Is Patriotism Good for America?

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This week: Is patriotism good for America? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

Americans, by and large, are a flag-waving bunch. We celebrate the country’s founding myths and egalitarian ethos, even as we acknowledge when they fall short or are tainted by slavery and other sins. Our embrace of patriotism also makes it a potent weapon. During the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump talked about how a 12-year-old boy putting flags at soldiers’ gravestones is a reminder of “why we proudly stand for the national anthem” — an unmistakable reference to protesting football players. Among the most cutting critiques of Team Trump’s dances with Russians during the 2016 campaign is that they were unpatriotic.

Patriotism is often tied to American history and ideals, but how the country lives out those ideals is open to political interpretation.

When raising the question — Is patriotism good for America? — the answer emerges reflexively: Yes … but. There can be a dark side, when patriotism is used to discriminate or when it fuels a rush to war. But those forms of extreme patriotism are better labeled chauvinism (named for a French soldier who was over-the-top loyal to Napoleon) and jingoism (from the British expression “by jingo”). “Patriotism and nationalism, properly understood, don’t mean other countries are bad,” says John Fonte, senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute. “It just means attachment to your own country.”

Perhaps the most famous utterance on the topic comes from 18th century British writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In reporting the comment, his biographer, James Boswell, hastens to add: “But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.” So what is real patriotism? Simply defining it as love of country deprives the word of its weight. Patriotism is often tied to American history and ideals, but how the country lives out those ideals is open to political interpretation.

There was a time, when he was protesting the Vietnam War, when Stephen Nathanson did not feel particularly patriotic. Patriotism for him evoked enthusiastic support for the American government. The draft dodgers decamping to Canada or the unshaven masses in the streets did not necessarily call themselves patriots.

Nathanson’s views shifted in the 1980s, when he joined up with those protesting nuclear weapons. What’s more patriotic than not wanting your country to be wiped off the map? You can be pro-country without being pro-government. Now, when Nathanson looks at the women’s marches or athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem, he sees patriots. So, too, are those he disagrees with vehemently. “You can have a lot of people who call themselves patriots and care about the country, but care about it in very different ways,” says Nathanson, a philosophy professor at Northeastern University and author of Patriotism, Morality, and Peace. “Take the white nationalists — they’re patriots. They’re not anything I think is worth doing, but they’re patriots.”

The divisive nature of patriotism — not to be confused with the even more divisive nature of the New England Patriots — can reveal itself in something so simple as the “USA! USA!” chant. Consider the differing emotions it evokes when coming from fans during an Olympic competition, from white high school students in competition with a heavily Latino school, or from members of Congress in response to the peroration of Trump’s State of the Union address. As USA chants rolled through the House chamber on Tuesday night, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who considers Trump a racist, pointedly walked out of the room.

So what do you think? Do stars, stripes and anthems bring us together or tear us apart? Let us know by emailing or by answering in the comments below.


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