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Patriotism and Nationalism

At the end of a long post on David Gellertner essay on Disraeli, he comes to the subect of patriotism.

Gelertner writes:

Patriotism favors Republicans on a deeper level than many of them seem to realize. No one questions the personal patriotism of Democratic leaders. The real question is different: Where do you rank patriotism as a public virtue? Anyone who has looked at young people nowadays (in the Blue States especially) knows that, since we no longer teach them to be patriotic, many of these Blue State Specials no longer are. No country has the luxury of not speaking up for itself to its own children in its own schools. For a generation and more, we in the wealthy, influential, profoundly self-important Blue Regions have run our schools as if we were too sophisticated for any such low-brow, cornball drivel as teaching children to love their country. If this nation is serious about defeating terrorism, we must teach our children why we fight. From where I stand, we are not doing it--at least, not in Connecticut. The conservative party should be the national party, Disraeli said, and he knew what he was talking about.
Holbo replies:
Being patriotic is good, but the word Gelernter is reaching for is actually 'jingoism'. If this nation is serious about defeating terrorism, conservatives have to know that the reason why we fight is to defeat terror, not so that they can achieve an edge at the ballot box. After all, if no one questions the patriotism of Democratic leaders - and presumably their followers are also patriotic? - how could it be that Republicans are better at fighting terror, on grounds of patriotism? Is Gelernter saying the inhabitants of the coasts don't love America? (I should hope not.) The patriotism that favors Republicans - as opposed to patriotism that favors Americans  - is an electoral angle, not a tool against terror.
Leaving aside John's points, I think trying to pin the blame for this alleged problem on the schools is misleading. My elementary school was very much a school of the old school (little boys in ties and slacks, weekly Episcopal church services, cursive writing, multiplication tables) and its history curriculum did, in fact, go in for a reasonable amount of "love thy nation" type material. The problem was that it came across as, well, "low-brow, cornball drivel" even in seventh grade. It was too dissonant with the rest of one's upbringing among the progressive, cosmopolitan ironists of lower Manhattan. Even children notice that the other residents of their nice apartment building and the other attendants of their nice elementary school are overwhelmingly white people. And yet here are all these brownish people -- Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Costa Ricans -- cleaning everyone's houses, working behind deli counters, pushing the white kids' strollers, etc. Maybe if one's parents had different political leanings, this would all be explained as the natural order of things -- the white folks are just more entrepreneurial, or the black people are being held back by the "soft bigotry of low expectations" emanating from liberal bureacrats. But when one's parents are more inclined to explain such things as the living legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, etc., then these attitudes are internalized.

That's not to say you grow up learning to hate America, or even to dislike America, or even not to love America. It does, however, mean that this sort of "America: Fuck Yeah!" or "Rah, Rah, USA!" stuff winds up wringing a bit hollow. It's not part of your upbringing, not part of your local community, not rooted in your lived experience of the world. Just another weird thing the teacher or the men in suits on television say. "Why do they always sing that song before the baseball games start?" The nature of dad's answer to that question, and related ones, makes a great deal of difference. Something a textbook exposition of the virtures of James Madison can't really change. By contrast, an emotionally similar attitude to the sort of feeling Gelertner things we ought to invoke was, in fact, instilled with regard to New York City. Manhattannost, call it, after Lenin's partinost. If you've ever spoken to a native New Yorker, you know it. It's not the sense that New York City is a fun place to visit or a good place to live. It's not inconsistent with the recognition that the cost of living is appallingly high, the subway appallingly dirty, the non-Yankees sports teams consistently mediocre, the schools bad, (when I was young) the crime rate high, etc., etc., etc. It's simply the deep-seated conviction that New York City is the best place on earth and everyone living anywhere else is missing out.

Think of Woody Allen's irrational fears of LA in Annie Hall, a schtick that was reprised in the Seinfeld episodes when they visit the left coast. Obviously, everyone knows that life in Los Angeles is, in many ways, more pleasant than life in New York. The weather is better. You could get a bigger house. Etc. Manhattannost isn't about rational appreciation of the virtues of the city. It's about "New York: Fuck Yeah!" "Rah, Rah, NYC!" Nobody teaches this stuff explicitly. It grows naturally out of lived experience. Perhaps not for every New Yorker, but certainly for this New Yorker.

