This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Toxic patriotism

I have formed a very clear conception of patriotism. I have generally found it thrust into the foreground by some fellow who has something to hide in the background. I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel.

~ G.K. Chesterton

Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism and appear greedy for praise. The flimsiest compliment pleases them and the most fulsome rarely manages to satisfy them; they plague you constantly to make you praise them and, if you show yourself reluctant, they praise themselves. Doubting their own worth, they could be said to need a constant illustration of it before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, it is also restless and jealous. It grants nothing while making endless demands. It begs one moment and quarrels the next.

–Alexis de Tocqueville

There are certain people in this world whose fates are unavoidably intertwined with my own. You, for example, if you happen to be an American, will always, to some degree, share my fate. We are in the same massive boat. If a foreign enemy overruns our whole nation, you and I will both suffer the ordeal together. If you live in my city and famine or disease strikes, then you will endure the hunger and the fever right next to me.

This is the true basis of patriotism. Understood in this way, it is a beautiful thing worthy of being taught to all men. It creates a sense of brotherhood, a feeling of connectedness, and a framework of community, through which people bind together and support one another simply because they were born in the same town, the same state, or the same nation.

It is as if there was a great chain by which I am linked to you and to the world. The closer I am to you on the chain, the more intimately our fates are bound, but ultimately it does not matter where a person is on this earth, we are still in some way attached. The earth is nothing more than the ultimate boat which contains all the others. Even though those on the far end of the great chain are so far removed from my life that I will never meet them, they are still there and still connected. One way or another, we are engaged in a great project together and the ripples of our lives cannot help but intersect.

This isn’t some vague spiritualism, and it isn’t some poetic ideal: it is just common sense.

In this light, when we consider the idea of patriotism, we can say that it is nothing more than a term we use to describe our organic responsibility to “our” section of the chain. After all, if the links are to remain strong, each should cling tightly to those nearest. The goal, however, is always connectedness. That is why patriotism, if it is to remain sane, must not be rooted in feelings of separation, otherness, fear, and resentment, but in a desire for association and intimacy. If it departs from this basis and turns instead to rhetoric about superiority, fueling pride, hate, and distance, then it is no longer a true patriotism. It is something else. It is called nationalism, which is an almost religious devotion to the State as an idea and an end in itself. It also requires, by its nature, that all other nations be despised and viewed as inferior. Within the spirit of nationalism, only one’s own nation has any merit and is worthy of any esteem. Nationalism tells its followers that they live in “the greatest nation in all the world!”—and anyone who questions this superiority is a traitor and a heretic. But now nationalism is a dead word, and it is dead because it took on the name of patriotism.

In America patriotism is no longer something based on responsibility to what has been made mine simply through birth and life in a certain place and time; patriotism is no longer the natural duty to help my neighbor simply because he is my neighbor. No, that wasn’t good enough, it seems. The new patriotism demands not simply that I look out for my neighbor, but that I shout from the rooftops that my neighborhood is greater than all other neighborhoods, and it requires that I believe myself and my neighbor to be the greatest men in the world.

It no longer suffices to serve my people because they are my people—I must serve them because they are the greatest of peoples. This is revolutionary.

The old way seems much more rational. I’ll give my neighbor a cup of sugar and a couple eggs when he comes knocking. I’ll help him put out a fire in his house if I must, because he is my neighbor. But I’m not going to act like an idiot, running around yelling about how great we are—my neighbor and I. That’s nothing but self-flattery and conceit. There was never a time when I had to be convinced of his greatness in order to help him.

I could have stuck by the old patriotism because it was sane. It was rooted in the natural responsibilities that come with human communities, all the way back to the original community, the family. I must care for my family, not because my family is the greatest and most deserving family in the world, but for no other reason than that it is my family. And that has to be enough. A love that demands, before it can be exercised, that the recipient be the greatest and most deserving, is not love. A love of one’s country that demands, as its justification, that the country be proclaimed the greatest in the world, is not love of one’s country, it is an appeal to pride.

I don’t need appeals to my pride to get me to care for my family, and that same truth extends to my neighbor and my nation. I do not need to condescend to the rest of the world in order to be devoted to the land and people where I live. I can love my nation without hating all others. If I must hate all others in order to love mine, then I do not have love for my nation—I have a diseased pride in it, and that is something else.

My patriotism, if I have any, is a patriotism of community, duty, and love. It must never have anything to do with pride, and the moment it does is the moment I will become ashamed of it.

Pride is the opposite of love, and the modern patriotism, which is just nationalism in disguise, is based on pride. It has become the opposite of what it was when it was sane. If we want to return it to sanity, we must return to a patriotism based on connectedness, responsibility, and, yes, even love. We must turn patriotism back into what it was when it was reasonable, which requires turning it into the opposite of what it is now.

I tell you this because patriotism is another one of those “keywords” of the verbal universe that carries with it an extraordinary power. People will use it against you, and in fact they probably already have used it against you. They use it to shame you into an unquestioning obedience. They use it to kindle within you the basest passions and sentiments. They use it to draw you away from your wives and children, to send you off to some other country to shoot some man you’ve never met. They use patriotism to do this. If we could restore the word to its true, noble meaning, it could not be abused in such a way. It would become once again a tool of community and togetherness, instead of a tool of pride, bigotry, and division.

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