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Opinion: Against Patriotism

Poli Psy


Published July 16, 2008 at 5:12 a.m.


"Here, brother, for you a flag," sing the proud sons and daughters of Armenia, formerly the proud sons and daughters of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. "Look at it, three colors / It's our gifted symbol / Let it shine against the enemy / Let Armenia always be glorious!"

Down in Harare, where the dictator is murdering his opponents, the people's voices rise: "O lift high the banner, the flag of Zimbabwe / The symbol of freedom proclaiming victory / We praise our heroes' sacrifice / And vow to keep our land from foes / And may the Almighty protect and bless our land."

And here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the Star Spangled Banner waves over another chosen people: "Blest with victory and peace / May the heav'n-rescued land / Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation."

In every national anthem, the flag is glorious, the hills beautiful, the citizens courageous, free and blessed.

There's a reason all national anthems are the same: Patriotism is a one-size-fits-all emotion manufactured of sentiments that everybody subscribes to - freedom, loyalty, honor, brotherhood - at least while they're waiting for the ballgame to start. Problem is, once the first pitch is thrown, patriotism requires you to cheer for one team only.

These truths became self-evident during Independence Day week, when the American presidential campaign turned

into an America-love competition - or a tribunal on Barack and Michelle Obama's allegiance to the fatherland and (yet another) 10-gun salute to the heroism of John McCain.

Obama stood up for wife and country in Independence, Mo.; an abbreviated version of his speech was published in Parade, alongside McCain's own homily on patriotism. The pundits dutifully parsed the differences, and a few emerged. In Parade, Obama speaks of equality; McCain doesn't mention it. Obama traces his love of and loyalty to his country to memories of childhood and family; McCain downplays "sentiments about place and kinship." McCain's manifesto has a military band playing in the background; Obama's recalls choruses of "Up With People."

But there are far more similarities than differences between these two patriots. Both men exalt freedom and sacrifice; both see the latter as necessary in defense of the former. Both laud their land's wealth and power. Both equate loyalty to country with, as McCain put it, loyalty to "countrymen."

Listening to Obama's oration brought a lump to my throat. But my response was testament less to what he said or how he said it - the guy, after all, could make audiences weep reciting the ingredients on a Gatorade bottle - than to the power of sentimentality. Nationalism is the ideology of the banal, said Danilo Kis, who would retch in his grave to read the descriptor at the head of his Wikipedia page: "a Yugoslavian/Serbian writer of Hungarian/ Jewish-Serbian origin."

Say "pride," "Thanksgiving," "hearts," "Martin Luther King," "gratitude," and "renewal" all within 28 minutes, or put a child kissing a puppy on the TV screen. Either will reliably jerk tears of happiness. Patriotism is as buttery and sugary as apple pie.


As antidote to all these empty calories, I spent last week reading the great anti-patriots. Virginia Woolf, asked in 1938 how to fight fascism, wrote "Three Guineas," in which she exhorted "[f]reedom from unreal loyalties . . . You must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them."

Leo Tolstoy 40 years earlier called patriotism "stupidity." "To destroy war," he declared, "destroy patriotism."

And in between, on the eve of the revolution that toppled Russia's czar in the name of international working-class solidarity, the feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman penned "Patriotism," in which she drew a bright line connecting patriotism and militarism. "Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate," she wrote. "Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves better, nobler, grander, [and] more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others."

Forgive Emma for simplifying; she was a polemicist, not a political scientist. But she got it basically right. Patriotism is by definition chauvinistic: My country and your country can't both be the best. And chauvinism breeds antagonism, real or invented. The terrorists attacked us, George Bush keeps saying, because "they hate our freedom."

Patriotism demands obeisance to all warriors. "For those who have fought on the battlefield under the Stars and Stripes . . . no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary," declared Obama in Missouri. He named his opponent among those deserving automatic respect and implicitly chastised his supporter Wesley Clark, a warrior himself, for suggesting that getting shot out of a plane does not qualify a man for office.

Obama claimed patriotism to be an "instinct." But you aren't born loving your country. Indeed, the candidate noted that this loyalty has to be taught (he mentioned civics classes). And in a world where economies and communications are boundary-less, where 67 million people are displaced or in exile and millions more migrate "voluntarily" for work, this education - or reeducation - is a complicated, sometimes brutal business.

Patriotism is the love of a "homeland," and a homeland is usually assumed to be a state.

But to be accepted as citizens of an adopted "homeland," migrants must demonstrate fealty to a state that punishes them for the very marginality and desperation that make them useful to that state's economy.

Then there's the project of creating new states. "[P]eople take them, homelands, from me, and give them to me if it occurs to them, and still ask me to love them unconditionally," writes the novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugreiç, whose Yugoslavian passport has been replaced by that of her new "homeland," Croatia.

Ugreiç chronicles the hellish years during which political opportunists, gangsters and war profiteers wrenched apart her once-united, multicultural nation and divided it into a bunch of new, mutually despising ones. Newborn patriotisms required the death and rebirth of histories: Books had to be burned, intellectuals, even travelers, renounced, and memories erased and replaced.

It was, Ugreiç writes, a "national mythomania" of "thousand-year dreams" held by heroic "races" - Serb, Croat, Slovenian, Bosnian, Albanian - each threatened by barbarian Others whose atrocities were so savage that self-defense necessitated "ethnic cleansing." Years of terror, violence, poverty, displacement and lies drove people so mad that they were "ready to grab hold of the one and only truth they [were] offered, like a straw": their new nationhood.

Ugreiç is having none of it. "I am no one. And everyone," she writes. "In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian." She is, in other words, a cosmopolitan, citizen of the world.

I too am proud to call myself a "rootless cosmopolitan," which, incidentally, was the fascist euphemism for Jew. But you don't have to be Jewish - or rootless - to be cosmopolitan. To be a citizen of the world does not mean having no home or identity.

Rather, argues Kwame Anthony Appiah, a worldly Ghanaian-British philosopher with deep ties to both places, we can be "partial" cosmopolitans by assuming two commitments: an obligation to others beyond kith, kin and citizenship; and "[taking] seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance." When the two ideals of "universal concern and respect for legitimate differences . . . clash," Appiah writes in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, "cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge."


On Independence Day, my partner Paul and I walked down the road to celebrate the 80th birthday of the farmer who owns or owned much of the land on our hill. We don't share many political views with Wendell, but we appreciate his dry Vermont humor and the love with which he and his wife tend the trees and fields on the road. Wendell is different from us - we don't always understand the practices and values of the other - but he is by no means a stranger.

After supper - a choice of meat or vegetarian lasagna - we gathered on benches and folding chairs at the top of the broad, sloping hayfield to watch fireworks. Most were red, white and blue. They made big noises - the rat-a-tat of automatic weapons, the whistles of missiles. But the grand finale was neither patriotic nor warlike. The explosions opened in slender silver and yellow petals, spreading almost silently down the sky. They didn't look like bombs bursting in air. They looked like spider mums.

When the oohing and aahing was over, we all went into the house and thanked each other and said good-night. Then Paul and I walked home under the moon that shines on friend and foe this whole world over.