Patriotism: boon or bane

Is all this flag-waving pride in America good, or does it just feel good?

Capitol Mall was filled with Sacramentans expressing their patriotism during a rally Tuesday.

Capitol Mall was filled with Sacramentans expressing their patriotism during a rally Tuesday.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I have several times had occasion to express the idea that patriotism is in our time an unnatural, irrational, harmful sentiment, which causes the greater part of those calamities from which humanity suffers, and that, therefore, this sentiment ought not to be cultivated, as it now is, but, on the contrary, ought to be repressed and destroyed with all means that sensible people can command.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) penned those words more than a century ago. The Russian writer best known for his epic novel War and Peace didn’t live long enough to witness the calamity of World War I, but he had foreseen it, and he had long warned against the imminent dangers of patriotism and its role in the makings of war.

But how can expressions of love and devotion to one’s country bring such upheavals as war? In times of conflict and distress, as in war, isn’t it good for people to band together to protect what’s theirs? And doesn’t patriotism evoke a sense of pride and unity among its people as a way for the nation to get through such hard times?

“I think that when people use patriotism, it’s a way to express community,” said Mridula Udayagiri, who teaches social theory at California State University at Sacramento. “When we saw the events unfold September 11, we all recognized that it was a breakdown in community. People were trying to respond to that situation. We’re all given a vocabulary to express ourselves, and patriotism is one vocabulary where we express human community. It’s the one that’s easily available to us, and that’s why we use it—to express the shock and horror of a lost sense of social community.”

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on this country, displays of patriotism around the Sacramento area have included waving flags, lighting candles and singing songs about America once sung mostly at ballgames. But patriotism can entail much more than that.

Echoing the sentiments of Tolstoy, legendary rabblerouser Emma Goldman referred to patriotism as “the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers” in a 1911 essay titled “Patriotism, a Menace to Liberty.”

“The people are urged to be patriotic and for that luxury they pay, not only by supporting their ‘defenders,’ but even by sacrificing their own children,” she wrote. “Patriotism requires allegiance to the flag, which means obedience and readiness to kill father, mother, brother, sister.”

Patriotism and nationalism
There is, of course, nothing overtly inhumane or irrational about feeling patriotic. The current upsurge of patriotism in this country following the terrorist attacks has certainly been a good thing, said Jack Goldstone, professor of political sociology at the University of California at Davis. It becomes dangerous, however, when these patriotic feelings cross the line into sentiments of nationalism. It is important, then, to not confuse the two sentiments, he said.

“Patriotism is a feeling of attachment to community, where the community is a political entity,” Goldstone explained. “It’s usually a defensive feeling, embodied in ritual, things, symbols like saluting the flag. Nationalism is the exaltation of a particular community relative to outsiders or those who don’t belong.”

According to Goldstone, nationalism has historically been more closely tied to communities that claim to have a shared sense of descent where purity of one’s blood becomes paramount, as in the case of Nazi Germany. Sometimes it’s about a fellowship of people who can trace the origins of their ancestry as having lived in a particular place. Because nationalism tends to be exclusive to people of a particular nation who share in the nation’s culture, language, history and bloodlines, nationalist feelings can have a dark, emotional side that distinguishes between insiders and outsiders, and Goldstone cautions that such feelings are dangerous.

British-born journalist Sydney Harris once said, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”

Nationalist feelings get fanned in times of war and conflict when people tend to become suspicious about outsiders. But as the United States becomes ever more multireligious and multicultural, the abstract ideal of who constitutes a nation becomes blurred.

Whereas the Irish and Catholics were considered the outsiders in the early part of the last century, and Japanese-Americans were deemed outsiders by the U.S. government during World War II, so too could the ugly head of nationalism turn on the Muslims in this country if not checked by rationalism and acceptance of differences.

Certainly, there have been, and will be, isolated incidents of racial profiling and hate crimes committed by those who are fearful and suspicious of Muslims and other perceived outsiders, Goldstone noted. But where that has occurred, it has been roundly condemned and treated as criminal behavior to avoid fanning flames that could lead to any kind of crude nationalism.

