I remember having a conversation with a coworker nearly 20 years ago about patriotism. He felt frustrated with what he saw as a lack of patriotism among some. I asked him what his definition of patriotism was, and he said something to the effect of, “Patriotism is seeing that 90-year-old veteran still standing up and putting his hand on his heart as the flag goes by during the parade. It’s that feeling you get when you see the flag and think about how blessed you are to live in this country.”
He asked me what my definition of patriotism was. I don’t remember exactly what I said, I’d like to think it was something like this: “Patriotism is loving the ideals of your country enough to celebrate its success and confront its faults, past and present.” That perspective resonates with me now more than ever. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. To me the dictionary definition of patriotism is superficial:
“Patriotism: noun devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”
I view patriotism as something that can be more substantive and lasting. An appreciation of the principles and values a nation holds, a willingness to sacrifice and work towards putting those values into practice. In addition, an honesty about when a nation has or does fail to live up to its high ideals and sacred creeds.
Nationalism on the other hand, is, I think, more like the definition of patriotism above with the added idea of thinking one’s nation or its people are inherently superior:
“Nationalism: noun patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts, an extreme form of this, especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries.”
So, with these operational definitions in place. Let’s compare and contrast:
Patriots are not afraid of the past. They know history is a case study, not just designed to affirm our greatness, but also to expose our weakness, in the hopes of helping the nation rise to its expectations and moral ideals.
Nationalists twist history into a narrative that shows them in the best light–one that values strength over sincerity, power over truth. One that covers up past weaknesses or even worse blames them on scapegoats.
Patriots lead, persuade and inspire others to live up to their nation’s best ideals. They create traditions that inspire and motivate. They share responsibility and credit.
Nationalists bully, intimidate, shame and demand loyalty. They seek to maintain control. They take credit and crave the spotlight.
Patriots know they widen their influence as they widen the tent. They look for ways to include. They build capacity knowing a rising tide floats all boats.
Nationalists pick winners and losers, look for ways to elevate themselves, view the world through a lens of scarcity and mistrust.
Our first summer in Boston we were lucky enough to attend the Boston Pops July 4 celebration. During the national anthem, an on duty National Guardsman next to us instructed a young man to remove his hat during the national anthem. When the kid did not comply the soldier then demanded he do so. The soldier’s demeanor, tone and insistence were intimidating and threatening to say the least. It not only didn’t inspire me, it left me feeling ashamed that I didn’t speak up. I wish the young man would have had the respect to have remove his hat without being asked. I also wish the soldier would have had the humility to let it go. I wish I had the wisdom to know what I should have said to whom–nothing about that exchange seemed patriotic or worthy of emulation.
I worry that sometimes we think love of country is enough–as if we can somehow overlook our need to understand and navigate deep, complicated issues with deep feelings of devotion. Our demonstrative examples of love of country somehow justify our lack of daily civic engagement. We eulogize and memorialize the fallen soldier, as we should. However, that can be no excuse for not caring for the mental and emotion broken ones who live among us. We honor the pioneer of yesteryear, yet fail to give respect to the struggling working class of today.
To be completely honest, I’ve had some cynicism about patriotism. After 9/11 there was a deep and understandable turn to love of country, but it felt to me at times that the love of country was an excuse to avoid the deep mental, emotional and theoretical soul searching we needed as a nation. It was hard to take the rebuke I sometimes got for not wearing a flag lapel pin or my lack luster love of displayed patriotism, especially from those who didn’t know the difference between Iraq, Iran, Sunni or Shia. I wanted to say, “I love this country but my patriotism is currently straining under the weight of Abu Ghraib, waterboarding and faulty intelligence.” There was a time the phrase “…and to the republic for which is stands” was one of the only pledge phrases that could bring my hand to my heart. I had to reconcile my love of country with what others seemed to be ignoring because of theirs.
I have learned to meet people where they are, to not impose my lived experience on them. I do, however, firmly believe that love of country does not absolve us of our responsibility to country.
I hope to deepen my love of country with a commitment to helping it live up to its inspired ideals, to embrace patriotism as I’ve defined it, to let go of cynicism and reclaim optimism, because I believe America is an idea not a country, and it’s one worth fighting for.