(Written in April 2003, and published in The Peace Review in December 2003.)
Patriotism is to a nation what egotism is to a person. One has a passionate attachment to one’s idea of oneself, believes virtues arise from that passion, and seeks to act consistently with those imagined virtues. Patriotism is a similarly complex concept that presumes the same three kinds of “things” have a necessary relationship and together form a unique totality. A passion, love of one’s country, is held to produce a virtue, a consistent commitment to an ideal image of one’s country, which in turn produces a pattern of actions, often self-sacrificial, intended to benefit one’s country. Many might feel the passion, but those who most attest to it may not feel it most. Many might give evidence of the virtue, or seek to, but those considered most exemplary may not possess it most securely. Many might act to benefit their countries, but what counts as a benefit, whether an action is to be judged by its intentions or its effects, who is to judge, and by what means, are all issues contentious in proportion to the extremity of the circumstances that prompt the action and the drama of the deed. The complexity of the concept cannot be got around. Conventional use of the word assumes that the action is founded on the virtue and that the virtue necessarily arises from the passion, so that if one has the passion, one will have the virtue, and if one has the virtue, one will perform deeds of actual benefit to one’s country. This complexity of these covertly asserted assumptions makes the concept intrinsically ideological.
Founded on a passion, patriotism varies according to what it is a passion for. The object of the passion is to be seen through the eyes of the group that selects and idealizes a national concept combining features of a particular land, people, culture, and government. Each national concept is a unique cultural construct, so each is held to evoke a different complex of feelings, inspire somewhat different protective virtues, and dictate different types of acts presumed to be selfless. Consequently citizens of one country misperceive or fail to perceive the patriotism of other countries. American ears are deaf to the fraternity in the French triad of ideals because brotherhood to Americans, when not familial or neighborly, is a religious, not a civic concept, and the civic is held to be secular. Americans, to whom the aesthetics of transcendental idealism appeared dissociated from Fascist goals, could not comprehend that the Horst Wessel Lied expressed German patriotism. Christians cannot credit the idea that the Greater Jihad is the struggle to commit oneself more earnestly to Allah, and that political and military struggle is only the Lesser Jihad. Patrick Henry’s speech could not inspire the patriotism of a Kamikaze pilot, who would take it for crass egotistical self-assertion because it lacked the mystical devotion that, he believed, could alone make actions selfless. The totalizing ideals of patriotism, vivid and reinforced from all sides within a country, appear arcane and arbitrary from the outside.
Belief that one experiences patriotic passion constitutes subjective certification that one deserves membership in the group. The target audience of the concept of patriotism is the young, particularly young men. As they ready themselves to leave their original families and find some niche within the larger society, patriotism offers a way to ease the transition. They need not fear because the nation, they are told, is really a family. What they believed of their fathers and homes when small children they are to believe of their national leaders and jurisdictions. They are encouraged to fix their attention on whatever is believed to produce patriotic passion, to be solicitous of the passion to develop a supporting framework of supposedly appropriate virtues, normally military ones, and to aspire to perform patriotic deeds, normally ones that advance governmental goals. If they do this, they are to find in their hearts or souls—or solar plexuses—that they love what other good people love, and so will act admirably. Yet Joseph Conrad insightfully argued the contrary: Lord Jim, when he thought himself a hero, acted the coward’s part, but when he thought himself a coward, the hero’s. Ideological fantasy provides a safe haven for an inauthentic relationship to oneself; one shields oneself from oneself with the image the group provides. Under cover of patriotism, one can tell oneself the sadism one safely inflicts on the defenseless is heroic.
