Notice this year how the concept of patriotism has been lashed with unbreakable cords to the business of war-making. To be a true patriot, you must genuflect at the alter of war— just ask the good-hearted folks at NPR (National Pentagon Radio).
But in reality, however you start and wherever you look, patriotism is elusive, and always entangled in context—historical flow, cultural surround, political perspective. It’s a wobbly concept at best, debatable and necessarily occupying a contested space—the young students of Parkland, Florida stare over a barricade at the irascible NRA leadership, each claiming the shiny mantle of patriotism; National Football League team owners lock out Colin Kaepernick, and decree (in the name of patriotism) that players must stand respectfully during the playing of the National Anthem, mistaking a forced display of patriotism for the thing itself rather than what it actually is: a long-standing hallmark of authoritarianism and autocracy.
The instinct and desire to belong to something larger than oneself—a people, say, or a singular nation—is common; the longing for membership in a distinctive group with clear boundaries and stable expectations is clear. I don’t underestimate the sense of pleasure and solace that accompanies an embrace of patriotism, and I find the enthusiasm for a tribal identity, while troubling, understandable. But the pitfalls of patriotism are everywhere, and at some point those hazards must be honestly faced.
To begin, patriotism is not, and cannot aspire to be, a universal moral code like “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” say, or “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Patriotism is always local, and it can never, therefore, express a general principle or a common human aspiration. After all, if everyone on earth claimed tomorrow to be a patriot of their current country of residence, 20% of the world’s people would be Chinese patriots, and 4.4% would be patriotic Americans.
When Mayor Rudy Giuliani was asked if waterboarding human beings constitutes torture, he offered a patriotic/nationalist response: “It depends on who does it.” In his own mind, he was surely acting as a textbook patriot, supporting the country and offering a rigorous defense against enemies or detractors. But note: actions are held to be good in some hands, and bad in others depending solely on who commits the outrage. Torture, assassinations, bombing civilians, forced confessions, invasion and occupation, involuntary servitude, hostage-taking, imprisonment without trial—all of this and more is judged according to the patriot/nationalist by a single criteria: who did it? Patriotism, then, dulls the imagination, obscures reality, anesthetizes some people, and causes moral blindness or ethical amnesia in others.
James Baldwin pointed out that the “American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians…[Our] tendency has really been…to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.” White identity politics has always called itself simply “American.”
“If we have to use force,” former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously said, “it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.” A benign interpretation of that extravagant claim might visualize the country as a shining city on the hill, paragon of democracy and freedom; a more execrable interpretation might see the US astride the world like Colossus, holding itself exempt from international agreements like the international criminal court and the Paris climate accords, above the laws that govern others, particularly concerning the use of lethal force.
Because we are the very model of virtue and righteousness, our actions are always good; because our actions are always good, we are not subject to the ordinary rules that apply to all others—we are the indispensable nation. So while Russian meddling in US elections is widely seen as outrageous (and it is), US meddling in elections from Honduras to Ukraine to Cyprus to Venezuela is, if we bother even to notice, not so bad. The naked narcissism is breath-taking.
Patriotism promises a steady anchor and a convenient road map, but in reality it’s entirely unstable. Anyone wrapped in the flag or donning the crown of patriotism would be well-advised to pause before being lulled into a sense of settled comfort, or a fuzzy feeling of self-righteousness. The wheel turns and people stumble into the vortex of a dynamic, living history, the crown suddenly tarnished or askew, and they are, then, required to make choices without guarantees or easy agreement.
All human beings are indigenous to planet Earth. There is, therefore, no such thing as a foreigner, no naturally bounded nation. We might work, then, to replace national patriotism with human solidarity—sin fronteras.