In 1942 students at the University of Munich formed the “White Rose,” an underground resistance to Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich; when they were uncovered and captured they claimed to be German patriots even as they were denounced by the regime as “degenerate rogues” and sentenced to prison or death. At the Nuremberg trials after World War II several Nazis pointed out (accurately—but to no avail) that they obeyed not only orders but also the law, and were, therefore simply doing their patriotic duty as Germans.
A group of anti-communist Cubans, all self-styled patriots, backed by the US CIA, launched an invasion in 1962 of the island-nation from Florida in an attempt to overthrow the revolutionary government. They were defeated at the Bay of Pigs by another group of Cubans, mobilized under the banner “Patria o Muerte,” who thought of themselves, naturally, as patriots.
A self-described patriot in Shanghai told me years ago that “the student riots in 1989 were the work of foreign agents and local traitors.” More recently I met a Chinese graduate student at Harvard who said that the students who led the Tiananmen Square uprising were “true Chinese patriots.”
Finally, I had a lengthy back-and-forth at the University of Southern Georgia some years ago with a man wearing a jacket emblazoned with a Confederate Battle Flag and a “Tea Party Patriot” patch. I pointed out that the Confederacy was organized by traitors—not patriots—willing to blow up the nation in defense of a single freedom, namely the right to own other human beings; he disagreed.
However you start and wherever you look, patriotism is inevitably elusive, and always entangled in context—historical flow, cultural surround, political perspective or preference. 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 in the name of patriotism, and decree that players must stand respectfully during the playing of the National Anthem, mistaking an enforced 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 embedded in the local, and can never 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 the classic 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: to the patriot, 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, constant state surveillance, involuntary servitude, hostage-taking, imprisonment without trial—all of this and more is judged according to the patriotic 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.
Our country was founded on slavery and genocide—it’s part of our American character and country. Many self-defined patriots want to deny or forget that agonizing, painful, sometimes horrifying part of our history, but the cost of not remembering can be excruciating as well—willful ignorance, sham innocence, and collective silence in the name of patriotism assure that the racial wounds will never heal, the horror will abide. The tragedy, shame, and pain of this country—including kidnapping, slavery, rape, murder, genocide, torture, terrorism, predation, exploitation and oppression, degradation and humiliation—are foundational, linked, and evolving. Slavery begetslynchingbegets Jim Crow and segregation and voter suppression and on and on to mass incarceration.
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 simply called itself “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, the very 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 unambiguous 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 by US patriots as outrageous (and it is), US meddling in elections from Honduras and Venezuela to Ukraine and Cyprus is (if they even bother to notice) not so bad. The hypocrisy and naked narcissism is breath-taking.
The great American poet, Walt Whitman, evoked a sense of universalism in his love songs to the country: “This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God…take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”
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 any fuzzy familiar feeling of self-righteousness. The wheel turns and people stumble into the vortex of a dynamic, living history, the crown suddenly tarnished or askew, the banner singed and torn, and they are, then, required to make their wobbly ways without any guarantees whatsoever.
All of this might move us to note that every human being is indigenous to planet Earth, and that there is, therefore, no such thing as a foreigner. We might work, then, to replace national patriotism with human solidarity—sin fronteras—in the spirit of Chicago’s poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks: “…we are each other’s harvest:/ we are each other’s/ business:/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.”