Saturday, July 05, 2008

What is Patriotism?


On this 4th of July week-end, it seems quite appropriate to have a little discussion on patriotism. It has been, after all one of the issues recently raised in the presidential campaign. Unfortunately, whereas love for country should be a unifying factor, it has been used as a divisive issue, mostly by conservative Republicans.

In very telling manner, Powerline (the influential conservative blog) has summed up the vision of the conservative wing of the Republican party:

One of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives, perhaps the most important one politically, is what they think (or how they feel) about the United States. Conservatives think the U.S. is a great country. Liberals think it is a deeply flawed, but redeemable, country. Radicals think it is hopelessly bad and should be destroyed or remade.

Barack Obama gave a speech on the subject in which […/…] he suggested that the height of patriotism lies in criticizing one's country. This is a common liberal conceit.

This is a complete fallacy of course, which implies tin essence that there is only one correct form of patriotism: one that does not allow criticism. It also gives an overly simplified binary version of one’s relationship to one’s country, a reminder of the once popular bumper sticker “America, love it or leave it. But indeed, one may “love” and be critical at the same time. Parents (especially conservative ones) do it all the time with their children. Besides, blind love of country amounts to idolatry.

What Obama underlined in his speech is indeed exactly the opposite, that America is a nation of diversity with “varied convictions and beliefs.” And that “We argue and debate our differences vigorously and often" which is precisely what makes America one of the great countries: it gives people the right and the freedom to express their criticism.

Unfortunately, many of the conservative Republicans equal criticizing the government (especially in foreign policy) with being unpatriotic and even un-American, but only of course when the administration is run by a Republican president. For this is nothing new of course: it was done in the 50s, in the 80s and they’re doing it again.

The other characteristic of conservative patriotism is that it has a great love for ostentatious signs of patriotism and it measures one’s love for their country by their public display of the flag or their participation in collective rituals such as the Pledge of Allegiance, public prayer and even loyalty oaths. It doesn’t mean that those who love such gestures are un-Patriotic or that they are hypocrites, no, it just means….. not a whole lot! Those gestures are very easy ones to make.

As David Greenberg puts it, other more liberal people (like many Europeans) tend “to regard collective gestures like the Pledge of Allegiance as hollow, tokenistic, and even potentially coercive—and thus antithetical to the individualism that lets free thought flourish”.

John McCain’s patriotism cannot be questioned of course, because he was a P.O.W. and as such he is for Americans, the embodiment of courage but Obama represents another form of patriotism, the embodiment of American ideals: "this essential American ideal—that our destinies are not written before we are born—has defined my life. And it is the source of my profound love for this country: because with a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, I know that stories like mine could only happen in America.".


Obama is America’s best (potential) asset in the world, and his being elected would send a very powerful signal to the rest of the world, a sign that would definitely make up for huge the loss of confidence and tarnished image of the United-States in the world in the last few years. This is no small consideration for it would give make the rest of the world believe in America and her ideals again.

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