“I think the leaders of this country have been very clear that they wish to evoke the patriotism of all people who call themselves Americans. It’s not a question of our people against their people, or our religion against their religion, or even our way of life against their way of life,” observed Goldstone. “We’re proud of our way of life, and we think it’s worth emulating, but we are not out to conquer the world or suppress others. We are simply out to defend ourselves from violence and terror.”

Pride as motivator
In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell argued that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism just as monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and organized religion a shield against superstition.

“As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of,” he wrote, “they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort.”

“Sure, it provokes people to hate,” Udayagiri said of nationalism. “But it is also a lot more complex than that. Nationalist ideas have always been used to justify actions in other communities. We can see that in terms of war making, but it’s also been one of the most pervasive ideologies that led to independence from colonialism.”

Udayagiri admits her difficulty in siding with critics of patriotism and nationalism. Having grown up in newly independent India, she often heard stories about her grandmother’s struggles and how India drove out the British by adopting a nonviolent nationalistic ideology.

On the other hand, Goldstone also recognizes that the full-blown nationalism arising from a country in conflict typically leads to witch hunts. As a result, patriotism and nationalism could then become a “menace to liberty,” as Emma Goldman expressed. The government sometimes turns on its own people in an effort to shore itself up, Goldstone said, particularly attacking with irrational severity those who are suspected of being on the outside.

“You would not want, for example, for anyone who ever spoke to, lived near, corresponded with any one of the people involved in the events of September 11 to be subjected to unlimited detention,” he said. “If you were working in a 7-Eleven where they came to shop and you’re trying to support a wife and kid, would it be right to lock you up for weeks or even months just because you happened to have had some conversations with these people?”

He doesn’t believe that it will ever come to a point where we would be living in such a policed state. Yet people should also be on the look out simply because historically, civil liberties do come under hazard in the aftermath of foreign attack.

“Foreign attack provokes nationalism. To the extent that nationalism is contained or treated as excessive and irrational, then we say, ‘Hold on, it’s not us against them,’ ” he added, “it’s our need to defend ourselves against particular enemies. Let’s focus on them. Let’s not try to make as many enemies as possible. Let’s not start seeing ghosts under every bed. Let’s follow our laws, have faith in our institutions, and protect the civil rights that we’re defending.”

Therefore, it is neither unpatriotic nor unreasonable for people to voice great concerns that we not go too far with regards to our government’s perimeters and authority. As long as you are motivated with a concern for the well-being of this country, he said, you can call yourself a patriot.

Symbols and gestures
John Lowe, adjutant/quartermaster of the California Veterans of Foreign Wars, agrees that, “Patriotism comes from within,” he said.

“If you believe in what’s going on, then you’ll support it. If you don’t, then you’ll have the right to do that too.” He strongly believes in standing behind the president in this current war on terrorism. He also believes our country’s current wave of patriotism is genuine and has always been there.

“I think it was a wake-up call. Sometimes it just takes a little spark to get everybody to come out at 110 percent,” he said. “I wish the patriotism that’s been portrayed in the last three weeks would be displayed every day. Ironic for me, you drive down the street when you go home and you don’t ever see an American flag whatsoever, and we’re fighting tooth and nail to have flags flown in our classrooms. Then in one day, this tragedy happens, and boom!—all these flags come out.”

Some folks in the peace movement, however, question whether all this sudden flag-waving will really bring us true unity. As harmless as this patriotic expression can be, there are those who fear that by not participating in the flag-waving cattle call, they might be singled out and cast as anti-American.

“My problem is, if I don’t wave the flag, are you saying I’m not patriotic, and therefore I should be eliminated?” asked Carl Pinkston, president of Sacramento-Yolo Peace Action. “Should I be detained, arrested, thrown into jail? Where is it that freedom and democracy say we have to live like Nazi Germany? You can’t tell me that on one hand you support democracy and freedom, and at the same time tell me that I can’t have the right not to wave a flag.”

Still, others wonder whether Americans really know what they mean when they wave that patriotic symbol.

“I mean, what are you saying?” asked Rebecca Livingston, a Sacramento peace activist. “Are you saying I realize I’m an American, I love my country, and I love what it stands for? But then the question is, do people really know what [the flag] stands for? And are they really willing to undergo what it takes to have our country put its feet where its mouth is—justice and freedom and equality—all those things that we say we believe in?