Patriotism or Nationalism?
October 16, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     This is a season of patriotism, but also of 
something that is easily mistaken for patriotism; 
namely, nationalism. The difference is vital.

     G.K. Chesterton once observed that Rudyard 
Kipling, the great poet of British imperialism, 
suffered from a "lack of patriotism." He explained: 
"He admires England, but he does not love her; for 
we admire things with reasons, but love them 
without reasons. He admires England because she is 
strong, not because she is English."

     In the same way, many Americans admire America 
for being strong, not for being American. For them 
America has to be "the greatest country on earth" 
in order to be worthy of their devotion. If it were 
only the 2nd-greatest, or the 19th-greatest, or, 
heaven forbid, "a 3rd-rate power," it would be 
virtually worthless.

     This is nationalism, not patriotism. 
Patriotism is like family love. You love your 
family just for being your family, not for being 
"the greatest family on earth" (whatever that might 
mean) or for being "better" than other families. 
You don't feel threatened when other people love 
their families the same way. On the contrary, you 
respect their love, and you take comfort in knowing 
they respect yours. You don't feel your family is 
enhanced by feuding with other families.

     While patriotism is a form of affection, 
nationalism, it has often been said, is grounded in 
resentment and rivalry; it's often defined by its 
enemies and traitors, real or supposed. It is 
militant by nature, and its typical style is 
belligerent. Patriotism, by contrast, is peaceful 
until forced to fight.

     The patriot differs from the nationalist in 
this respect too: he can laugh at his country, the 
way members of a family can laugh at each other's 
foibles. Affection takes for granted the 
imperfection of those it loves; the patriotic 
Irishman thinks Ireland is hilarious, whereas the 
Irish nationalist sees nothing to laugh about.

     The nationalist has to prove his country is 
always right. He reduces his country to an idea, a 
perfect abstraction, rather than a mere home. He 
may even find the patriot's irreverent humor 

     Patriotism is relaxed. Nationalism is rigid. 
The patriot may loyally defend his country even 
when he knows it's wrong; the nationalist has to 
insist that he defends his country not because it's 
his, but because it's right. As if he would have 
defended it even if he hadn't been born to it! The 
nationalist talks as if he just "happens," by sheer 
accident, to have been a native of the greatest 
country on earth -- in contrast to, say, the 
pitiful Belgian or Brazilian.

     Because the patriot and the nationalist often 
use the same words, they may not realize that they 
use those words in very different senses. The 
American patriot assumes that the nationalist loves 
this country with an affection like his own, 
failing to perceive that what the nationalist 
really loves is an abstraction -- "national 
greatness," or something like that. The American 
nationalist, on the other hand, is apt to be 
suspicious of the patriot, accusing him of 
insufficient zeal, or even "anti-Americanism."

     When it comes to war, the patriot realizes 
that the rest of the world can't be turned into 
America, because his America is something specific 
and particular -- the memories and traditions that 
can no more be transplanted than the mountains and 
the prairies. He seeks only contentment at home, 
and he is quick to compromise with an enemy. He 
wants his country to be just strong enough to 
defend itself.

     But the nationalist, who identifies America 
with abstractions like "freedom" and "democracy," 
may think it's precisely America's mission to 
spread those abstractions around the world -- to 
impose them by force, if necessary. In his mind, 
those abstractions are universal ideals, and they 
can never be truly "safe" until they exist, 
unchallenged, everywhere; the world must be made 
"safe for democracy" by "a war to end all wars." We 
still hear versions of these Wilsonian themes. Any 
country that refuses to Americanize is "anti-
American" -- or a "rogue nation." For the 
nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change 
the world. This is a recipe for endless war.

     In a time of war hysteria, the outraged 
patriot, feeling his country under attack, may 
succumb to the seductions of nationalism. This is 
the danger we face now.


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