The Error of Patriotism by Matthew Houston
Emotion, social identifier, politician’s tool—patriotism is a complex topic to address. It is most concisely defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots.” These seemingly benign words hide the problematic nature of patriotism: its propagation of a false dichotomy of “us verse them”.
The extreme forms of patriotism can be identified as a general belief in “my country right or wrong”, which justifies placing the interests of the country above moral or ethical issues. From the American Indian genocide of the nineteenth century to the current oil-driven conflicts in the Middle East, examples abound that plainly condemn patriotism’s extremes. In the midst of the ultra nationalistic era of World War I, leftist Randolph Bourne observed that war is the health of the state. If that is the case, then patriotism is the lifeblood of war. It is that America, a nation supposedly founded on liberty, freedom and justice has carried since its very inception against all manner of peoples. The stirring of imperialism, manifest destiny, and the concept of American exceptions form the very essence of this country. One need look no further than the systematic violence’s that is upheld in our international polices and national polices.
Just within Oregon, this can be seen in the Constitutional banning of black people from the state until 1927, the historical exclusion of Chinese immigrants and the deliberate prohibition against the formation of black communities in Portland, as well as violence against indigenous communities. Patriotism nationalistic form sees multiculturalism as a threat to the American way of life. This type of nativism is part and parcel to extreme forms of patriotism as it seeks to create an “us” and “them”, further strengthening the in-group’s bonds at the expense of and through the demonizing of the out-groups.
The liberal form of patriotism is perhaps a murkier pool in which to wade. This is the patriotism that you see on bumper stickers, which proudly proclaim that “peace is patriotic”, or “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. It is in these polluted waters that liberal patriotism festers. First both liberal and extreme patriotism seek to limit dialogue within a specific spectrum. Noam Chomsky states:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
Second patriotism sees America as a set of ideals laid down in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. However, these ideals are by no means unique our country but are based on the universality of freedom, liberty, and equality. The patriotism of the liberal as well as the extremist is in essence what could only be considered a specific type of self-love turned into an ideal. It is an egotistical selfishness that inevitably becomes self-preference. No matter one’s intentions, the nature of nation-states as organizations of power seeking ever more power is to compete consciously or unconsciously with other nation-states. They will inevitably be destructive towards other countries; this rarely helps the people within the country and is usually at their expense. There is specificity to the concept of liberal patriotism in that it seeks to uphold universal ideals within the narrow spectrum of love of country, which requires the us-and-them dichotomy. In contrast to such universal humanism, all forms of patriotism seek to include a specific few and exclude all others, thus creating both in-groups and out-groups.
There are a number of psychological dimensions of patriotism that provide us with a lens through, which we can better see its problematic nature. Patriotism is part of a myriad of interconnected behaviors and attitudes that we express consciously and unconsciously, rationally and irrationally, and which, frame the social makeup of our society. Patriotism applies specifically to the relationship between citizen and nation-state about which noted anarchist/Communalist Murray Bookchin wrote:
“Patriotism… is the nation-state’s conception of the citizen as a child, the obedient creature of the nation-state conceived as a paterfamilias or stern father, who orchestrates belief and commands devotion. To the extent that we are the ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of a ‘fatherland,’ we place ourselves in an infantile relationship to the state.”
Further not only does the nation-state see us as “sons” and “daughters”, but we ourselves project onto ever-expanding forms of social authority the longings originally satisfied by adult caregivers in childhood, further cementing the hierarchical relationship between citizen and country. This can be seen in the process of socialization, in which, through a series of loyalty transfers from smaller to larger groups, we come to see ourselves as representative of those groups and responsible to these larger group entities. Substantial research, across discipline indicates that people not only see groups as providing them with a sense of society and safety in exchange for loyalty, but that loyalty appears of the utmost importance in defining the individual within the group. The nation-state itself only becomes personally relevant to the individual when they gain both a sense of identity and self-esteem from it and an emotional attachment to the homeland. All forms of patriotism seek to include and exclude others by its very nature.
Given the divisive nature of patriotism and its ready insertion into the psychology of group behavior, we are faced with a difficulty. If not patriotism, then what? What should we hope to see in its place? First we must extricate ourselves from the dialogue of patriotism, as it keeps us within the states defined limits of conversation. If we are in fact seeking to uphold the ideals of liberty, justice and equality upon which America was supposedly founded then we are bound to uphold them universally, precluding the special concern based on nothing but the randomness of birth on which patriotism insists. Second as Bookchin discusses, there is a need for us to create the “spiritual underpinnings” that seek to reinforce ideals of solidarity, mutual aid, freedom and equality, in order to create a new world. It follows that to realize these ideals in the here-and-now we must not only meet the martial needs of people, but these “spiritual underpinnings” that sustain human side of life. If we are to this we must create a movement that seeks to both suppo0rt news forms of a more inclusive community and attack forms that wish to constrict and limit our ideals.