Blind Patriotism

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Patriotism is defined as, 'a feeling of love and devotion to one's own homeland.' (Patria: The land of one's fathers.) It seems that this definition has fallen by the wayside and been replaced by blind devotion to one's leaders ("America, right or wrong," "America, love it or leave it" or "You are either with us or against us.') Might may bring success in war, but it does not make the stronger side right; it only makes them a bully! By and large, any selfless act that directly benefits the State will be deemed patriotic; perhaps the clearest example is the act of risking one's life in battle for the State. Many other less dramatic beneficial acts, such as performing the backup work needed to keep a military force functioning, or looking out for the morale of soldiers, may also be considered patriotic. Symbolic acts are often considered to be patriotic as well. These acts would include flying the national flag, singing the national anthem, participating in a mass rally, placing a 'patriotic' bumper sticker on one's vehicle, or any other way of publicly proclaiming one's blind allegiance to the State. The line between these kinds of patriotic acts is vague, and blurred by the fact that some people feel that in committing an act of symbolic patriotism, they are raising the strength of mind or morale of their fellow man. The fact that these symbolic gestures are usually performed by those who lack the testicles to actually go off and fight in a war themselves is often overlooked by the sheep; better your son than theirs. The degree of patriotism varies across time and among nations. Typically, patriotic acts and feelings are greater during wartime, or when that nation is otherwise under external threat. It is less understood why nations vary in their levels of patriotic feeling. Among modern societies, many have observed a difference between the United States, where symbolic patriotic expression is highly prevalent, and the nations of Western Europe, where symbolic patriotic expression certainly exists, but plays a less important role. The types of acts considered patriotic depend very much on one's point of view. Acts that one person considers patriotic may appear treasonous to another. For example, both soldiers and war resisters may consider their actions driven by a love of their country, and a desire to see the greatest good for it; while at the same time seeing the other person's actions as damaging and unpatriotic. People have different opinions about whether patriotism is morally good. Often, these opinions vary according to what sort of patriotic and religious fundamentalism is involved. People see religious wars against barbarians (non-believers) as superior to wars of imperialism and are therefore more inclined to fight "terrorism" than they are to fight to steal another country's oil or land. Some instances of patriotism induce almost universal approbation. To give just one of many possible examples: In 1940, a number of Dutch soldiers gave their lives in a hopeless cause attempting to defend the Netherlands from invading Nazi armies. This act would be considered by almost everyone to be a clear case of selfless, admirable patriotism. Yet many of the invading Nazi soldiers doubtless felt too, that they were engaged in patriotic acts, in this case on behalf of the German nation. Many of them had been indoctrinated in a form of unquestioning patriotism during their teenage years, while they were members of the Hitler Youth. Very few people today, even in Germany, would consider the unprovoked German attack on Holland to have been justified. To the extent that patriotism facilitated it, then patriotism could be considered, in this case, a bad thing. Throughout history, various governments have invoked patriotic feelings to support military aggression, arbitrary imprisonment of aliens, and even murder--acts considered to be evil by most individuals. In addition, many politicians have exploited patriotism in attacking their opponents, accusing them of betraying the State. It appeals only to a visceral negative emotion (that is, angry patriotism), rather than one's reasoned views on policy. George Bush is a master at this particular form of propaganda, and that nearly half of the voters bought into his scam is proof that it still works. A commonly cited example of the danger inherent in the political exploitation of patriotism is the case of Adolf Hitler, who rose to power (terminating the federal republic in Germany for many years) in part by accusing the existing government of treason for having signed the armistice that ended the First World War. A good argument can be made that by admiring a particular act of patriotism, we are admiring patriotism itself, or rather the selflessness that patriotism often inspires. Returning to the example given above, (the German invasion of Holland) it should be examined whether any particular self-sacrificing Dutch soldier actually experienced the emotion of patriotism (that is, devotion to the Dutch national state) while he fought? It is possible that some of these soldiers fought merely because they hated fascism, because they did not want to appear to be cowards, or because they felt that a soldier always ought to do his duty. In this example, we can imagine two soldiers, equally brave and self-sacrificing. The first soldier is motivated by a narrow-minded, chauvinistic preference for all things Dutch. The second cares nothing for the Dutch State as such, but has carefully studied fascism and has a deep commitment to save the world from its perceived evils. Many people might well admire the second soldier more than the first, even though he could be considered the less patriotic of the two. The