Patriotism: Virtue or Vice?

Faith - Lake Peekskill, New York
Entered on April 12, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I know . . . at that question half of my readers would throw this in the circular file if it wasn’t electronic.

But please make no mistake . . . I love this country . . . that is, I love the people and I love the essential compassion I believe we all wish to share.

I remember well the warm glow our childhood civics lessons created in me when they told those wonderful stories of our forefathers and the creation of our nation. I remember colorful historical accounts of the development of our laws and the creation of the courts and was taught that these guarantee and preserve our freedom and rights. I was urged to be very grateful for what we have, and to desire to protect it at nearly any cost. I learned to revere the flag, as a symbol of everything so beloved, to never defile it and to burn it only when too tattered to carry on.

Though through the years further education has shown me that our forefathers were not, in life, the saintly creatures of my early textbooks and our system is often, in practice, less than perfect, I still believe that there is much to love and respect in our people.

Though I have learned that the motives of the men who created this country were in large part more about financial freedom than any other kind, I believe that they were also dedicated to creating a country that at least strove toward humanitarian ideals.

So why the question? Isn’t it obviously a virtue to be patriotic . . . to want to love and preserve such ideals?

Perhaps. But when I think again about what we were taught, the warm glow fades a bit into worry. Fun stories taught as allegory to teach us about the actual virtues of the rights every human should enjoy, and the freedom a government of laws should preserve, is one thing. But inherent too in what we were taught is an inextricable bonding of those ideas to a nation, a nation that must be protected.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that if freedoms and rights are not defended they won’t be around very long. But when we fight with a near-religious fervor, a feverish love-of-country, we often change into that which we fight. When we forge forward daily with hatred on our lips we lose the humanity we seek to protect.

Sadly, patriotism in its “love of the people” sense too often morphs into nationalism, creating an environment of goose-stepping automatons. Such people chant their country’s ritual phrases and follow blindly whatever the current government prescribes. Dedication to ideal becomes trampled in the quest to protect the country from all threat, real, and ultimately, imagined. Nationalism becomes jingoism, requiring aggressive foreign policy . . . “us against them,” at all times.

Finally, it even becomes difficult to distinguish “us” from “them,” as the unfortunately-named Patriot Act so poignantly demonstrates.

I have to ask myself then, if patriotism is the first step down a very slippery slope, must I be wary of it? Though I’m loath to actually answer my own initial question by calling patriotism a vice, I do believe we must be on guard against what it could become. I am not a pacifist; as I said, I believe in the necessity at times to fight for the freedom we enjoy. However, I respect the wisdom in a pacifist’s understanding that any step toward violence and fear, which is so often borne upon the back of patriotism-become-nationalism, can progress to so much more, even genocide. We must, therefore, hold fast to the nearest reaches of the slope and refuse to slide no more.