Patriotism is one of those sentiments that makes libertarians such as myself weary. Patriotism has been abused and misused for ultra-nationalistic ends, whether we look back at World War Two or see the bigotry and xenophobia ultra-Right political parties espouse. In the vast majority of cases, you won't see American patriotism go to those extremes, but at the same time, it makes me shudder how patriotism can be and is used to exploit the public into unquestionably pledging allegiance to a nation, regardless of how much it screws up. Is unwavering loyalty to a nation-state true patriotism? Can one question their nation's course of action while still maintaining a sense of patriotism? These are questions I hope to answer today.
Patriotism is one of those difficult things to define because its meaning can change from culture to culture, not to mention that those of different political ideologies view the idea of patriotism differently. Etymologically speaking, the word "patriot" comes from the Latin word patriota (fellow countryman) and the Greek word πατρίς (country). Even with the origin of the word established, the philosophical debates behind what patriotism emerge. The Cato Institute actually provides a lively debate on the topic here.
"Love for one's country" is too simple of a meaning. What exactly are we loving in the first place? The physical land? The people? The politicians? And how do we define love? People can do silly things in the name of love, much like countries can do silly things in the name of national interest. How do we show love for our country? Does flying a flag outside of your house or posting some seemingly wholehearted Facebook status count as patriotism? Does one have to go as far as serving in the military or actively participating in civic duty in order to be considered a true patriot?
I feel like I need to go back to what one is loving. I don't think it's a piece of land that one is supposed to love. At least in an American context, true patriotism is about loving the ideas upon which this country was founded. One of the things that makes the United States so atypical in terms of how nations were formed is that this country was built on an idea of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. There is a sense of rugged individualism and freedom to determine one's own destiny that was decidedly not in the framework of the European aristocracy that controlled 99.9999% of the wealth up until pre-modern times. America is about the idea of becoming your own person and pursuing your own dreams. That is why the definition of American is minimalist in comparison to other nationalities. All you have to do is either be born in the United States or go through the naturalization process. Beyond that, it is primarily your destiny to become the person you want to be. With this liberty, there are many Americas: Jewish America, black America, Hispanic America, gay America, Catholic America, hippy America, atheistic America, the America for white, heterosexual, Christian Republican males.....I can go on, but the point is that these sub-cultures exist because multiple groups can exist in tolerance and plurality. Think of America more as a tossed salad than a melting pot.
Is America perfect? Much like any other nation-state, the answer is "no" because humans are definitionally fallible. However, the fact that we strive closer and closer to an ideal, even if we never fully achieve it, is what I think makes for truer patriotism than mindlessly waving a flag, barbecuing, and wearing red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July. Samuel Johnson famously called patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel," but when read in context, Johnson was making a distinction between vicious and virtuous forms of patriotism.
For those who have read my blog, although it covers many topics, it serves as an ode to criticizing American public policy. Does this mean that I hate America? Absolutely not! As I already pointed out, it is still flawed because fallible human beings are in charge of governance. If you love something, you want it to grow and be the best it can be. That is at least part of the reason why my blogging criticizes America. It's because I love a country that, in spite of its flaws, offers freedom of religion unparalleled to any other country. It has a relatively free economy and provides opportunities to grow that did not exist for much history, and do not exist for most of the world. Although I might complain about American public policy, I also try to at least offer solutions to make it better. One can criticize out of love. As the American Enterprise Institute points out, 65 percent of Americans think this country is seriously on the wrong track, yet 83 percent of Americans still think this is the best country in which to live.
There's no contradiction between patriotism and criticism. As a libertarian, I criticize both the encroachments and imperfections of the American government while simultaneously celebrating the freedoms this country has to offer. As my former professor put it, "the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in the hopes that America would be a libertarian playground." My patriotism is not a sentiment that shuts my brain off when someone lobs the smallest of criticisms of America. I don't suffer from disillusionments simply because America needs to work on certain areas of improvement. I want to live in a land of the free. I want to see America live up to that classically liberal idea. If wanting to see my country truly become the land of free makes me a patriot, then I guess I'm a patriot.
Happy Fourth of July!