example illustrates the point that patriotism embodies two things: selflessness, which virtually everyone admires, plus a belief that we owe a greater allegiance to our fellow citizens than to ourselves, or foreign countrymen. The question of whether we are more like brothers with our countrymen than with foreigners arises constantly in practical life. For instance, immigration laws are based on the principle that the citizens of a country, merely by accident of birth, have an automatic entitlement to live in it, but a foreigner does not. Little consensus currently exists about how, in formulating policies, we should weigh loyalties to the State against loyalties to all of our fellow humans. In his article "Is patriotism a virtue?" (1984), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre addresses this question in a particularly subtle way. He first notes that most contemporary conceptions of morality insist on a kind of impartial blindness. He suggests accidental traits like national origin, in the just treatment of our fellow humans; patriotism is inevitably not moral under these conceptions. MacIntyre goes on, however, to construct a sophisticated alternative conception of morality, which would be compatible with patriotism. History has many famous patriots who were not native to the country they defended. For example, the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who fought for the independence of the 13 British colonies of America, and many other heroes of humanity. Why do so many people experience intense patriotic feelings? Terms such as Patriot Act and United We Stand, have turned our society into brainwashed sheep, willing to give up their freedoms at the drop of a hat. It seems possible, in fact, that there are two meanings for the phrase Patriotic Act. In the broad sense, a patriotic act is any selfless act that benefits the State, irrespective of motivation. In the narrow sense, a patriotic act is a selfless act that is specifically motivated by patriotic feelings. One explanation that has been proposed is that such feelings result, in the long run, from kin selection. Our ancestors certainly lived in small groups of genetically related individuals. Feelings of intense loyalty to one's own group might have led individuals to take actions that were poorly justified on grounds of self-interest, but helped the group as a whole. Since genes tend to have been shared by the entire group, and cooperation likely was critical to group survival, a propensity to experience feelings of loyalty to the group was probably favored by natural selection, an idea that had been expressed by Charles Darwin in 1871. Since Darwin's time, evidence for kin selection has been observed among many species that live in small groups. Frequently, animals in such species have been observed taking actions that risk their own lives, but benefit the safety of the group as a whole. An example would be the issuance of a warning call against predators, an act that directs the predator's attention to the creature that gave the warning. Moreover, it is documented that the members of such groups typically are indeed related, and thus share a tacit interest in the long-term success of each other's genetic endowment. Today, of course the feelings of intense patriotism that grip many Americans cannot possibly be supported in the evolutionary sense by kin selection, since Americans form a huge and genetically very diverse population. This lack of connection with the original genetic predisposition to protect the genetic line has made the unnatural leap to protecting arbitrary political boundaries or defending one's concept of the 'god' creature. The political rhetoric associated with patriotism often compares the State to a family, as in for instance, the terms Fatherland, land of the free, or Mother Russia. In the kin-selection account of patriotism, this kind of metaphor might be viewed as seeking to focus the natural feelings people have towards kin onto the State as a whole. Still other people would reject the kin selection theory of patriotism simply because they reject the theory of evolution on which it depends. Often such individuals rely instead on religious beliefs, or dogma to understand why the human character is the way it is. From this point of view, one possible account of patriotism would be that 'god' has permitted individual people to become either good or evil (a consequence of the doctrine of free will), and that patriotism is simply a natural behavior of good people. Throughout history, patriotic feeling has often been linked to religion. At various points in history, particularly in time of war, various relations of religion and patriotism have prevailed. In one variant, patriotic participants in a war acknowledge that the enemy worships the same 'god,' but judge that this 'god' is on their own side, thus providing the external justification for patriotism noted above; 'god' loves me more! This is perhaps a fair characterization of the attitude of many of the participants in the American Civil War, or most of the fronts of the First World War. Another variant is for each side to worship different 'gods,' acknowledge that the other side's 'god' exists, but believe that their own 'god' is superior. This may have characterized the conflicts between the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opponents. Or said another way, my 'god' is greater than your 'god,' and I am willing to kill you to prove it! Yet another version of religious patriotism is the belief that a 'god' or set of 'gods' is on one's side, and that the 'god' or 'gods' of the other side simply do not exist. This view often characterized the beliefs of the European powers during the colonialist period, when their armies often