12 May 2010

What does it mean to be a ‘patriot’?

In this political climate, one all too often hears appeals to patriotism from fairly strange sources – or finds one’s own patriotism called into question (often none-too-subtly) by one’s political opponents, who deem themselves the only ‘real’ Americans while laughably declaring the duly elected President of the United States ‘un-American’. Thus the question arises, far from a new one, as to whom one might call a ‘patriot’ – or what the term even means in the first place. As with many things, the poor noun itself has been so badly abused and contorted that it has become nearly meaningless. (For example, while I quite enjoyed Ben Croshaw’s now somewhat-dated review of MOH: Airborne, is it fair of him to cede the territory of patriotism to the purveyors of the jingoistic sentiments he quite properly mocks, declaring at the end that ‘patriotism is for twats’?)

With all respect to Mr Croshaw, I might call to the gentle reader’s attention the thoughts of another Englishman of sharp wit on the subject, namely Dr Johnson. Dr Johnson in his 1774 brief (appropriately entitled ‘The Patriot’) noted all the marks of those who call themselves ‘patriots’ but do not behave as such. For example:

He that has been refused a reasonable, or unreasonable request, who thinks his merit underrated, and sees his influence declining, begins soon to talk of natural equality... As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice.


To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion. The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.

Given the anger and threats of violence, the racial animus, the counterfactual conspiracy theories and the palpable malice which underlies so many of these recent tax protests – against a general tax rate which indeed has hit a 60-year low! – I believe Dr Johnson’s colourful descriptions of false patriotism absolutely apt in these cases. More, he eviscerates the pretensions to patriotism of the very jingoistic pro-war attitudes that Mr Croshaw skewers in his own review (albeit in a different context):

It may, therefore, be safely pronounced, that those men are no patriots, who, when the national honour was vindicated in the sight of Europe, and the Spaniards having invaded what they call their own, had shrunk to a disavowal of their attempt, and a relaxation of their claim, would still have instigated us to a war, for a bleak and barren spot in the Magellanick ocean, of which no use could be made, unless it were a place of exile for the hypocrites of patriotism.

But if we can so easily identify examples of such false patriotism in our own time, whether they are stoking the irrational resentments and insecurities of the rabble, whether they are making untenable promises or whether they are waving the flag the louder to clamour for war, are we then to give up any notion of a true patriotism? Though Dr Johnson spends less time on this question, he does give us some tantalising hints as to what he comprehends in his notion of a true patriot:

He considers himself as deputed to promote the publick good, and to preserve his constituents, with the rest of his countrymen, not only from being hurt by others, but from hurting themselves.

A ‘patriot’ in Dr Johnson’s terms is willing not only to entertain the notion of but promote a ‘publick good’, and to care for the well-being of ‘the rest of his countrymen’. Such a patriot would be a rare thing indeed to encounter in modern American society! We now have very few among our leadership who are bold enough to ask us to make any kind of sacrifice, or bear any burden at all for the sake of promoting the common good, who ask us to be generous with our time and our money and our service without first stroking our egos and assuring us of our unmitigated (supposedly Constitutional) entitlement to do with our own property whatever we please (and damn the consequences!). Whither Kennedy, who implored his fellow Americans to ‘ask not what the country can do for [them, but rather what they] can do for [their] country’? I can certainly appreciate that President Obama may be attempting to move the needle back in that direction – and though he still weighs it down pretty heavily with a form of exceptionalist rhetoric which I feel is not entirely honest, I hope he meets with some level of success.

I tend to (optimistically) agree with Johnson rather than with Croshaw – I think it is possible that there might be an honest form of patriotism, one which isn’t just ‘for twats’. But I feel it requires a far more highly-developed civic sensibility than is being presently encouraged, and a far less polarised society.

Well, for a midnight rant, I hope that was at least partially coherent. I may have some more time to flesh them out better in the future.

On with finals week!

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