This is the sort of feeling Gelertner wants people to feel about America. Patriotism isn't quite the right word for it. As the pro-patriotic Alasdair MacIntyre has it in "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" (well worth a read if you can find a copy somewhere) the patriot has a kind of special concern for his country and its fate. This I certainly have, as does my father and just about every pomo leftwinger I know. We wish all the peoples of the world well, but we wish Americans especially well. If America has problems -- persistent injustices, say, or misguided foreign policies -- we want to correct those injustices and improve those policies. We care about our country, and we deeply appreciate its virtues and feel especially stung by its vices. This is the common denominator just about all Americans share across the board. People who didn't feel that way would have actually followed-up on the much-issued threat to move to Canada, France, wherever (people do, in fact, leave the country). But most of us stay. We care. We're patriots.

What we aren't, and what Gelertner wants us to be, are nationalists in the way that I was raised with the Manhattannost. The nationalist doesn't just have a special concern for his country. He has a kind of irrational attitude toward it. Like how Red Sox fans will scream -- perfectly sincerely -- "Yankees suck!" even when the Yankees, in fact, are a very skilled baseball team. But sports fans don't take an attitude of rational scrutiny toward their favorite team and its historical adversary. It would be contrary to the spirit of fandom. Now of course you can turn to the Red Sox fan and say, "actually, the Yankees have won all these baseball games, they're a very good team" and he won't say you're wrong. He's not an idiot, or blind to the facts. But the facts are beside the point. The nationalist, similarly, isn't unaware of his country's problems. He just doesn't really care. It's besides the point. The patriot feels a deep sense of shame when he finds out about Abu Ghraib and associated wrongdoings. "This is my country and look what's becoming of us." The nationalist hastens to note that the Syrians are worse, the French are hypocrites, and the leftists are only complaining about this because they didn't like the war on the first place so can't we move on please it was only a few bad apples and whatever atrocities may have happened on Guadalcanal hardly shows World War Two was a bad idea so let's shut up and move on why do you care so much about protecting the rights of terrorists anyway.

It's an attitude that's harmless enough, on its own terms. Life would be dull without irrational attachment to sports teams. Irrational attachment to city, neighborhood, state, peculiar folkways, etc. lends coherence to the personality. I think relatively few of us would want to move to Singapore, teach at a university there, and raise our kids in postmodern East Asia, even if in the course of things it seemed to suggest itself as the rational course of action. But competition in sports is friendly and bounded by rules. Except for the occassional riot after a fan throws a cup at a player's head, no real harm is done and a good time is had by all. The disdain of the New Yorker for Washington, Boston, or the airheads of the west coast is just a part of life, like the Texas pride of my roommates. In the international sphere, though, people get hurt. We have a tendency to settle our differences with bombs and bullets and torture. Sometimes, this really is the way to go. I'm no pacifist. It's a Hobbesian jungle out there and sometimes you've got to fight, and you've always got to be ready to fight. But when mistakes are made the consequences are, shall we say, rather severe. Corpses and missing limbs and so forth. It's the sort of thing you want to be applying a rational scrutiny to. A scrutiny shaped by a special love for one's own country, sure. But not the kind of love that blinds.

Patriotism, not nationalism. Though, yes, the fact that liberals tend not to be nationalists in a country where most people are holds us back. To most Americans, what John Kerry did in those Senate hearings after coming back from the war was very distasteful. Not because anyone really thinks Vietnam was a fantastic war in which no atrocities were committed, but just because even so nationalists don't think such things should be done. Dragging our country's name through the mud while the troops are in the field. Not very "rah, rah," that. It's a real problem.

February 5, 2005 | Permalink


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» Patriotism and Nationalism from The Moderate Liberal
Please go read Patriotism and Nationalism, I agree with it one hundred percent. (Well, except the part about New York, clearly they are just full of themselves and the Best Coast could kick the Least Coast's ass any day!!) [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 6, 2005 3:51:47 AM

» So, So Sick from elementropy
Hence the rightwing has been and always will be the "my country, right or wrong" types where we skeptics are more like John Quincy Adams, "[disavowing] all forms of patriotism incompatible with Eternal Justice". Matthew Yglesias has more on the su... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 18, 2005 2:46:49 PM


Bullshit. When one of us is in the White House, we'll see how goddamn "rah rah" everyone else is.

