“Patriot Games”

by Rich Lowry

You may be tired of the nationalism/patriotism debate, but it isn’t tired of you. I have a piece on the home page responding to Jonah’s G-File last weekend, which elaborated on his first reply. One of my counter-counter points: 

Jonah is slicing it very, very thin here. In his first reply to our piece, Jonah wrote, “Everyone is born a nationalist, to one extent or another,” and that’s because nationalism isn’t a doctrine “but an emotional or psychological state.” It is a “natural human passion” that needs “proper channeling.” Becoming a patriot, per Jonah, takes careful ideological training of the sort set out by a Walter Berns. 

Then, in the G-File, Jonah writes, “People all over the world love their countries.” This makes patriotism sound, if not universal, quite widespread. And what is love, if not itself an emotional or psychological state that needs careful channeling? Indeed, Jonah talks about how we need to distinguish between different kind of loves.

His discussion of this point is genuinely interesting, but it seems to me that Jonah has given away whatever categorical distinction he wanted to maintain. By his account, both nationalism and patriotism are natural to some extent or other, both are passions, and both need to be channeled in constructive directions.

So what’s the fundamental difference between the two? At the end of the day, Jonah’s definition seems to come down to patriotism is everything good and right and nationalism is (mostly) everything intolerant and dangerous. If we take this literally, patriotism is the only human passion that can never be distorted or go wrong. Patriots never become chauvinists. Patriots never, in an excess of zeal, trample on another country’s interests or honor. They never, during a time of war, clamp down on dissent. Patriots are paladins of truth and justice, and if they ever misstep they, by definition, becoming something else — nationalists, presumably.

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