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What is Patriotism?

Commodore Stephen Decatur sat down for a lavish 19th century Virginia style dinner in Norfolk in 1816. Decatur was America’s most popular naval hero. More than ten years earlier during the first war against the Barbary pirates, Decatur snuck into a port in Tripoli in an attempt to destroy a captured American vessel. He was successful in his attempt and according to British Admiral Horatio Nelson he had committed the “most bold and daring act of the age.” During his lifetime he had fought the French and the British, now after taking part in the second Barbary War, the commodore returned to the United States a triumphant celebrity. Decatur was a patriot and his toast that night in Virginia would reflect as much. “Our country,” he said to his fellow dinner guests. “In her intercourse with foreign nations always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.” Decatur wished for prudent decision-making, wisdom in national affairs and kindness in foreign ones. He wanted his country to be successful but he also wanted his country to be moral and just in being successful. However this toast (which was printed in every newspaper across the country) was almost immediately perverted to what we now know as the most cliché line of “patriotism” in America. “My country right or wrong!”

Many saw it and still see it as a simple expression of loyalty and love of country. In 1816, there was one person who didn’t: Minister to the Court of St. James John Quincy Adams. “I can never join with my voice in the toast,” he wrote to his father that August. “I cannot ask success, even for my country, in a cause where she should be in the wrong.” Adams could not reconcile his patriotism with injustice. True patriotism, Adams believed, was making sure his nation lived up to its ideals. “My toast would be, may our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right. I disclaim as unsound all patriotism incompatible with the principles of eternal justice.” Adams’ toast was not so cogent as Decatur’s misattributed phrase (I personally would have started drinking half way through) but it makes the point of what true patriotism actually is.

We often believe that sharing a meme or tweeting counts as patriotism. Frankly, it’s not. Typically this backseat form of national pride is tied to the military. This connection is made because people see supporting the military as an apolitical form of patriotism. They also do it because it is easy, and in that apathy something is lost. Of course we should be proud, appreciative and respectful to service members. I would never say otherwise. These are the people guard us while we sleep, they sacrifice they’re time and often their lives to preserve, protect and defend Western Democracy. But that’s the point isn’t it. These people are so highly regarded because what they are protecting is so sacred: our rights and liberties, our laws, our democratic system. True patriotism would be recognizing, honoring and supporting these ideals. If one honestly cares about the actions and lives of our service members this would be an appropriate form of reverence.

Unfortunately idleness is not the worst threat to patriotism in the 21st century. Most of what patriotism is has been commandeered. It has been hijacked by people with no knowledge of their actual history, no regard for human rights and no interest in hiding their flagrant racism. There is a name for this form of national admiration. It is called nationalism. George Orwell described nationalism as “identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of it’s advancing its interests.” Patriotism, he says “is by nature defensive.” It is a devotion to a certain place or a set of ideals. Nationalism is offensive, using scapegoats instead of finding solutions. It destroys the individual with no regard for history, only myth and a complete indifference to reality. To the Nationalist, the greater good is only what is good for the nation. Nationalists do not abide by any set of ideals. Their motives are singular. Their feelings are only negative. Their morals driven and measured only by the power of their nation. In our historical context they believe that Globalization is a conspiracy rather than a set of obstacles we must overcome. “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception,” writes Orwell. “Every Nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonestly, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakably certain of being in the right.” There is nothing sinister about wanting your country to be successful. However it is unpatriotic to support an unjust cause in favor of your country. Consider Antigone, the Greek tragedy by Sophocles. The title character is jailed for breaking the law even though the law contradicts the ideals of her nation. “All men make mistakes,” Sophocles writes. “But a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.”

Sometimes it is hard to tell what the right decision would be. The lines are occasionally blurry making the choice difficult. However if we cannot be clear what patriotism is, let it be clear what isn’t. It isn’t patriotic to compare sacrifices for your business to the sacrifice of a Gold Star family. It is not patriotic to criticize former POWs. It is not patriotic to compare looking for women in Manhattan to service in Vietnam. It is not patriotic to salute a General from an authoritarian regime. It is not patriotic to want your fellow citizens to “sit up at attention” for you. It is not patriotic to cozy up to dictators and strong men. It is not patriotic to call your justice system a “rigged system.” It is not patriotic to threaten your political opponent with imprisonment. It is not patriotic to advocate for war crimes. It is not patriotic to deny housing to wounded veterans. It is not patriotic to obstruct an investigation into the hacking of a free election. It is not patriotic to go check on your real estate after a terror attack and subsequently brag about having the tallest building in lower Manhattan. It is not patriotic to call the press the “enemy of the people.” It is not patriotic to want a military parade with you at the center of it. And this is the short list.


-Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell (1945)

-Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic by Charles N. Edel (2014)

-Antigone by Sophocles, Penguin Classics (1982)

-The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World by Frank Lambert (2005)

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