Most Americans take for granted that patriotism is a virtue. We are taught at home, in school, and by the media that love for and pride in our country rank among our highest moral duties. We are exhorted to patriotism daily by flags, songs, holidays, monuments, marches, speeches, images, and literature that extol the glory of our country. So deeply ingrained is our belief in the value of patriotism that even to question it is taboo. When someone criticizes our personal sense of patriotism—always a ready-made tactic for trashing peace activists—it stings, and makes us very defensive. We think they just don’t understand what true patriotism is all about, and perhaps we are moved to buy a bumper sticker reading “Peace Is Patriotic.”
But is patriotism peaceful? Based on my life experience, studies, intellect, and conscience, I am led undeniably to the conviction that patriotism is immoral: It is selfish and irrational, hinders our judgment, divides the world, contributes to militarization, causes war, and contradicts the teachings of Jesus.
Patriotism is an attitude of favoritism toward “my country” and “my people.” If egotism or pridefulness toward oneself is a vice, then patriotism or pridefulness toward one’s particular country is likewise deplorable.
Patriotism clouds our judgment; it hinders objectivity and detracts from our ability to assess political situations rationally. Patriotism biases us toward our country’s perspective, encumbering our desire and ability to consider outside perspectives. Patriotism breeds conformity and closed-mindedness. Furthermore, it makes us overly trusting of those in power over us, and susceptible to abuses of that power.
This is evidenced by what happened after 9/11: Americans were swept up in a wave of feverish patriotism and fell in line with a corrupt agenda. As a prime example, take the USA Patriot Act—who would dare oppose such a noble-sounding ordinance? Never mind that it involves gratuitous violations of civil liberties; what freedom-loving U.S. citizen does not also love warrantless surveillance, wiretapping, search and seizure, as well as detention and no-fly lists? Clearly, the act was given that title because politicians know the efficacy of patriotism for manipulating public opinion.
That patriotic propaganda measures are increased during wartime should be reason enough to give us pause concerning patriotism. Notice also how many flags are displayed for U.S. holidays associated with war—Presidents Day (celebrating the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, both notorious for leading war efforts), Memorial Day, Independence Day (celebrating the day war was declared by the colonists on Britain), and Veterans Day—and how few flags appear on other federal holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (honoring a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), Thanksgiving (purportedly celebrating gratitude and cooperation between European colonists and Native Americans), and Labor Day. The bond between patriotism and war is not even covert.
I personally experienced the intoxication of patriotism. Right after 9/11 (before I was a Quaker), I supported the Iraq war. I believed that the cause was just. Looking back, I realize that I was living in a fog, basing my opinions on fleeting, vague notions. Because I heard something about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), I was able to watch “shock and awe” approvingly, naively envisioning the United States speedily wiping out terrorism by force across the world. I cringe when I recall arguing with someone publicly that the United States should ignore the United Nations’ caution about entering Iraq.
When it became clear that Iraq had no WMDs or links to 9/11, and that the war was based on lies, I felt betrayed. I also felt guilty for my own poor judgment—how could I have been so gullible? Grappling with this, I eventually saw that I had fallen prey to the stupefying effects of patriotism.
In kindergarten, I learned a mysterious morning chanting ritual in which one robotically pledges one’s life to a flag and to one nation under God, “invisible” (as my child’s mind heard it) with liberty and justice for all. Now I understand what I was saying. And I understand that people, and certainly Christians, should not pledge at all, certainly not to a material object (an idol), certainly not to one particular nation among many, and certainly not to something under God. I also know now that no kingdom save an invisible one could truly have liberty and justice for all.
I remember getting emotional about the war song known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In seventh grade, I even won third place in an essay contest on the topic “What does patriotism mean to me?” I virtually equated America with freedom—faulty reasoning on which the essay was based and for which I was rewarded.
Many of us are taught in school that “America is the greatest country in the world,” while the darker aspects of our history are largely ignored or glossed over. So how could I not view the United States as innocent, and anyone who opposes it as unreasonable and even evil? How could I not assume that whatever the United States does is destined to work and that the president always speaks the truth?
Patriotism divides the world. Anarchist Emma Goldman, in a 1908 speech on patriotism and militarization, said: “Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate.” Patriotism separates us from other little spots and builds pride in our us-ness, setting societies against each other under the pretext that to protect us we must be prepared to kill any of them. If all countries are encouraged to be prideful toward themselves, how can we be surprised when war occurs? Further, patriotism has a tendency to result in nativism, for example, in Nazi Germany and in discrimination against immigrants in the United States.
For patriotism to be a universal virtue would be illogical. If it were virtuous for every human being to be patriotic toward the same country, then this—while crude—would be self-consistent. But if it is right for the English to be patriotic toward England and the French toward France, then when England and France have a conflict of interest, morality will conflict with itself. Two leaders will disagree and both will be right, and two armies will clash and both will be doing the right thing.
Patriotism is a major factor contributing to militarism and war. It is the primary force that glorifies combat, and nothing contributes to the propagation of war more than military hero worship. As long as the view prevails that there is no more glorious, honorable, and heroic service than to train to become a killing machine, there will be war, as any leaders who fancy an attack will have legions of glory-seeking yes-men at their mercy. Military hero worship is what makes it possible for a decent person to murder on command in good conscience. Albert Einstein wrote in The World as I See It in 1931, “The greatest obstacle to international order is that monstrously exaggerated spirit of nationalism which also goes by the fair-sounding but misused name of patriotism.”
