Of all the sentiments most commonly associated with our celebration of Independence Day, patriotism will likely be at the forefront. Independence symbolizes the birth of the country, even if the actual process cannot be condensed into a single day or event – and is in fact in some ways still an ongoing process. Shared symbols are important to any community, and the larger the group, the more powerful the symbols must be in order to maintain that sense of unity.
But what exactly does it mean when we say “patriotism”? What does it mean to say that someone is a patriot, or that we feel patriotic? Everyone will have their own definition, but for many – myself included – the easiest way to describe patriotism is also the most difficult way to define it:
Love of country.
The definition is easy because it consists of three simple words, words that we believe to be intuitively familiar to us… everyday words that we use in everyday conversation. Yet the bookends of that definition consist of words that are rabbit holes of meaning, almost unfathomable in their depth, and to arrive at what patriotism means for you, one needs to engage with those dual mysteries.
What is a country?
A country is something that most every modern individual belongs to from the moment they are born. Whatever a person’s particular situation – in their family, their locality – the laws of the country form the boundaries of their plans and the customs of the country serve as the filter of their daily lives. But for all that the force exerted by a country on its inhabitants is real, the “country” itself is an intangible thing.
In the minds of some it becomes synonymous with identity and the identical. They see it as a group of people who are not only like themselves – in looks, mannerisms, opinions – but who must be like themselves. This conception of a country rots into the worst kind of nationalism, one which is against diversity, which clings to a fictionalized past, which sees benefit to any other nation as a theft of what must belong to itself alone. This is the country that demands conformity within and conquest without, the country of apartheid and Nazism. The type of country that engages in colonialism and military aggression.
But that is not the only way that a country may be defined. In the hearts of others, it is a union and an aspiration. It is not the expression of some manifest destiny, but a coming together of diverse and disparate communities. It does not seek to eliminate difference but celebrates that which enriches and tolerates where it can. It does not seek to be a monolith that excludes but one which adapts to changes, which welcomes new additions that are willing to work for the common good. While it gives its members a place to belong, this country itself belongs to something larger – the family of nations – and is aware of responsibilities beyond its borders and the universal rights that belong to all humanity, regardless of nationality.
What is love?
Ah, the eternal question, which has inspired more songs and poetry than any other topic save the divine. There’s been so much written about love, but even if much of that relates to romance, it’s readily evident that love can take many forms, and that some of these forms are destructive. Love is the great motivating force, and with it as our engine we can go beyond our limits, we can achieve what we thought was impossible. But not all great acts are good, and some boundaries are not meant to be broken. This is all the more true when we are in the realm of countries, at whose behest armies can march and minorities be purged.
Love can be possessive. It can be blind and heedless of anything but the object of its affection. “My country, right or wrong” is an expression of this on a national scale and that has been the core of countless atrocities committed under the cover of a flag.
But that is not the only way love can be defined. As I wrote before on the occasion of Valentine’s Day, for me love does not remove accountability. It is expressed not just in “my country, right or wrong” but in the words of Carl Schurz who continues the phrase with: “…if right to be kept right; and if wrong to be set right.”
Is it so hard to conceive of such a way to love? Anyone who has experienced a parent’s love for their child should have little difficulty. We do not love our children less when we correct them, when we harden our hearts to their weeping as we enforce the rules they need to follow in order to become strong, to become good: no, you can’t only eat ice cream for lunch; no, you cannot grab your friend’s toys; no, we cannot miss this injection. Perhaps it would be best not to be solely focused of the idea of our country as a parent – the mother country or the father land – an authority figure which exists to make demands of its citizenry. Perhaps for the idea of our nation as our child – still growing, still something that needs our guidance and vigilance, but with the potential to become and achieve so much.
In our current time, we cannot be blind to the dangers of patriotism, of the bloody events that have marked our world’s history because tyrants and conquerors have mobilized armies to the war drums that their tainted patriotism has embedded into passionate hearts. Neither can we dismiss the virtuous selflessness of the type of patriotism that has led men and women to die for their country, or to sacrifice so much in its service. What we can and must do, is have a clear idea of what patriotism means for us.
Patriotism is love of country.
What does “country” mean for you?
What does “love” mean for you?
Define those words and you define patriotism.
Define those words and you define yourself.
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