Monday, April 21, 2008

What is patriotism?

Last week, Scott Adams (the author of Dilbert) posed the following question on his blog:
If a person is relatively certain that going to war will end his ability to enjoy the rest of his life, one way or another, and the war does not present a plausible threat to the homeland, is such a person unpatriotic for dodging the draft to save himself?
Some of comments struck me as rather asinine. For example, they keep referring to you "your country calling you to serve," or questioning the value of patriotism. And yet, they don't actually get to the real question Mr. Adams is posing: What is patriotism?

Many arguing that patriotism itself is a bad thing seem to be operating under the assumption that patriotism mean blind acceptance of the president's views/beliefs/orders/desires. But plainly that can't be true.

Obviously, one element of patriotism is love of country. I would suggest that that is actually the root of patriotism, it's essence. Love of one political party over another is not patriotism, nor  is love of a particular leader, though perhaps either could be compatible with patriotism. 

Refusing to defend one's country against and existential threat is clearly unpatriotic. No question. 

Refusing to enable internal powers to twist one's country to support their new goals or ends is not unpatriotic. 

But the line is not clear. If you love your country enough, wouldn't you want to see its interests furthered? For example, if the United States needed to annex Canada in order to survive an energy crisis, it strikes me as being unpatriotic to refuse to take part in the invasion. Of course, allowing the country to get to point -- or enabling others to do so -- would also be unpatriotic. 

An essential element of modern (liberal) democracies is the peaceful handover of power from one faction/party to another. George Washington stepped down after two terms, peacefully. And Al Gore refused to challenge the results of the 2000 election past the Supreme Court decision, though many urged him to and the Constitution allowed for it. Is it inevitable that power will change hands, and with that so will policy.  Louis XIV said, "L'Etat c'est moi" (i.e. "The state is me"), but democracies' leaders cannot say such a thing. Therefore, aggrandizement  of a particular leader or blind devotion to his/her policies cannot be patriotism, as both will change shortly, perhaps even radically.

Criticism of a leader is not unpatriotic, on it face. And refusal to serve an unjust cause that does not protect the nation or its interests is not unpatriotic, either.

Of course, one must come to some kind of answer of what it is that is loved, when on proclaims love of country. Is is the land itself? Is the original peoples? The powerful classes? The masses? The messy diversity that exists in that particular country, be it ethnic, socio-economic, regional, what have you? Their common denominator? Some set of value or principals or some sort?

I think that there are different kinds of countries and that there different answers for these different countries. I don't think that Iceland and the United States can have the kind of patriotism. Icelanders share a common language that goes back centuries, a homeland which their forbearers have inhabited for as least as long, a common culture and way of life. The US is almost entirely made of immigrants and their descendants. Has even a quarter of our population's families been here for even 100 years? (Half of New York City either immigrated here themselves or are the children of immigrants.) The French might love their common culture and language, both of which go back far further than this country's. 

I think that this country, the United States, is especially a country of values. 230 years ago, it was not out ethnicity that set us apart from England, and yet we broke apart from the British Empire. Patriotism in the United States cannot simply be about our ethnic heritage, as that varies. It cannot be about the land, as we have grown through our history and out founding documents barely reference it at all. Clearly, the United States is largely about our governing values and principals.

However, I would not argue that the Constitution is the entirety of what matters about the US. There are other values that are a part the very fabric of this nation that do not about in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Pluralism, the common school, economic opportunity, freedom from many areas of discrimination. 

I acknowledge that there are some questions as to which values actually should be included in that group. Simply projecting all of my own values cannot work, as others have different values. There will always be arguments about what values are the essential American values, and some incontestable values likely can be in conflict with others, so the prioritization of those values will also be an area of debate. 

But blind faith in the leader of the moment or the powers of the day? That is not patriotism. Temporary control over the levers of power does not make a group, however powerful, the same thing as state. 

So, dodging a draft that exists to fight an unjust war that does not protect whatever it is about a nation that is loved when one is patriotic? That is not unpatriotic. And it might even be patriotic itself. 

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