Thoughts on Patriotism     (Mar 25, 2002)

What is "patriotism"?  Is it "supporting the country's leadership"?  If that's all it is, then Hitler's SS was full of patriots and Joe Stalin's NKVD should be our role models.

No, the patriot game is not "follow-the-leader".  It's more than that; it has to be (because there can be bad leaders as easily as there are good leaders).  Patriotism is wanting what is best for one's country and acting accordingly.  Unfortunately, this definition leaves considerable room for ambiguity.

Suppose, for instance that you fit this description (wanting the best for your country) and you want to bomb Upper Wheresoever because you think that's best for the country.  Suppose your neighbor also fits this description (wanting the best for her country) and doesn't want to bomb Upper Wheresoever because she thinks that would be bad for the country. Who is acting patriotically?  Who holds the patriotic opinion?  Could it be... both?

If the answer is "both", then we now know something else that patriotism isn't... it isn't "everyone holding the same opinion" or "everyone marching in lock-step".

But the most important thing that patriotism isn't: it isn't calling your neighbor "unpatriotic" because he or she doesn't hold the same positions you do.  In fact, labeling someone "unpatriotic" because they don't agree with you may be the very definition of "unpatriotic".

That's why some of the letters I've seen appearing in the St Petersburg Times and elsewhere of late are so disturbing:  the writers seem not to have given a single thought to the real meaning of words they throw around like grenades ...words like "patriotic".  They haven't yet asked or answered the question "What's best for this country?"

I don't claim to know exactly what's best for the country, but I'm pretty sure I know a few things that are bad for it: 

When people hate us or mistrust us, that's bad.  When they hate us or mistrust us because our country has acted like a bully toward them or has lied to them, it's doubly bad because we could have avoided making enemies of them in the first place.

Do you think there are people who hate us because they think our country has mistreated them?  It doesn't matter whether or not we have mistreated them — perception is reality.

A reasonable person will be forced to admit that some people hate the United States because of real or perceived harm we have done, and we take notice that some of them are willing to sacrifice their very lives to give others joy at our misfortune.  That is an extraordinary amount of hate.

A reasonable person will ask "How do we get out of this box?"

There is, I believe, a way to get out of this box:

That may not do much to mollify those people who already hate us, but it could prevent their ranks from growing.  On the other hand, if those who already hate us do so because we bully, play favorites, and butt into other peoples' business, they may see a reduced need to make us sad.

Or maybe not.  But we shouldn't be actively trying to make things worse.  We shouldn't be actively trying to give them more reasons to hate us.  We shouldn't be reinforcing their perceptions.

Those who do are planning bad things for this country, and they are not patriots.

© Frank Clarke, 2002

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