Posted by: Dan | Feb 5, 2005 2:14:30 PM

I have lived in this country for 55 years. I've been conscious of it for about 50 of them. I love it with a deep and abiding passion that will never end. And the Republicans of this day are doing there best to destroy much of what is good and decent and wonderful about us.

I will grant that for at least most of them, their intentions are good. And the road to Hell is paved with those intentions.

Posted by: John Casey | Feb 5, 2005 2:22:11 PM

Gelertner is being a total moron. It's pretty obvious patriotism favors liberalism because conservatives constantly denigrate the ability of the national government to do much of anything good - from social welfare programs to the environment to social security. Their constant refrain that the government can't be trusted to find solutions to such social and national problems makes one less patriotic. As some neo-conservatives used to ask, how can you love America while hating its government?

All done!

Posted by: Dan the Man | Feb 5, 2005 2:25:00 PM

Even in New England, even in Massachusetts and Connecticut and Rhode Island mind you, children and adults love America dearly. What utter offensive absurdity from David Gelertner.

Posted by: lise | Feb 5, 2005 2:31:20 PM

Where in America is there not sufficient patriotism, other than in the minds of those who would have us believe only what they believe and not a whit more? Yuch.

Posted by: lise | Feb 5, 2005 2:36:14 PM


Please please please increase the type size. This is so difficult for me.

Posted by: lise | Feb 5, 2005 2:37:04 PM

We are patriots who love our country and seek the common good, not chauvinists or jingoes as soi-disant patriots on the Right tend to be. They make a habit of defining even the longer-range interests of the American people in opposition to the rest of humanity's, then insisting that the patriotic way is to hell with the rest of humanity and up with the USA. Naturally that patriotism tends to define those echt-American interests as identical to those of America's right-wing rich white men and what makes money for them, but who can doubt their sincerity? To question their cant would be "elitism." And who can doubt that a disciplined army, with all marching in step, following the flag, not talking out of turn or asking questions unless the CO asks for them (and then sometimes "Permission to speak freely, sir" should be asked first) is a better model for a patriotic society than some J.S. Mill mess where inquiry and autonomy are supposed to make for the commonweal?
As for Gelernter 's assertion that "No one questions the personal patriotism of Democratic leaders" -- did he miss the Swift Boat Veterans for [thoroughly pomo "truth"-subserves-power, all-is-narrative] Truth ad campaign? Will he miss the forthcoming assay to define the limits of "acceptable" dissent on Iraq?

Posted by: Dabodius | Feb 5, 2005 2:37:28 PM

If David Gelertner wants to come to my Blue State home and instruct me how I don't love my country enough, I'll rip off his good hand and beat him to death with it.

Posted by: alkali | Feb 5, 2005 2:52:26 PM

First humanism, and only then patriotism, please.

The Yankees do indeed suck, though.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 5, 2005 3:18:51 PM

To Lise:

Assuming you are using Internet Explorer to browse the web, you can do the following:
1) Menu option: View-->Text Size-->select a larger size
2) Menu option: Tools-->Internet Options-->Accessibility-->Ignore font sizes specified on web pages.

Alternatively, you should consider using a different browser. For instance, you can go to Mozilla.org and download Firefox for free. The download is not too large to do over a modem. Firefox will install easily and import your connection settings and your favorites. You only need to remember your account password the first time you connect using Firefox. If you are like me, you will find your internet browsing experience more pleasant using Firefox. Not in an earth shattering way, but in the way modern cars are easier to operate than Model T's.

Should you decide to use Firefox, you may:
1) Menu Option: Tools-->Options-->Fonts & Colors-->Set font sizes and minimum font sizes.
2) Menu Option: View-->Text Size-->Increase
3) Keyboard: Ctrl + = to increase text size, Ctrl + - to decrease.
4) Keyboard & Mouse: Hold down Shift key and roll mouse button to increase or decrease text size.