The complex concepts of ideologies prosper because their complexity prevents compelling tests of their existence. If an apparently passionless person is held to be a patriot, one points to virtues and deeds and claims the passion is buried or reticent. If one claims intense passion, lack of deeds is excused by lack of occasion. If one appears to lack virtues, a heroic deed or intense feeling can be taken as evidence that the virtue is merely lying dormant. There need be no proof that the passion produces the virtue or the virtue the deed. Lacking proof, the doctrine that national education should aim to produce the passion and reward evidence of it goes unimpeached. What this doctrine most crucially avoids, and is designed to avoid, is inquiry into what constitutes a beneficial act. That debate is foreclosed because its answer is assumed already to be known: a patriot’s action is beneficial because it proceeds from an honorable virtue arising from a generous passion. One interprets the nature of the act itself as if in a package deal, the package containing virtue and passion, blessing each other.
If patriotism itself is a virtue, it cannot be an unequivocal one, for it must be a virtue possessed by citizens of countries our governments proclaim our enemies as well as by ourselves. Yet despite its equivocal status, there is nothing for which we are otherwise asked to kill or more frequently asked to die. The call for patriotism arises just as surely when the leaders of one’s country want to conquer another as when they want to defend it. The likelihood that, in the name of patriotism, an unpatriotic person on one’s own side kills a true patriot of the other side is just as great as that a true patriot of one’s own side is slaughtered by a cynic of the other. One country’s patriot is another’s mass murderer.
Each side, of course, denies this. Its own troops are brave, righteous and heroic; the enemy’s are pusillanimous, unprincipled, and scurrilous. To believe in our own virtues is to believe our opposition is vicious, benighted, or both. As many lies have been uttered in the name of patriotism as in the names of God and love.
Patriotes, Greek for ‘a native, an inhabitant’, derives from patrios, ‘established by one’s ancestors.’ Greeks and Romans assumed one had inherited one’s country from one’s male ancestors, so one’s native land was the land of one’s pater, the fatherland. One loved what one’s forefathers had bequeathed to one, loved their way of life and their gods, and intended to defend one’s inheritance against all opposition. Hence the patriot was a conservative roused to action in defense of tradition inseparable from his own identity. He preferred death to defeat because in defeat he would lose himself anyway; he’d be enslaved or forced to betray what he loved. Hence, attached to the idea of patriotism, were the insuperable will to victory, the dogged refusal to compromise, and the willingness to risk everything—for the patriot felt he embodied the will of his ancestors, and even if everything else were lost, so long as he remained unconquered, he could reconstruct his homeland from his heart.
Were this all there were to patriotism, we might believe it an unequivocal virtue, for it would demand injury only to unjust aggressors. In recruiting troops, governments have always drawn on this naïve belief. But because all governments use this appeal and at least half of the antagonists in war must be aggressors, at least half of the appeals to patriotism and claims of it, in this original, conservative and defensive sense, must be false. Actual love of Vietnam may have inspired many Viet Cong, but Americans who thought themselves inspired by love of the USA deluded themselves—albeit with a lot of cooperation—for the only US “national interest” at stake in Vietnam was American corporate desire to dissuade the governments of countries US planners had designated as “service economies” from attempting to use their national resources to benefit their own nations.
The quandaries the notion of patriotism drives us into arise from the claim of all governments uniquely and adequately to represent the will of their country’s citizens. In normal times, most people who think themselves so patriotic as to be willing to “die for their countries” mean they are willing to die following the orders of government officials. Yet this is not the most forceful sense of patriotism, which appeals to love of country for revolution against a government believed illegitimate. Because he meant to revive the Republic even after the Senate had given itself to Caesar, Brutus thought himself a patriot when he vowed to kill Caesar. The unsuccessful, rebellious patriot is held a traitor, while the successful revolutionary patriot is honored as a father of his country. Subsequent obedience to his political heirs is held to be emulation of his model.
But obedient patriotism, the sort most often claimed, has little in common with revolutionary patriotism. The “patriot” obedient to a rich and powerful state may risk his life during battle, but does not risk his reputation, his family, or property as the rebellious patriot does, nor does he take on the task of forming a better polity, as the revolutionary patriot does.
