On Patriotism

By Namit Arora | Feb 2007 | Comments

Recent years have seen a surge in "patriotic feeling" across the US. One expression of this is the flag, which is now routinely seen on cars, shop fronts, windows, roofs, even jacket lapels. Many diehard patriots refuse to see the frequent immorality of US foreign policies abroad; criticizing them is held incompatible with patriotism in some quarters; questioning the war on terrorism is to flirt with treason. Zell Miller roared in the last Republican convention: "nothing makes this marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators."

The more thoughtful or liberal Americans might say that the above is clearly a crude and regressive view of patriotism, that there are other, progressive ways of being patriotic. They might say, for instance, that peace is patriotic (on lots of bumper stickers), or demanding transparency and accountability in US foreign policy is patriotic. Well-intentioned as these folks are, they are falling victim to the same conceptual trap. What they ought to change are the terms of the debate itself.

I believe there should be no room for patriotism in the mind of the thinking person. Patriotism, by definition, is exclusive. It shuts out some, focusing one's loyalty on a smaller group based on territory. It's even more incoherent in a multicultural state with lots of identities, disparity, and conflicts of interest. Just as a thinking person strives to rise above nationalism, so should he with its cousin, patriotism. British author George Monbiot has argued that there is no such thing as liberal patriotism:

And what, exactly, would a liberal patriotism look like? When confronted with a conflict between the interests of your country and those of another, patriotism, by definition, demands that you choose those of your own. Internationalism, by contrast, means choosing the option that delivers most good or least harm to people, regardless of where they live. It tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington, and that a policy which favours the interests of 100 British people at the expense of 101 Congolese is one we should not pursue. Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of the 100 British people. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How, for that matter, do you distinguish it from racism?

In his courageous book, Citizens of the Empire, Robert Jensen observes: "patriotism is not only a bad idea but literally a threat to the survival of the planet. We should abandon patriotism and strive to become more fully developed human beings not with shallow allegiances to a nation but with rich and deep ties to humanity." As Monbiot notes about his own feelings for his country,

I don't hate Britain, and I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I don't, and the same goes for everywhere else I've visited. To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others.. The world will be a happier and safer place when we stop putting our own countries first.

Patriotism is nothing but yoke for the simpleton and refuge for the scoundrel. The word belongs in a bin with other words like prejudice, racism, bigotry, chauvinism, sexism. There is no such thing as good patriotism.

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