What Is Patriotism?

By Schaar, John | The Nation, July 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

What Is Patriotism?


Schaar, John, The Nation


The first sentence of The Nation's prospectus, dated July 6, 1865, promised "the maintenance and diffusion of true democratic principles in society and government," surely a patriotic sentiment, as was the magazine's name. The second choice--"The Union"--was thought by the founders to be too neutral. Hence, the preferred title, referring to the nation, the one that is indivisible with liberty and justice for all. As the magazine marks the conclusion of its 125th anniversary celebrations amid a host of yellow ribbons and red, white and blue bunting, what could be more appropriate than to dedicate this special anniversary issue to--of all things--patriotism? In the aftermath of a war whose opponents were often regarded as in some sense disloyal, we invited friends and colleagues to address the question of just what patriotism is and ought to be: Is there a patriotism that is not nationalistic? How does the historic internationalism of the liberal left relate to the concept of patriotism? What do you value in the traditions of your country?

John Schaar, whose eloquent meditation on patriotism ten years ago in "The Case for Patriotism" helped inform the questions underlying this chautauqua, leads off:

Nietzsche wrote that words with a history cannot be defined. Their meanings are in their stories, their biographies. That is surely the case with "patriotism." Patriotism is as patriots have done. And in relatively recent times--say, since the American and French revolutions--those who have called themselves patriots or who have called others to the banner of patriotism have largely fallen into two camps.

The first company, whose signature is on so many of the bloodiest pages of the modern age, has its spiritual roots in the radical ideologies of the French Revolution. They announced the advent of a new god on earth and a new prophet/commander whose voice was the voice of that god. The new god, of course, was la patrie, the nation, and the new commander was the state.

Abbe Sieyes named the new god: "The nation exists before all. It is the origin of everything. It is the law itself." By 1792, in a petition addressed to the National Assembly, the ferociously jealous claims of the new god were made chillingly clear: "The image of the patrie is the sole divinity which it is permitted to worship."

Those claims have echoed in a thousand variations from that day to this. It is the worship of national power, of national greatness, nearly always expressed as power over other peoples and qualities, and as power that acknowledges no limits on its own assertion. This voice has been as clamorous and continuous in our own country as in many others. The line from Col. Alexander Hamilton to Lieut. …

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