In the present developed world—in the US and Canada, Japan, and most of Europe—when people speak of their patriotism, they hardly intend to take the risks that founders of nations took. Instead they imagine conquest disguised as the salvation of something—“freedom”, “democracy”, “the people” (or das Volk), a way of life (or merely the habit of extravagant consumption)—rarely in fact threatened by those they fight. The pure patriot in warfare would believe the outcome should depend on courage and belief, and military historians search their records for inspiring examples of morale and leadership outweighing weaponry, logistics, and numbers. But however one weighs morale versus technology and finance through history, the last sixty years have revealed that, for the developed world, the risks and virtues of patriots have been replaced by technical service to war materiel. Estimates of Vietnamese killed in the US attack range between 1.3 and 2 million, but the official US count of US dead is 58,022. (US veteran groups say that over 50,000 more GI’s, plagued by the violence they experienced, have since committed suicide.) Ramsey Clark reported to the UN that the 1991Gulf War and embargo caused the deaths of over half a million Iraqis, but the US reported only 19 American deaths; in the 2003 invasion and occupation, 306 Americans died in 187 days after March 20. Jonathan Steele estimated in The Guardian that in Afghanistan in 2001, 28,000 Afghanis died, but BBC reported only one American death—of a CIA agent on the ground. In 35 years, ratios of deaths of rich country soldiers to invaded country citizens have gone from some figure between 22:1 and 35:1 to some figure over 1,500:1; the developed world’s attacks on poor countries are no longer wars, but mere slaughter. Patriotism may still be a military virtue in the impoverished world, but in the developed, it is window dressing for an arms bazaar. So if patriotism is to survive in the developed world—if it needs to survive—it must be detached from militarism and from the archaic and offensive sense that nationalism preserves from the time, now two generations past, when relatively wealthy countries threatened each other, sometimes on a par.
For the wealthy countries, militaristic patriotism is anachronistic. But anachronisms can survive for generations when passed on to children by young parents still under the influence of their own parents, for ideals absorbed before adolescence solidify when most people are incapable of abstract operations, and so cannot compare their own beliefs with their actual experience or the beliefs, let alone the experience, of others. In most circles, the empathy and reasoning needed to compare one’s own experience with others’ is considered a hypothetical function of humanistic intellectuals whose skills are thought unnecessary to the general conduct of life, and an interference to “hard-headed” politics. We are risking our lives, and the life of our planet, for the sake of childish beliefs coated in the political rhetoric of necessity.
What sorts of actions actually benefit one’s country? It is convenient for this question not to be asked, for the goal of patriotic training is the production of a group of people convinced that their leaders know the answer and intend to implement it, so that the only open issue is what facilitates the coordination of group action to effectuate their will. Yet, if the proof is in the pudding—or if “they shall be known by their fruits”—it is the question on which the rest depends. So, paradoxically, those who claim most ardently to desire the benefit of their country are disinclined to discuss the nature of the benefit they wish to produce. They tend instead to regard debate about the nature of benefits as itself unpatriotic, as though it signified lack of desire to produce benefits rather than desire to know what benefits are needed because one wants to produce them.
Recalcitrance regarding the nature of benefit follows from traditional perception of patriotism: one’s patriotism makes one a member of the lovers of one’s country, and one must desire to act in concert with them. Questioning the group’s judgment concerning what is beneficial counts as malingering, or even an unpatriotic effort to undermine group morale. Only leaders who have proven their patriotism are entitled to ask what benefits the country; but if they have already proven their patriotism, it can only be a patriotism based on unexamined belief of what constitutes benefit, a belief they, in turn, must have accepted from their purportedly patriotic elders. For the rest of us, the answer to the question, “What is beneficial?” is supposed to be at once “Our leaders know,” and “Everyone knows.” Preferably the two are to be fused, as in Goldwater’s slogan in 1964—“In your heart you know he’s right.” By asking, one implies one does not know, and that is taken for evidence that one is unpatriotic, for if one loves one’s country, one is supposed to know “in one’s heart” what benefits it.
