Patriotism or Nationalism?
October 16, 2001
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 dont 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
dont 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;
its 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 others 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 patriots irreverent humor
Patriotism is relaxed. Nationalism is rigid.
The patriot may loyally defend his country even when he knows its wrong;
the nationalist has to insist that he defends his country not because its
his, but because its right. As if he would have defended it even if he
hadnt 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
When it comes to war, the patriot realizes
that the rest of the world cant 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 its precisely Americas 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
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.