The Virtues and Vices of Patriotism

This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in August, 2023


When I was in the 8th grade, I got assigned to do a report on an American naval hero, Stephen Decatur. I duly reported the quotation for which Decatur is famous: ““Our country! … May she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

In my report, I also expressed my disagreement with that kind of “patriotism.” I’ve always held with the moral tradition that declares there is something higher than the temporal powers. If my country is wrong, therefore, it’s not my patriotic duty to support it in being wrong: what’s right is of higher value than the desires of the nation of which one happens to be part.

Fortunately, the America I grew up in (the 50s) did not require me much to choose between country and the right. I saw that post-WWII America as mostly representing what’s right. Little problem saying “my country” when it had just saved the world from fascism and emerged as “the leader of the free world.”

But, the kind of patriotism I believe – unlike Decatur’s – says that if my country is wrong, I should do what I can to move it toward being more right!

In the late 1960s, I was troubled by the kind of patriots who were enraged at other Americans who believed the United States was pursuing a wrong course in Vietnam. It did not seem to me a virtue for people to close their minds to the possibility that the United States had made a disastrous misjudgment. Right or wrong.

The Vietnam era provided a painful opportunity to see how Decatur’s kind of patriotism works, supporting America’s continuing to throw lives into a venture for years after its failure was already foreseeable.

A kind of patriotism I find more beautiful involves loving one’s country for its goodness (like America’s creation of a constitutional democracy), or for reasons apart from the moral dimension (like “purple mountain’s majesty, above the fruited plain”).

One part of patriotism entails a willingness – when it’s required — to sacrifice on behalf of the nation. People can sacrifice for many reasons – like loving their neighbor as themselves. But the nation is special in that – because the nation exists in a disordered world – sometimes people are called to fight and maybe die for it.

But even if Patriotism can be a virtue regarding the battle against Selfishness, there are other uglier spirits that express themselves through “Patriotism.”

The French social thinker, Denis de Rougement, wrote about a form of “patriotism” that turns “egotism” into a supposed virtue: “What nobody would dare to say of his me, he has the sacred duty of saying for his us.”

Decatur’s “patriotism” put loyalty ahead of truth and righteousness. Rougement calls attention to how people can make their nation a vehicle for their narcissistic strivings – arrogant assertions – at the expense of others around.

That kind of patriotism makes the nation dangerous in the world, as illustrated most starkly in that infamous Nazi anthem, “Deutschland Ueber Alles” (Germany over All).

The history of the modern era would have been less ugly had there been less of that kind of “patriotism.”

It seems that there are different kinds of pride, underlying different forms of patriotism.

Just like I feel good when I have earned the right to be proud of what I’ve done, I have felt great pleasure from the feeling of pride in being an American. But in both cases, the pride has to be properly earned.

I think with pleasure of times when our country has earned the title of “leader of the free world,” – as when

  • President Eisenhower (representing the nation that had led the defeat of fascism in WWII) was met by huge, cheering throngs when he visited other nations;
  • President Bush (the First) deftly assembled a global coalition to see to it that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait (the first post-Cold-War crisis) would not stand;
  • President Biden’s unifying the members of what had been a moribund NATO alliance to help assure that Vladimir Putin’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine would fail.

But then there are the kinds of patriotism that are divorced from any real virtue.

In the United States, the meaning of the American flag has been degraded for a generation by the kind of patriotism that Samuel Johnson famously called “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I grew up with love for the flag because every time we pledged allegiance we were given to understand that it was “for the Republic for which it stands.”

But then came a time when the same American leadership that was making a fetish of the flag – making it far more conspicuous on the American landscape – was the same leadership that was assaulting the Republic our founders bequeathed to us.

That same kind of contradiction that turns the virtue of patriotism into a vice – that same form of brokenness that goes by the name hypocrisy – claimed to be making our nation “Great Again,” at the very time that this nation’s closest friends and allies saw American greatness being profoundly soiled.

Patriotism can be a force for the Good. But also, history shows, for Evil. In this, patriotism is like other deep (political or religious) commitments—as we can see also illustrated in the world around us.

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