fought against pagan opponents. Under any of these circumstances, religion can provide a satisfactory account to its believers for what otherwise would be a paradox, namely, that both sides in a conflict can feel patriotic at the same time. The idea would be that the other side is in fact fighting against 'god's' will, and thus can be considered to be engaged in a false kind of patriotism. I think an argument can be made that democratic government is a cause of patriotism. For instance, it could be imagined that the military forces of ancient Greece succeeded in fending off much larger numbers of attacking Persians because ancient Persia was a despotism, whereas many of the Greeks lived in democracies, which gave them a sense of solidarity and hence of patriotism. Similarly, it is often thought that the French Revolution, by freeing the French of the yoke of monarchy, set off a great surge of patriotism that led to the great (if ultimately temporary) success of the French armies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Of course I realize that this theory cannot be entirely true, since there have been many nations that have had tyrannical systems of government, but nonetheless had very high levels of patriotism. Two have already been mentioned here: early 19th-century France (after Napoleon had made himself emperor) and Nazi Germany. A third and more recent tyrannical (dare we speak it) government is the American Theocracy. Patriotism can be either for or against the current government of a nation. Supporters of the current government may hold the opinion that patriotism implies support of one's government and its policies, and that opposition to the government's policies amounts to treason. But in other instances, rebellion against a corrupt or tyrannical government may be justified as an act needed to save the nation, and thus is likewise motivated by patriotism. Patriotism is at times associated with ethnocentrism, or the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own people. However, in the case of ethnocentrism, the people in question need not form a nation, but can be a smaller or larger unit. Moreover, the term ethnocentrism is generally used negatively, whereas the term patriotism is quite often used positively. It is also sometimes problematic to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, as some people tend to use nationalist as a near synonym for patriot. However, nationalism (but not patriotism) also has a particular meaning, expressing a desire among a people to form an independent nation. After September 11, 2001, there was a surge of patriotic feeling in this country, which became manifested in many of the phenomena discussed above. For instance, displays of symbolic patriotism became ubiquitous, as Americans took to attaching multiple flags to their automobiles and the outside of their homes. As in previous episodes of intense patriotism, the political climate came to include accusations of national betrayal and even treason. For example, President George W. Bush claimed, "If you're not with us, you're against us." In the U.S. Senate, Republican senator Trent Lott exclaimed "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism?" It is my belief that the surge in patriotism was a key factor that enabled a number of major changes in national policy. The (conspicuously named) USA PATRIOT Act, which was hurriedly passed in late September of 2001, was designed to combat terrorism but is considered by many to constitute a harmful assault on civil liberties and freedoms. It is obvious that the patriotic surge created a political climate under which it was possible for the Bush Administration to launch wars first in Afghanistan and then (far more controversially) in Iraq. Like almost all wars, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have increased patriotic feeling. As casualties have mounted and opposition to the war has increased, a pattern seen earlier in the Vietnam War has re-emerged: Those in favor of war consider those who oppose it to be unpatriotic, or even outright traitors. Several conservative commentators have indicated they feel that news that paints the US in a negative light is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Once again, war is the health of the State. These are perhaps some of the most famous remarks about patriotism made: Samuel Johnson said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' Well-known anarchist of her day Emma Goldman, in a speech entitled 'What is Patriotism?' delivered in 1908, said of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, 'He defines patriotism as the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers." Three years later, in 'Patriotism a menace to liberty,' she wrote, "Conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism.' Author George Bernard Shaw defined patriotism as "your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." In a notebook in 1904, Mark Twain wrote, "The soul and substance of what customarily ranks as patriotism is moral cowardice and always has been." Bertrand Russell said, "Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons." There can be no moral or legal justification for the type of patriotism that seeks only to inspire the members of one group to commit unspeakable acts against other groups for religious or political gain. Small groups should protect their genetic line from extinction from other groups by returning patriotism to its natural inclination. It is long overdue for mankind to end the faith of Blind Patriotism!

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Mike Wasdin's picture
Columns on STR: 46

Mike Wasdin is an Anarcho-Capitalist from Phoenix, Arizona. He also moderates an anti-government website on Yahoo.