Patriotism In The 21st Century

Everybody loves a Fourth of July parade. The marching bands are on display in their regal uniforms, the crowd is cheering and the flags are waving in the breeze, always a festive time. A time to honor those who founded this country, a time to connect with old friends and neighbors, share our sense of national pride, celebrate good times and look to the future.

But the notion of patriotism is complex and has changed over the centuries.

Patriotism is often defined as an allegiance, dedication or loyalty to one’s own country. This is especially true for the United States in the 21st century, whereby the word has become a litmus test of being an American. For some it underlies the notion of ‘you’re either for us, or against us‘ – which is a point of view that implies there is no middle ground, no room for discussion, no place for individual thought.

In this light the term tends to cross over into extreme nationalism. In fact, many contemporary notions of patriotism have been heavily influenced by 19th century ideas about nationalism. Paul Gomberg, contemporary scholar of ethics, has even compared such patriotism to racism, arguing that a primary implication of patriotism is that a person’s moral duties are focused on members of their nation, excluding non-members from the equation.

Reading between the lines of political rhetoric, you can often hear, “although every nation in the world should be treated as equals, it just so happens that my nation is a bit more equal than yours.” We are increasingly seeing the folly of this idea.

Patriotism is your conviction that a country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” – George Bernard Shaw

Old World Patriotism

Among the ancient Greeks, patriotism was comprised of ideals concerning language, religious traditions, ethics, law and devotion to the common good of humankind as opposed to identification only with a nation-state.

Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “Patriotism does not require one to agree with everything that his country does, and would actually promote analytical questioning in a quest to make the country the best it possibly can be.”

As recently as the 18th century the idea of patriotism was viewed much differently.

Unlike the situation in the 19th century, when nationalism tended to be exclusive and confrontational, during the 18th century patriotism belonged with such inclusive and cohesive values as humanity and beneficence. In the discourse of the second half of the 18th century, a person who provided relief for the poor, or objected to excessively harsh penal laws, or who criticized institutions such as serfdom or slavery, was likely to be described as a good patriot. The common good to which patriotism was directed in the 18th century was socially cohesive in nature, and typicall crossed social boundaries.” – From the Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment, by Harvey Chisick

This view transformed over time, most likely due to the increasing establishment of nation-states in which citizens more commonly viewed themselves as members of a nation, as opposed to their religion, ethnicity or even local culture. And as warfare continued to escalate between nations rather than previous monarchies, the idea of defending the nation took hold and strongly manifested itself as an ‘us against them‘ way of thinking.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” – Tom Paine

Patriotism Without Borders

The problem with patriotism being thought of as nation-based lies in the extension of intent to include the view, “my country, right or wrong.” We have witnessed much death and destruction caused by this ideology, and the notion itself gives sanctuary to those who commit crimes against humanity. In the 21st century it has been used to justify preemptive warfare based on the argument that the possibility of being attacked provided an excuse for striking first – even when it turned out that the supposed ‘possibility‘ was completely false.

Can it be that the meaning of patriotism, as with so many other words, has been severely altered over time, to the point where it no longer embodies any of its altruistic past?

“Can we view this from a global perspective…embracing patriotism without borders?“