All in all, you have more and better options using Firefox. Matthew is making the page look good for his twentysomething eyes.
He may also be using a screen which is sized differently from yours. Let him do what he does and you can customize it easily enough to suit your tastes. It's your choice. Take control. /end rant.

Posted by: wolf | Feb 5, 2005 3:18:58 PM

The "love" bit is interesting. The right loves America so much they want to screw it. Over and over. Whereas liberals want to date it first, and are hesitant about that first kiss. Liberals tend to want a Platonic relationship, and are always trying to get the country home before curfew, at 10.

So what is America to do? On the one hand, there's nothing more exciting than a nice backseat drilling -- but the next day you wake up with a headache, and owing a trilion dollars, and sending guys to get killed in a Middle Eastern country that you really know and care zip about. Should you start dating the nice liberal after all? Yet all he does is assure you he was a very exciting guy, once, back in 1968.

It is a dilemma.

Posted by: roger | Feb 5, 2005 3:25:57 PM

Very well put, Matt. One thing I would add is that this propensity for an irrational attachment to one's 'home team' is something that is hard wired into the human brain. It's always going to be there, and therefore politics will always at some level be about how this propensity gets channeled. And right now, this is something that conservatives understand and use to their advantage much better than liberals do.

It will never be enough for liberals to point out that the kind of nationalism practiced by conservatives is irrational, jingoistic, non-reality based, and often immoral. We have to also put forth our own version of patriotism which has the ability to attract and inspire people. At the very least, we have to convince people that our policies are motivated by a sense of patriotism. Otherwise we'll just get branded as America-haters, and lose.

For example, if Kerry had just come out and said, "You might disagree with what I did, but I protested against the Vietnam war because I love my country and my fellow soldiers, and I didn't want to see any more of them die for a futile cause", he could have neutralized the issue. But instead he let the opposition define him as anti-patriotic. By contrast, many voters were willing to overlook Bush being wrong about the WMD, because he convinced them that his actions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect America.

Posted by: RC | Feb 5, 2005 3:31:19 PM

Great post. The last bit about John Kerry at the hearings is spot on. I couldn't argue with my uncle about it -- I even sent him the speech and pointed out that it is an indictment of the civilian leadership and not the troops. Doesn't matter. I pointed out the death toll at the time, reasons against the way, etc. Doesn't matter -- not even 500,000 to a million Vietnamese dead (my guestimate from overall death tolls.) Doesn't matter the role George Bush played at the time.

Posted by: J | Feb 5, 2005 4:08:45 PM

"we have to convince people that our policies are motivated by a sense of patriotism"

Matt's distinction between patriotism and ntionalism is an important one. I would suggest a fun test to determine the difference is "the right(smart) thing to do" versus "Good for America." If you think they can never conflict, or if cases of conflict the choice is always simple, you lack nationalist feeling.

Another amazing post. Snark and partisanship are not an appropriate response here. Matthew's magnanimity is what attracts conservatives to his blog, and the fact that it is supported with a very radical nominalism fascinates the hell out of me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 5, 2005 5:01:26 PM

Wow. Did I just get an f word censored? Tricksy Matt.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 5, 2005 5:02:13 PM

The right accuses many of us of hating Bush. And speaking for myself, I despise the man. But the reason I hate him is that I find, at 40, that I'm not living in the same country I grew up in, and it's because the country has been highjacked by right-wing radicals. (In a funny way, I see myslef as the true conservative.)

I think the democrats could benefit from framing issues in this way: it's patriotic to want your country to live by the values you grew up believing it upheld.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Feb 5, 2005 5:09:25 PM


Posted by: David Weman | Feb 5, 2005 5:31:45 PM

You probably just forgot to type it, Bob.

Posted by: David Weman | Feb 5, 2005 5:32:25 PM

Here, here. Well said. The appeal of conservate politics (in any country) is borne in the confusion of nationalism with patriotism.

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Similar oaths are made by any Federal official and all military personnel.

A patriot defends the principles upon which the state is founded; a nationalist is principally concerned with more self-centered ideas, like race or ethnicity.

How many times have you heard someone say "he doesn't *look* American"?

