The Soft Underbelly of Patriotism©

By Dwight Owen Schweitzer, July 18th 2010

On it’s face it seems like such a simple concept to wrap one’s mind around, just ask anybody within earshot to define patriotism and they will tell you; love of country, pride in its accomplishments, the benefits offered by it’s way of life, the high points of it’s history, the sacrifices of it’s soldiers in worthy causes, all legitimate, all proper, and all contain the seeds of a nations decline.  In order to understand the dangers inherent in patriotic fervor one only need look at how and when the call to patriotism is heard, who is extolling it’s virtues and the causes that impel them to do so.

More often than not, from a historical perspective, patriotism has rarely if ever been the impetus to the kind of critical self-examination that strengthens the best of a societies crowning characteristics. The quintessential example of the power of patriotism to move a population to embrace negative change is found in the rise of National Socialism in Germany.  The appeal of Adolf Hitler was largely his oratorical ability to move his people by a blatant appeal to their patriotism.  Similarly, it was the use of patriotism that offered Joseph Stalin the ability to move his people to ignore the fact that he was a butcher of over twenty-five millions of his own people, and in the process made Ivan the Terrible look benevolent by comparison. Stalin, whose paranoia and the consequences of the compendium of his decisions not only led up to World War II, but through his non-aggression pact with Germany actually enabled Nazi Germany to go to war. Despite all this, he was able to use patriotism as the glue to galvanize his people, admittedly aided by Nazi brutality, to see him, even in the dark days of the first year of war, as a national hero.  It was not an accident of nomenclature that in Russia, World War II is known as “The Great Patriotic War” to this very day.

What are the lessons we can learn from these admittedly extreme examples of the perversion of patriotism? To find the most recent period in our history, a time when our society had reached a high level of social instability and unrest one need only look at the closing days of the Vietnam War.  One particular event comes to mind from the Nixon-Agnew years, an unprecedented period when both the Vice President and later the President of our country were ultimately removed from office before the end of their elected terms as a result of their separate, and unconnected, illegal conduct.

This particular lesson centers on the attempt of that administration, in the name of patriotism, to outlaw the protest burning of the American flag, an increasingly common protest to the Vietnam War. [1]  I was in Europe at the time and I remember being so offended by the proposed legislation that I actually wrote an op-ed piece about it that was later published in the International Edition of the Herald Tribune.  The thought expressed was that we are not a nation that elevates symbols, however vaunted, over the freedom of expression, a point of view that was ultimately adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States when the question ultimately came before them.  One wonders how the present Court would respond to the question were it to come before them for the first time today, but that is a subject for another piece at another time.

On the 4th of July we celebrate a burst of patriotic fervor that usually centers on the good things in our history, the winning of our independence, our victories in WW II, and in some parts of the country, the winning of the Civil War although it is worth noting that there are towns in the former Confederacy that did not celebrate the 4th of July from the end of the Civil War until well into the 20th century.

What is missing in our compendium of national holidays and is as important if not more so than ‘Independence Day’, is a day that calls to our national consciousness, the atrocities of our history of which there are many, slavery being the most notorious but by no means the only egregious example of our past and present failures to live up to what the documents we revere on Independence day promise us but did not, and in innumerable instances even today, do not, deliver.

Patriotic fervor does not make us want to critically examine let alone improve our society, rather it makes us luxuriate in being what we were and by inference what we now are.  The challenges that face our nation today on every level both at home and abroad need a commitment to, and a degree of, change at almost every level of our society.  The list is too long to repeat here but it includes how we educate our children, shrinking access to and confidence in our legal system, what are our national priorities in how we use our wealth, grow our economy, instill confidence in our electoral process and our elected officials.  The growing gap intellectually as well as economically, between rich and poor, the increasing power and influence of lobbyists and special interests, the break down in our sense of cohesion as a people, the decline in ethical standards of conduct at almost every level of our society which can only be described as an ethic of selfishness, at least until a huge catastrophe reminds us of the better angels of our nature, at least for a time.  Make no mistake, as our society declines we will see a resurgence in patriotism, placed in the service as it has been in the past by those who reap the benefits of the status quo.  I suggest that a society that luxuriates in its past is one that has lost faith in its future.


[1]It is worthy of note that the proper way of destroying a damaged American flag has always been to burn it

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2 thoughts on “The Soft Underbelly of Patriotism©

  1. Another incisive commentary. Thank you, Dwight.

    But a question is how can one motivate a people – any people – to be self critical? Every successful politician has invoked patriotism and self-laudation. Only those who are not seeking approval themselves, only those of certain courage, strength, intellect and passion can and will move public discourse toward changing the status quo – and then they are pilloried and risk even death.

    • Well Bennett, in the 60’s a whole generation questioned everything spontaneously and without the benefit of the Internet to keep the movement in sync…the pendulum swings…and I sense it is swinging back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the generation that is coming of age in a world without borders is just waiting for a spark and it will come….not alas from me, but it will come. (please G-d)

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