Once upon a time, patriotism was a fairly simple thing. It was tribal identification writ large, an emotional attachment to a people and their land. In most of the world, where patriotism exists at all it’s still like this — tribal patriotism, blood-and-soil emotionalism.
A different kind of patriotism emerged from the American and French revolutions. While American patriotism sometimes taps into tribal emotion, it is not fundamentally of that kind. Far more American is the sentiment Benjamin Franklin expressed: “Where liberty dwells, there is my country”
Thus, most Americans love their country in a more conditional way — not as a thing in itself, but insofar as it embodies core ideas about liberty. It is in the same spirit that our Presidents and miltary officers and naturalizing citizens swear to defend, not the land or people of the United States but its Constitution — a political compact. This is adaptive in many ways; one of them is that tribal patriotism is difficult to nourish in a nation of immigrants.
In France, the ideology of the Revolution displaced tribal patriotism, just as it did in the U.S. But the French, roiled by political instability and war, have never settled on a political unifying idea or constitutional touchstone. Instead, French patriotism expresses a loyalty to French language and culture and history. It replaces tribalism not with idealism but with culturism.
America and France are a marked contrast with, say, Denmark. I chose Denmark at random from the class of civilized countries in which patriotism is still fundamentally tribal. You don’t become a Danish patriot by revering the constitution or culture of Denmark; you become one by being a Dane. Which partly means being a tribesman, connected to the Danish genepool, and partly means identifying with stories of past Danish heroism.
It hasn’t been easy to find a fire-breathing Danish patriot for at least fifty years, though. One of the effects of the terrible convulsions of the 20th century has been to discredit tribal patriotism. Many people in Europe, not unreasonably, associate it with racism and Naziism and are suspicious of anything that smacks of immoderate patriotism.
This is less true in the U.S. and France, precisely to to the extent that their patriotism does not depend on tribal feeling. Intense patriotism remains respectable in the United States precisely because it is primarily an ideological phenomenon not tied to blood and soil. At its best (a best which Americans achieve rather more often than most non-Americans understand) it manifests as a high-minded determination to secure the blessings of liberty not just for tribal Americans but for every human being.
All this is fairly generally understood in the United States, and not controversial. But American-style ideological patriotism has pathologies of its own. These are less well understood, and at the bottom of some serious fissures in American political culture.
The left-wing American historian Howard Zinn once asserted that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” It is telling that this quote is often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence, because it does sound like something Jefferson (who famously opined that he thought the infant U.S. might require periodic revolutions every twenty years or so) might actually have said — even though it is not in much doubt that he would reject almost every other feature of Zinn’s politics.
Embedded deep in the American model of patriotism is the notion that it may be expressed by a passionate determination to reform or even completely upend American institutions in service to the ideals behind them. This is not, as far as I can tell, true anywhere else in the world. It would seem an alien idea even in modern France, where the excesses of the Jacobins irreversibly tainted that sort of fervor with blood.
I respect that tradition of patriotism by dissent because I am part of it. I’m both an American patriot and a libertarian anarchist. I both love my country and would cheerfully abolish its government and many of its laws as soon as practically possible, in service of a higher loyalty to individual liberty; “Where liberty dwells, there is my country”. Even Americans who disagree strongly with my political stance have no real difficulty understanding how it is compatible with American patriotism.
But patriotism by dissent can take a much stranger turn. An influential minority of Americans now behave as though loving their country as it might be in the imagined future, where everything they don’t like about it is fixed, excludes loving their country as it actually is!
There was a flap in October 2007 when would-be Presidential candidate Barack Obama said that he stopped wearing an American-flag pin after 9/11 because he thought doing so had become a “substitute for…true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security.” In doing so, Obama (who founded his candidacy on opposition to U.S. war policy in Iraq) was clearly equating “true patriotism” with the patriotism of dissent.
Many Americans bridled at this, feeling that the real subtext of Obama’s refusal to wear a flag pin expressed a lack of love for America as it actually is. Matters were not helped when his wife Michelle responded to a string of primary victories by saying “for the first time in my life, I’m proud of my country” (emphasis added). There was widespread feeling that one of the qualifications for anyone aspiring to live in the White House should be a rather less conditional love of country than this.
The question Barack and Michelle Obama’s behavior raised is not a new one. Can one reasonably be called an American patriot if, even recognizing its imperfections, one doesn’t love America as it is? Obama, for his part, must have concluded that most Americans would answer “no”. At least, I think that’s what we can deduce from the fact that he started wearing a flag pin again — and whatever else can or cannot be said about Obama, he is extremely good at reading and reflecting the expectations of his audiences.
At its extreme, patriotism by dissent becomes a kind of anti-patriotism in which dedication to an imagined America-that-might-be produces actual, destructive hatred of America as it is and has been. Unreasoning, extreme patriotism is sometimes called “chauvinism”, after the Napoleonic French officer Nicolas Chauvin; for this kind of anti-patriotism I shall analogously coin the label “chomskyism”, after a well-known U.S. radical who appears to embody it.
Chomskyism is not a phenomenon entirely exclusive to left-wingers. It can be found in the darker corners of the hard right as well, especially in the fever swamps that begin near Pat Buchanan and extend towards the “white nationalist” movement. These people remain, however, distinct from actual neo-Nazis or fascists, who fail to be patriots of dissent because they have no investment at all in the American ideal of liberty.
But my choice of Noam Chomsky as an icon does reflect the fact that chomskyism is far more a phenomenon of the American left than of the American right. It is near impossible to imagine a conservative presidential aspirant refusing to wear a flag pin, or explaining that refusal as Obama did.
On the other hand, what one might call a sub-clinical version of chomskyism is extremely common among mainstream left-liberals. Many seem embarrassed by the symbols of patriotism, or incapable of expressing love for their country without feeling obligated to engage in a great deal of semi-ritualized breast-beating about its past and present flaws.
One may reasonably ask why this matters. Is patriotism important? Supposing it is, to what extent is chomskyism really a problem?
I will tackle those questions in a future post focused less on history and observation, and more on questions of ethics and values.