Posted by: Ken | Feb 5, 2005 5:58:40 PM

Good post Matt.

Increase the size of the quoted text.

So what if there was a whole city full of native New Yorkers, and some asshole who claims to be from the City wants to be mayor.

And we have him on tape saying all kinds of bad things about New York.

What if there was a whole party full of people who claimed to love New York, but you could tell they were faking, but the party was still offering candidates for mayor.

Should they get better at faking, or should they try to present the fact that they look at New York "realistically" as a virtue?

I have to go with the first choice. Especially during foreign policy elections, if you want to be mayor, you have to convince us you love New York like we do.

Posted by: James Stevenson | Feb 5, 2005 6:19:23 PM

I don't know... to me, I think of patriotism as being the emotional component, i.e. loving one's country, feeling worse when a disaster hits people you don't know in Florida than when it hits people you don't know in Indonesia, wishing Americans well, etc. Nationalism is the more rational, normative component that includes things like wanting to correct injustices in your country, wanting your country to dominate others in international hegemony, etc.

I think that patriotism has been around since the first hunter-gatherers settled down and called a bit of land theirs, whereas I view nationalism as an invention of the enlightenment.

If anything, I'd say that liberals and conservatives are equally nationalistic, albeit in different ways, but conservatives are usually more patriotic.

I've never been quite clear on the difference between patriotism and nationalism. My view for a while (about... a year and a half?) is that patriotism is the expressive/emotional part of loving your country, and nationalism is the rational/normative part. What's your view?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 5, 2005 6:35:09 PM

Ah... didn't see Ken's post. See, I'd say what both what Ken calls patriotism and what Ken calls nationalism are variants of nationalism. The idea of fighting for the principles upon which one's country is founded, as opposed to, for instance, the king, or one's lord, or for one's religion, strikes me as a nationalist idea out of the 18th century, that would have been utterly alien in the middle ages, and only vaguely familiar in the renaissance. Similarly, ideals of racial or cultural purity are normative ideals. They needn't be nationalism, though it could be nationalism (the Germans embraced this type of nationalism in the 30s and 40s, and the Australians did in their plans for forced adoption of aborigines to "whiten" the populace. These view could be some other type of non-nationalist communitarianism or just plain non-nationalistic xenophobia) but they can't be patriotism either, because patriotism isn't idealistic, just expressive.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 5, 2005 6:45:50 PM

Aaand... I'm probably spamming by now, and you can probably predict what my response to RC's post is now, but I'll do it anyway: I don't think that a sense patriotism can motivate ANY policies. Only nationalism can. Perhaps I'm overstating my case, but I'm in the mood for it.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 5, 2005 6:50:31 PM

Al Franken was really good on the question of who loves the country more in Lying Liars, which I recall vaguely from a brief read in an airport bookshop last year. The jist was that Republicans love America like a little kid loves his mother, as a perfect and unquestionable figure of wisdom, and Democrats love America like grownups love their parents or anyone, in a way that recognizes problems and flaws and because of their love wants to make them better. Patriotism and nationalism are fine representations of that relationship, although I'm not sure your constructions of them correspond with the common connotiations of the words.

Anecdotally, I got a very healthy dose of the old-fashioned public school "America, Fuck Yeah"-instilling Gelernter loves, like happy feather-wearing Indians dancing with turkeys and pilgrims at Thanksgiving and mandatory daily pledges of allegiance, and I turned out totally unpatriotic and promptly moved to Canada. (though the government-subsidized universities has something to do with it) Hope he's happy.

Posted by: Ruth | Feb 5, 2005 7:04:51 PM

I'd say that patriotism is a broad concept that simply involves love of one's country in any form.

Nationalism goes quite a bit further, and involves the favoring one's community over others, and/or believing in the superiority of one's own community.

Both can be used expressively or normatively, depending on the context. In politics it's usually a combination of both: the emotional power of the patriotism/nationalism is used to try to promote some normative goal.

Also (somewhat strangely), patriotism is almost always used in the context of the nation-state, whereas nationalism can refer to any sort of community (eg., Black Nationalism, Red Sox Nation, etc.)

Posted by: RC | Feb 5, 2005 7:37:11 PM

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