This concept should be entirely separated from that of nationalism. Can the Soviets who marched up and down Red Square – not out of coercion, but genuine ideological belief – be called patriots simply because they “loved” their country and supported it because it embodied their values. By no means! The policies enacted by the Communist government in the Soviet Union were fundamentally harmful to man’s life and brought death and destruction to both the poor souls within the USSR and those nations it attacked for the “greater good.” They loved their country sacrificially, i.e. to their own detriment and the detriment of the country itself. Is this really an act of love?

Quite oppositely, there is much to love about the United States, even with a nihilist occupying the Oval Office. It set forth on this earth a system of government subjected to moral law unlike any the earth had ever seen before.  It released man’s potential from the shackles of servitude, arguably leading to the creation of more wealth in its short 236-year existence than the entire world had done all the millennia preceding America’s founding. And even today with the gradual erosion of man’s liberty and against the lashing tide of statism, ours is still one of the freest nations on earth.

But as I said in respect to Eduardo Saverin’s highly patriotic decision to leave the United States, “I feel no particular devotion to the United States beyond the values for which stands – or once stood. My self-interests are not a matter of loyalty to any individual or institution, but instead are for the values which they embody.” One must not forget that the “American experiment” has been and continues to be an imperfect one. Like Saverin, we should take note of those flaws currently exemplified by our nation. But unlike Saverin, it is not yet rationally valuable for me to exit the United States in favor of freer shores. I can still exhibit my love for my country by vigilantly defending those positive aspects still represented by the United States of America and by continually fighting to reverse the tide of statism in this country.

This is no easy feat. America has never achieved a capitalist system, so fighting to perfect our nation requires not only reversing the errors of the past century, but even correcting those inherent within the original design of the Constitution itself. This will be difficult, but it is not impossible.

Until such a time when America achieves capitalism, it falls on the patriots of this nation to lead the charge for rational, capitalist reform. But they will not do it because it is their “duty,” some moral mandate imposed on them for the “good of their country.” Instead, American patriots love their country for the value it offers them, and they will fight just like America’s first patriots did to protect and expand that value. But no longer are today’s patriots fighting for the founding of America. Today’s patriots must fight for the re-founding of America, restructuring their nation on an even more solid moral foundation than those philosopher-statesmen of over two centuries ago.


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