False Patriotism



Love of and devotion to one’s country. ((The Free Dictionary)

Patriotism seems pretty straightforward these days. We prove love and devotion to our country by waving the flag (or wearing a flag lapel pen or wearing an American flag bikini or displaying the American flag in various ways on our vehicles), listening to Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood (but definitely not The Dixie Chicks), and supporting military intervention regardless of the truth behind its execution. Modern patriotism supports an “us” (true American) vs “them” mentality based on symbols rather than substance and discourages critical thinking.

Patriotism of this sort is dangerous because it fosters an uninformed citizenry that blindly supports pretty much anything done or said by the government or by officials who are accepted as “patriotic”, and rejection of comments by anyone not considered patriotic. This, in turn, allows the government to make decisions which citizens support whether or not those decisions are grounded in fact. Most seriously, of course, is a decision to send our citizens off to war without just cause. Good examples are Lyndon Johnson’s false evidence used to support American escalation in Vietnam and Richard Nixon extending that war for political gain. More recently President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair appear to have based the invasion of Iraq on false evidence.  Government has also been less than honest with the public on other occasions such as President Nixon’s false statements about our involvement in Chilean elections and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s false accusations that government and Hollywood were filled with communists. Prevailing notions of patriotism do not promote questioning such decisions or statements.

Our Founders would almost certainly oppose the current definition of patriotism. Remember that they themselves were radicals who overthrew the existing regime (monarchy) and replaced it with radical/liberal structures and processes proposed by political philosophers from the Enlightenment. They naturally supported questioning government and would have considered doing so patriotic. Here are a few relevant quotes:

  • Ben Franklin: “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
  • George Washington: “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”
  • Abraham Lincoln (obviously not a Founder): “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men”.

My favorites and, in my opinion, most relevant:

  • Thomas Jefferson: “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”

Jefferson argued that the best way to avoid tyranny was an informed public, not one that blindly follows its government.

I believe true patriotism is taking the time to understand the government and its policies and questioning governmental decisions or politicians’ statements that are not grounded in fact or science. James Madison said it best: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” In a previous post I discussed how poorly informed we are as a society and, consequently, how easy it is to manipulate our opinions. I now offer the notion that being so poorly informed is unpatriotic. True patriots demonstrate love and devotion to their country by taking the time to understand as much as possible about the critical issues of the day rather than simply displaying the American flag (which, by the way, I also support). I absolutely understand that being fully informed when our lives are so hectic is a near impossibility, but we must at least try to understand the basic arguments driving our government’s policy decisions. And we should vigilantly test the truth of statements made by our leaders.

Although I prefer listening to music by Pink Floyd, Gorillaz, and Miles Davis, I also like The Dixie Chicks. I really don’t think that makes me unpatriotic.