Our Strange Relationship with the Word ‘Patriotism’

Fourth of July parade in Barnstable, Mass., in 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
We simultaneously expect too much and too little of it.

There are many definitions of patriotism. Mark Twain said patriotism means supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.

I like this, but it’s flawed. Sometimes your country — i.e., the people — can do things that require the government to correct its citizens. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights. Sometimes “we the people” are wrong, and the individual is right. That’s what G. K. Chesterton was getting at when he said, “‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

In other words, patriotism is a simple concept in the abstract — “love of country” — but it can be complicated in its application.

I love my daughter deeply, but that love does not mean unconditional support for everything she does or wants to do. Sometimes the greater act of love is to say “No” or “You’re wrong.” But I think all reasonable people can agree that any father who says to his daughter, “I wish you were never born,” does not love his child.

Which brings me to a Fourth of July essay written for Vox, “Three Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake,” by Dylan Matthews.

He begins: “This July 4, let’s not mince words: American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.”

Matthews’ three reasons: The American Revolution prolonged slavery; independence was bad for Native Americans; and we would have a better system of government if we had a parliamentary system like other former colonies of the British crown.

Now, I could argue against all these propositions, but that’s not the point I want to make. Instead, let us concede them for argument’s sake.

It strikes me as incontrovertible that this is an unpatriotic argument.

That is not to say it is an evil, dishonest, or treasonous argument. But if the dictionary definition of patriotism is “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country,” then dispassionately arguing that it would be better if the United States of America had never existed strikes me as a singularly unpatriotic thing to do.

And that’s okay. Oh, I disagree with Matthews, but it has always struck me that the cultural prohibition against ever “questioning” someone’s patriotism tends to confuse more than it clarifies. During the George W. Bush years, it was a cliché of the Left to insist that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Of course, once President Obama came into office, dissent became synonymous with racism according to many of the same people.

We have no word for the person who doesn’t have special affection for our country that isn’t freighted with negative connotations.

By the way: It’s simply not true that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. As my National Review colleague John O’Sullivan puts it: Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Ergo, treason must be the highest form of patriotism.

This points to the problem with the schizophrenic way we talk about patriotism. Too often it is an anathematizing word used to brand someone as a heretic or traitor. That’s how Senator Joe McCarthy used it, and one finds versions of it on the nationalist Right every day. But since the McCarthy era, we also cast the act of questioning someone’s patriotism as somehow treasonous or evil, too. “How dare you question my patriotism!?” is one of the great conversation stoppers.

Of course, some forms of dissent are, indeed, rooted in patriotic love of country. But some dissent is rooted in disdain, contempt, or even hatred for this country. And some dissent is simply informed by a kind of cosmopolitan indifference to American exceptionalism. These attitudes are more prevalent on the left than the right, but they are not unknown to the right. One of my intellectual heroes, Albert Jay Nock, often commented that he’d be just as happy to live in Belgium as America.

I think we simultaneously expect too much and too little of the concept of patriotism. An atheist by definition has no love of Jesus or the divine. That doesn’t mean an atheist cannot be a good person. Indeed, one of the best things about atheism is its honesty. We have no word for the person who doesn’t have special affection for our country that isn’t freighted with negative connotations. It seems the moment is ripe to coin one.

© 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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