Feb 092004
Authors: Brent Ables

The notion of patriotism – loosely defined as the love of one’s

country – is as old as the State itself. Even before recorded

history, in such mythological fables as those of Homer, we are told

of brave warriors like Achilles who were willing to fight to the

death for the honor of their country. In the United States, too,

leaders from President Kennedy to Lincoln to Bush have appealed to

our patriotism in an effort to rouse our support for a variety of


One doesn’t have to look far, however, to see there also are

those who use the word as a weapon. When a citizen or group of

citizens disagrees with a particular policy, an easy way to attack

that group while avoiding the issue at hand is to label them

unpatriotic, or more often, “anti-American.” Even in a country like

our own, where dissent and pluralistic debate are at the very heart

of government, we hear (for example) that liberals who oppose the

war on Iraq or the PATROIT Act are anti-American, or that if one

doesn’t support every last decision of the executive

administration, then they don’t love their country. Even during the

Vietnam era, future President Ronald Reagen accused those who

marched against the war of “giving comfort to the enemy.”

As politician Adlai Stevenson has said, “To strike freedom of

the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly


Is it true that, if one disagrees with their government, they

are guilty of anti-Americanism? Just what does it mean to be a

patriot? For that matter, what does it mean to be an American or an

anti-American? Why is it that those on the right so often associate

themselves exclusively with patriotism? Do liberals really hate

their country?

Let’s imagine for a second that a patriot really is someone who

agrees with and fervently supports whatever their country happens

to be doing at the time. This sort of patriot would be committed to

the principle that whatever laws are passed or decisions made,

those decisions would be morally and pragmatically the best ones.

Logically, this patriot would condemn all alternative scenarios as

immoral and ineffective. Those who supported these alternatives for

whatever reasons would thus be immoral and unpatriotic people.

Now suppose a bill is passed one year and then a new congress

and new president are elected and pass another bill nullifying the

last one. What is our patriot to do in this case? Naturally, they

must have supported the first bill, since they support each and

every action their government takes. They may have even told those

who opposed the bill that they were being unpatriotic. However, if

the patriot supported the second bill, they would be committed to

admitting that they and their country had been wrong in supporting

the first one. This patriot knows that their country can do no

wrong, and yet it seems that it must have been wrong in one of the

two cases.

This little scenario is meant to make the simple point that

patriotism defined as supporting whatever one’s country does at all

times is not only difficult, but it is in fact logically

impossible. One must judge the State on independent ethical

criteria, otherwise the whole notion of right and wrong becomes, in

effect, nonexistent.

There is another kind of patriot that better fits the

constraints of morality. This is the kind of patriot that people

like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. have tried to

represent; it is the person who loves their country for the ideals

it represents, and is not afraid to criticize particular actions of

the government if those actions violate those ideals. If, for

example, a president leads the nation to an unjust war, these

patriots may feel that is their duty to protect their country by

opposing the unjust actions of that particular president. Now these

protesters may or may not be right, just as any of us may or may

not be right about any given choice we make, but it would be

asinine and groundless to attempt to question the patriotism of

these citizens.

To quote the writer Richard Falk, “Confusing patriotism with

unconditional support for government policy does core damage to the

meaning of citizenship.” In other words, if we want to call

ourselves honest citizens, we can not use the charge of

insufficient patriotism against those who make honest efforts to

propose what is best for their country. We should instead recognize

that, while a person may be wrong about one piece of policy or

another, they are most likely doing only what they see as right. We

can criticize their ideas, but not their loyalty to their country.

That would be true patriotism.

Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every


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