What is this strange knowledge, supposedly instinctual or organic, that can be proclaimed but not discussed? It comes from within, below, or behind one, as it were; it arises from the earth and impels one; its object can’t be specified, nor the means of knowing analyzed. What is “knowledge” that is not knowledge of something except ignorance renamed its opposite? One is to allow oneself to be acted through without interference from intervening knowledge. That is the goal of patriotic training and the appeal of patriotic sentiment, to accustom one to release oneself from one’s own conscious control, to become selfless and act in the way a chthonic spirit, presumably blessed by a deity, would have one act in concert with others.
Through the vast bulk of the historical record, nearly literate cultures share a tradition of elite praise of group ignorance. Religions in general have been loath to advocate learning outside the religious elite; many traditionally denied it altogether to women and slaves. The Manu Smriti held that the proper punishment for the bulk of Hindus—the Shudras—for hearing the Vedas recited was to pour molten lead in their ears. Christians traditionally taught that only the Bible need be known, Muslims only the Koran. Taoists recommended that the populace be kept ignorant so they could act in untroubled innocence; learning produced cynical dissension. Cultural traditions that respected critical intelligence have esteemed it generally as a mark of distinction qualifying one to retreat in elite isolation or to advise rulers; what one was to criticize was the superstitions of the masses and the intentions of outsiders, not the assertions of one’s own rulers and priests. Rulers have never liked contending with educated citizenry, let alone skeptics. Modern limitations on free speech and free access to information just continue inveterate restrictions sovereigns have nearly always imposed on subjects.
The relationship between sovereign and subject is barely distinguishable from that of master and slave; it was only because the status of the subject as the monarch’s property was accepted that the status of the slave as property went unchallenged in the West until the Enlightenment. The demand for universal literacy arose only with the Enlightenment’s attempted embodiment in the French Revolution, which attempted to supplant the subject with the citizen, who aspired to recast sovereignty as a collective function by assuming responsibility for corporate acts.
The crisis patriotism now faces in developed countries is that powerful users of the term, and the majority to which they appeal for support, actually desire the patriotism of the subject, not of the citizen, yet must use the language of the patriotism of citizenship to inspire support. Meanwhile a larger proportion of our activities are corporate than at any previous time; they are actions involving proxies. I ask, of how many of our actions do we know the initiating motives and see the actual effects? Of how many do others act through us and we through others?
We act in society by means of political, economic, and social power. Two hundred years ago our political activity consumed a far smaller percentage of our income than now and was more subject to local control. The majority of the US electorate was self-employed; now less than 10% are. Our economic activity used to be primarily individual or family-oriented, and local; now, as the Supreme Court claims, it is all “in the stream of national commerce” and a quarter of it is international. Our social activity used to be a function of family, neighborhood, and local groups; now it is suffused by mass media. In each sphere in which power is exerted and suffered, the ratio of large group and hierarchical control to small group and individual control has increased.
Our primary political action, oddly, is actually economic: we empower our government with taxes. No matter how much we protest what our government does, so long as we seek our conventional economic ends and pay the taxes on the salaries we seek, politicians can cynically assume our disagreements are superficial. As of 2000, 31 trillion dollars had a purchasing power of 44 trillion dollars because 13 trillion of value is unrepresented in the international valuation of the dollar. This 41% overvaluation is highly prized. Because of it, the net flow into the US of value from countries with undervalued currencies was 1.089 trillion dollars, three times the military budget. The US military, regarded as the backup force for this overvaluation, brings in a net profit to the nation of 204%, and so more than pays for itself. It might be more accurate to say that the people of poor countries with devalued currencies actually pay for it, for that 1.089 trillion, nearly all of which goes to the 500 corporations that make three fourths of the profit in the US, exceeds total individual federal income tax payments. We can protest that we don’t want our government to manipulate currencies through the IMF, or to intimidate the world. But our government could reply, if it chose to be truthfully impolitic, that, so long as we use dollars, we are hypocrites, for 11% of the income of the average US citizen must now be accounted to basically unremunerated labor and resources from poor countries. The US returns in aid less than 1% of the value it takes in through currency exchange alone. No national political party intends to change any of this; if I don’t like robbing the poor for the rich, I can refuse to pay taxes to the government that facilitates this extortion and go to jail, or give up my citizenship, or try whatever I can by pressure politics. Better, I can return 11% of my income each year to some of the people from whom it is extorted. What I can’t do is accept the one-size-fits-all terms on which patriotism is offered to me.