Patriotism is contrary to the teachings of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “You have heard that it was said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.”
In the context of Hebrew law, here referenced by Jesus, neighbor meant “fellow Israelite,” that is, compatriot. Thus, enemy, used in contrast to this, would likely be understood to refer to a national enemy. Jesus was demanding that no distinction be made between countryman and foreigner.
In fact, allegiance to any current government is consent to violence. Governmental power is rooted in violence—in the military, as well as the armed police. No one sincerely committed to the principle of nonviolence can in good conscience give consent to an institution based on military force. We can contrive many rationalizations for the supposed necessity of government, but this contradiction cannot be denied. The United States Constitution, purporting to be the “supreme law of the land,” grants the government the power to declare war.
We Christians are called to recognize a different law as supreme—since we cannot serve two masters, let us not be servants of men, but let our sole allegiance be to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom not of the worldly kind and so one that does not require its subjects to fight for it, for we have only one Master and are all brothers and sisters.
Leo Tolstoy, in his 1896 essay “Patriotism or Peace” (how’s that for a bumper sticker slogan!), writes, “If Christianity really gives peace, and we really want peace, patriotism is a survival from barbarous times, which must not only not be evoked and educated, as we now do, but which must be eradicated by all means, by preaching, persuasion, contempt, and ridicule.”
In “Patriotism and Government,” published in 1900, Tolstoy writes: “It is immoral because, instead of recognizing himself as the son of God, as Christianity teaches us, or at least as a free man, who is guided by his reason, every man, under the influence of patriotism, recognizes himself as the son of his country and the slave of his government, and commits acts which are contrary to his reason and to his conscience.”
The usual rebuttal to condemnation of patriotism is that some patriotism is bad, but not all; only excessive, imperialistic, blind, narrow-minded, exclusivist patriotism, go the many variations—but not our “healthy” patriotism.
Patriotism in its purest form—from which all others derive—is the desire for one’s country to claim glory and power over all others due to its people’s superiority. To say that excessive patriotism is bad, but that there is a “golden mean” of patriotism, is to say that excessively promoting violence is bad, but moderately promoting it is good. Non-imperialistic patriotism still implies acceptance of past imperialism. What country was not founded on or upheld by unjust conquest?
And yet we have no reservations in our allegiance. Patriotism itself blinds and narrows our minds; it is essentially a bias. This supposed “clear-sighted” patriotism doesn’t exist, unless perhaps for self-interested manipulation of others, because to see patriotism clearly is to see its pernicious implications. If we remove all that is exclusivist about patriotism, nothing remains.
Most people will grant that my argument holds in the context of despotism. Some, however, may object that since our government is a democracy, the right to dissent is its distinctive mark and, in fact, what makes it worthy of patriotism in the first place. It follows that it is our patriotic duty to question authority, and that, as the late social historian Howard Zinn said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Given the First Amendment, I can understand why someone might believe that dissent is patriotic, and I used to. But consider this statement by linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky: “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.”
In public discourse, there is a sense that we can disagree as we may, if only in the spirit of patriotism. Thus, it seems as though dissent needs patriotism to legitimize it. So while we may dissent on particular issues, a prerequisite is assent to the system as a whole—a system rooted in violence. Each time we patriotically dissent, we buy into this violent system all over again. Perhaps nothing reinforces the violent status quo more than patriotic dissent: It implies that whatever our disagreements, the one premise that even the most radical dissident dare not question is rule by violence.
To break from patriotism may seem shocking and painful. But I daresay that many people in the United States reading this do not really love the United States, though we think we do. What we really love is an idealized version of the United States. We love the values of equality and liberty in the Declaration of Independence. But these values did not originate in 1776; they existed long before, and will continue long after the United States is gone. And the actual United States has never really lived up to these ideals.
Inequality and lack of freedom were written into the U.S. Constitution with the institution of slavery, and have since continued through various forms of oppression. To this, we might retort that what we love is the tremendous courage and perseverance of the people of the United States in overcoming these injustices. But why give credit to the United States for what resides in the human heart? Have not people from all corners of the earth exhibited this same spirit? Most great reforms are initially opposed by governments, and thus much of the people’s perseverance has actually been subject to persecution.
Some assert that patriotism keeps countries together. But why presuppose that this is good, that the status quo ought to be maintained? That this is even offered as a response reveals the depth of our indoctrination and directly reflects the view that the powerful have always endeavored to inculcate in the masses through patriotism—that whatever upholds the current establishment is good and necessary. If patriotism alone were keeping a country together, it would be an artificial basis propping up an outlived tradition. Political establishments should be maintained only as long as they are just and beneficial. A sound social organization should be able to self-persist organically, rendering patriotism superfluous at best.
If we want to achieve world peace and a form of society not based on violence, the time for change is now. But if we eradicate patriotism, what unifying principle can replace it? One answer is humanism. It unites not a particular group, but all people.
If humanism proves too weak a sentiment, let us embrace universal love. This can happen when we realize our connection to others and the underlying unity of all things; when we experience the Divine inherent in ourselves and recognize this same divine essence in others; when, as Quaker founder George Fox wrote, we “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
Tony White teaches philosophy at Pennsylvania College of Technology and Misericordia University. Excerpted from Friends Journal (Feb. 2011), a periodical designed to serve the Quaker community and other spiritual seekers through the publication of news, essays, poetry, letters, and art. www.friendsjournal.org