By Laurel Dammann
When I was young enough to be impressionable, but old enough to choose to ignore the impression, a family friend told me that “the most patriotic thing a person can do is question their government.” Like many growing up in the United States, I knew the word “patriotic” well, so I disregarded the statement as false. “Patriot” was a word I heard most often used as the supreme compliment to those who showed a particular brand of allegiance to the country, frequently in reference to those who went to war in America’s name. Thus the praise implied merit based on values of the Armed Forces: a sense of national duty, unwavering loyalty, and obedience to authority for authority’s sake. Patriotism, or a patriotic act, implied service without question.
“Patriotism starts here,” the family friend tapped my forehead. I flinched then, but it took me years to feel the impact.
According to Merriam-Webster, patriotism simply means love and devotion to one’s country. However, like many millennials, I grew up associating patriotism with more militant ideology. I saw it used as justification for aggressive acts of State (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), for abuse of power (The Patriot Act), and to assert a narrow sense of right and wrong that elevated “good” Americans over others and the U.S. over “evil.” It was not only a call to arms, but entitlement to wage war due to American exceptionalism. An American who criticized the United States government and questioned its policies ran the risk of being labeled “anti-American,” “unpatriotic,” and against the best interests of their own country and fellow citizens. Patriotism rang like a bell for imperialism and nationalism. It took me well over a decade to see that as a clue.
Nationalism means “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” The concepts of nationalism and patriotism share a theme of national identity, however, the way this manifests itself could not be more different. A nationalist is Jekyll to the patriot’s Hyde, taking pride and morphing it into superiority, twisting self-actualization into imperialism. Despite the fact that nationalism is perhaps the greatest enemy of patriotism, this antagonistic relationship between the two ideologies has been erased due to common misuse in mainstream America. Like myself, many hear the word “patriotism” and associate it with qualities of nationalism rather than a unique philosophy in its own right. “I have never liked the word patriot because it creates a senseless divide,” explains Megan Magwood, Political Affairs Intern at The Borgen Project. “It creates an idea of us versus them.”
Both patriotism and nationalism unify, though in entirely different ways. Patriots establish community under a set of ideals that they do not seek to impose on others; there is no conviction of superiority and no need to assert domination. As George Orwell wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” Although nationalism inspires unity, Orwell notes that it is crucial to recognize that nationalists are uniting against other people. This type of unification births the deep fissures between groups that Megan associated with the word “patriot” and grows into aggressive action. Reflecting on history, it is no surprise that nationalist movements feed divisions of race and gender inside their country of origin as much as they feed divisions abroad. Defined by what it opposes rather than what it seeks to nurture, it is much more difficult for a country steeped in nationalism to evolve into any peaceful and inclusive ideologies.
“I am passionate about supporting and improving my country” shares Michelle Schuck, a former Public Health Nutritionist in California, “But I don’t consider myself a patriot because I don’t believe everything we do is right.” The late journalist, Sydney J. Harris wrote, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.” While a nationalist will alter their perception of reality to justify their country’s actions no matter how reprehensible, a patriot does not believe everything their country does is morally infallible. In fact, because they loathe injustice so deeply, the patriot pays special attention to the actions of their own government and fiercely opposes it when it fails ethically.
“I think patriot, at its origin, is a good word” says Laura Galza, a law student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a career in social justice, “But I’ve come to associate it with either extremists or people who are not necessarily welcoming of other nations and cultures.” Her view reflects a current, wider understanding of patriotism, demonstrating how the term has been corrupted in its misuse. Today, the word “patriot” is encouragement towards the kind of blind belief and sacrifice that defines a nationalist. It serves to ready the swinging arm of authoritarian aspirations and lay a foundation for conflict. It’s been placed, out of intent or ignorance, as a deceptive film over the United States’ tendency towards nationalism.
We must not let nationalism to continue to masquerade as patriotism. The distinction between the two is crucial, for it fosters the kind of thoughtful citizenship and pride of civil accomplishment essential to a functional democracy. The liberation of the word patriot from the definition of nationalist is also important because it spotlights nationalistic mentalities. Clarity between the two terms illustrates the world of difference between acting for democratic strength versus acting out of a sense of national superiority. It exposes toxic beliefs— like imperialism, racism, and sexism— that often take refuge in nationalism, revealing them for exactly what they are: unpatriotic. Patriot is an expression of admiration for those who sacrifice for the sake of their fellow citizens, not colonial power. It is a title for those who stand by their country not for its might, but for its morals. It is patriotic to hold one’s government to a standard of constructive critique and to fight against injustices irregardless of whether or not they happen inside or outside the borders of home.
That tap on the forehead years ago shakes me today as I sift through my identity as a citizen of the United States. Many see America for all its faults and love it for all its potential, and many strive for a nation that is truly just and inclusive. The sense of responsibility these individuals feel for their fellow citizens fuels their minds like blood and air, and they are driven by an obligation to fight for ideals that, while not necessarily unique to America, define the America they dream of. Many do not consider themselves patriots; they have only heard the term in contexts that strip it from its original meaning and hollow it with nationalism. As engaged citizens who work towards making the United States a better home for its citizens and a partner to the world, patriot is a compliment that should be reserved only for them.