We are normally unconscious of economic action as the exertion of power oppressing distant people by political means. But consider a single transaction: I buy a shirt for my brother for his birthday. By convention, my transfer of the shirt from a store to my brother is held to be the presentation of a gift affecting only the relationship between me and my brother. This convention allows me to assess my action by my intention and to ignore the effect of my means, the purchase of the shirt. But in the means exists all the relationships that brought the shirt to the store. The shop-owner is my proxy: he acts, in effect, as my agent, having procured a shirt for me. Michel Chossudovsky, in The Globalization of Poverty, breaks down the price of a dozen shirts from Bangladesh sold, with tax, for $292.60. Each shirt, with tax, costs $24.38. Of that, only 2.7%, $0.65 stays in Bangladesh, $0.41 for the seamstress, $0.24 for the factory owner. 97.3%, $23.73 stays in developed countries: $2.49 for materials, $0.69 cents for freight, commissions, and duty, $0.83 for US wholesale and retail wages, $2.22 for taxes, leaving $17.50 for gross commercial profit for distributors. I’ve given 71.8% of my money for profit. A large portion of it goes to create political and economic pressure, through corporations, banks, the US government, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and the government of Bangladesh—particularly its administrators, police, and courts—to preserve conditions that channel 42.7 times as much money into profit as into the seamstress’ wages. Through a chain of his proxies, I have just helped the importer to exploit Bangladeshi women. If I don’t want to do that, I can try to withdraw selectively from about 25% of the normal economic life of the US, become an expatriate, or demand democratic control on corporations and the Bretton Woods Institutions. The first is impossibly complicated, the second drastic and probably ineffectual. The third, activist pressure politics, admits the complete failure of party politics to address the issue, so that the attempt not to injure others through my routine actions again forces me to unconventional risks.
In terms of social power, we increasingly act as proxies, passing on preformed opinions. Say we invite friends to our house and watch television rather than talking to each other, squandering what little opportunity to communicate we have. Contrast the average person’s ability to communicate opinions with the ability of a newscaster: in one half hour, one newscaster consumes, say, 15 million hours of human time. That feat would take 94 persons, unaided by television, a normal working lifetime of 40 years to accomplish—if they refused to spend a minute listening. If politicians regard us as a passive audience rather than as citizens, if we don’t turn off the television, if we don’t read, don’t write, don’t talk to each other, and don’t create alternative media, how can we say they are wrong?
How do we retrieve and create the citizenship without which conventional patriotism reduces us puppets? The anachronistic sense of servile patriotism holds that one should seek the passion, build the virtue, then perform the deeds. This position serves governments that treat their citizens as subjects. Its order is inverted to appeal to the childish desire for security. Patriotism appropriate to the modern world is that of adults capable of reflection and good faith argument that listens to the opposition with clear attention. One must through empathy put oneself in the position of one’s opponents and see oneself as one’s opponents see one before speaking. Positions one then takes may represent the patriotism of a citizen ethically assuming responsibility for actual involvement in collective acts. Such positions require contemplation of the nature of actual benefits to be primary, take virtue to be only what actually produces benefits, and judge passion to be authentic only to the degree that the benefits it serves can be calmly assessed.
(Written in April 2003, and published in The Peace Review in December 2003.)