Travis Hardin Home : Essays : The Nature of Patriotism
The Nature of Patriotism
Not long after the September 11 horror I was driving along the street when a pickup truck with a man at the wheel breezed past me. It was one of those giant-sized trucks. In the center of the bed was a pedestal, perhaps made for a trailer-hitch, but today it was holding a very large US flag whose top extended above the cab and whose pole was as large as a heavy broomstick. A bumper sticker read, "Charlton Heston is my President."
This rah-rah warrior patriotism, gun-toting patriotism, flag-wrapping patriotism, mindless patriotism has long troubled me. It misses the point of patriotism. It's testosterone spewing. It's the kind of patriotism used by politicians to influence the mindless, particularly conservative ones. Patriotism before September 11 had become a synonym for conservatism. Wearing a flag lapel pin was a symbol meaning, "I'm more Republican than you."
I chose for years to let the partisans keep the term "patriotism" they had captured. I think it's adequate that I served my country in the armed forces and would have died for the people who held my life in their hands, even for the stupidest reason. (Where was the choice?) There's no flag waving there, only a (resentful) participation in doing my duty to country.
How to show patriotism yet separate myself from the unthinking and the partisan has always been unclear but important to me. After September 11 I attached to my left rear car window a little paper flag smaller than my hand. Tastefulness, I thought, will separate me. My tasteful little flag is still there. Nothing more.
There has long been a flag cult in the U.S. and it's getting worse. I know of people still steaming over the burning of flags by 60's radicals. I'd like to dispose of the whole symbolism issue. I personally prefer a time in the late 19th century before flag-waving or a pledge of allegiance came into being. Flags didn't then evoke emotion. They were mainly for military or naval use. (Huntsville <Alabama> Times p. C6 Oct 28, 2001, Newhouse News Service, quoting Guenter, Scot, "The American Flag: 1777-1924.")
While I was still seeking to disassociate myself from the merely nationalistic and the merely partisan by defining patriotism in a way that actually means something, I came across the solution.
What follows is a way of thinking about patriotism that I can subscribe to, and that all can embrace (but probably won't). The quotations are all from an article written for Knight Ridder News Service by Robert D. McClure, senior associate dean of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and professor of political science and public affairs. The article appeared in the Huntsville Times Sunday March 24, 2002. He espouses "intelligent patriotism."
McClure says, "Citizenship is granted only by a country, a sovereign state. With citizenship comes responsibilities and -if we are lucky enough to reside in a democratic country - rights...
"Patriotism is prompted in some measure ... by gratitude. Our rights are a gift from those who died on the beaches in Normandy, in the heat at Gettysburg, in the snows at Valley Forge; an undeserved blessing bequeathed by our ancestors, who managed to keep the democratic faith, however imperfectly. We did nothing, absolutely nothing, to earn our rights, except for being born in the right place and at the right time.
"The individual intelligent patriot willingly complies with the legitimate demands of an enduring democratic community, for the sake of passing on the gift of rights, the blessings of freedom, to the next in line. He pays for posterity, because he has a debt to settle, owed to his ancestors.
"At its core, patriotism is about self-sacrifice - giving up personal interests for the good of the democratic whole, when reason, obligation, or circumstances requires it. The citizen who wraps himself in the flag - all the while selling personal advantage as the national interest - is no patriot, but a sorry scoundrel. On the other hand, the citizen who subordinates his personal interests to advance the security and rights of his fellow citizens - with or without the flag - is a true patriot.
"In stark contrast with nationalism with which patriotism is easily conflated, intelligent patriotism is never arrogant; ardent nationalism always is...
"Karl Schurz...statesman... is known for saying 'Our country, right or wrong.' But he said more than that, which we seldom are told. The next sentence was: 'When right to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.' The first sentence alone 'our country right or wrong' is crude nationalism. The two sentences taken together are the essence of what I mean by intelligent patriotism.
"Intelligent patriots conclude that it is neither rational nor democratic to always obey, nor rational or democratic to always resist. They live uncomfortably ... with their conscience and their community, trying to honor and protect both...
"Intelligent patriots, then, know both how to snap to and salute and how to stand tall and speak out.
"When to salute and when to speak out?...our deep obligation is to seek the experience and judgment necessary to decipher when we should do what, knowing the answer is not always obvious."
About that guy in the big pickup truck? He was by all appearances just an ass.