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Monday, 17 March 2014

Patriotism from Life-Saving to Destructive Force


Below is one of the most lucid and insightful analyses of patriotism I've come across, dissecting the various stages through which this sentiment can go and clarifying at which of them it can or does become toxic.

"All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.", said the Swiss Paracelsus, one of the early chemists, founder of the discipline of toxicology. Even the best life-giving medicine, capable of restoring health if used in the appropriate way, may cause serious harm if misused and administered in the wrong dose.

I have some doubts only about the specific movements to which the poisonous level of patriotism is attributed, and I spot a certain harshness in the way the excerpt treats the USA, one of my favourite countries.

Also notice that, although the passage only deals with country patriotism and references to God and religion in it only concern Christianity, the final stage, the description of the "lowest rung of the ladder" can very neatly be applied to Islamic patriotism (or nationalism).

It is an extract from the upcoming book Democracy as a Neocon Trick by my friend, author and thinker Alexander Boot. That's how he describes it:
It's a thorough debunking of every political presupposition of modernity. The conclusion is the same as that reached by T.S. Eliot: democracy (the modern, unchecked version thereof) is incompatible with Christianity -- and therefore the Western political tradition. But Eliot had other irons in the fire, which is why he didn't approach the subject as systematically as I try to.
These are Alex's other books.


Obviously Americans were not the first people to love their birthplace. Patriotism may have been the last refuge of a scoundrel to Dr Johnson, and indeed many a scoundrel has used it as such. But there is nothing wrong with loving one’s country, especially if it is lovable. (“For a country to be loved it ought to be lovely” was how Burke put it.) However, patriotism elevated to the perch previously occupied by religion is always pernicious. Here it would be useful to consider various levels of patriotism as expressed through everyday phrases uttered to describe them. This is best imagined as a ladder, with degrees of patriotism forming descending rungs.

“I love my country” sits at the top. This is a laudable statement. The country in which one is born and grows up does not have to be ideal any more than a woman has to be ideal to be loved. Whether it is perceived as perfect or flawed, one’s own country offers the degree of intimacy, warmth and shared historical memory that is keenly felt and cherished. Like two siblings who possess a knowledge inaccessible to a stranger, countrymen – regardless of their individual differences – are united by a bond as strong as it may be invisible to outsiders.

To expand on this observation, earlier I pointed out the intellectual weakness of the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” But the phrase is unassailable on a sub-intellectual level: a nation truly becomes one when most people in it regard most of the same truths as self-evident. In that sense the American states had been united even before the Declaration – that is, united in what most of their denizens accepted as axiomatic. Such shared knowledge and mutual understanding indeed come close to the feelings of two siblings: in that sense, brotherly love and love of one’s country are similar.

Nor is there anything wrong with regarding one’s country as unlike any other. All countries are different; if they were not, we would not have so many different countries. This is so obvious that one would think it hardly needs saying. But of course what matters here is not the text but the subtext: when people insist that their country is exceptional, they usually do not mean ‘different from…’, they mean ‘better than…’. They are entitled even to that opinion, as long as they recognise that tastes may differ.

Moving down a step, “I love my country, right or wrong” begins to be problematic. However, the problem is not insurmountable: after all, though we like for something, we love in spite of everything. A normal son cannot always stop loving his mother just because she is a compulsive shoplifter. Nor will a normal mother stop loving her son even if he boasts a string of juvenile convictions before his sixteenth birthday. So perhaps Burke’s aphorism quoted above ought to be ever so slightly modified. A country has to be lovely to be liked – loving it is a slightly different matter.

Another step down, and we overhear the statement “I love my country because it is always right.” Between this step and the previous one a line was crossed separating patriotism from jingoism. No country is always right. The belief that one can be is as false as it is widespread at the American grassroots.

When such sentiments are translated into action, we begin to leave behind the rivers supposedly flowing with milk and honey and approach a swamp fuming with putrid emanations. Implicit in this statement is tribal, what before the advent of political correctness used to be called Hottentot, morality: if I steal his cow, that is good; if he steals my cow, that is bad. It took several millennia of civilisation to overcome such tribalism, and by the looks of it the job has never been finished.

Another step down, and the morass sucks us in waist-high. Here one hears “My country is always right because it is guided by God in everything it does.” Typically this has nothing to do with any true religious faith: after all, Christ was unequivocal in stating that his kingdom was not of this world. America or any other country is ‘under God’ because everything is – but only for that reason.

At this level ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘a city on a hill’ are joined by the ‘Third Rome’ of Russia (replaced for a few decades by a more aggressive communist messianism) and the ‘Gott mit uns’ of the SS. The underlying assumption is that our actions cannot be judged by infidels, only by God, and he has given us an open-ended endorsement. Thus anything we do is justified simply because we do it.

The lowest rung reaches to the bottom of the swamp, where real creepy-crawlies take refuge. Here the sentiment is “Because our country is guided by God, it is our duty to impose our ways on others, whether they want it or not. Others may be either seduced or coerced, it does not matter which, as long as they join the fold.” Since no real faith in God underlines this feeling, the explanatory clause at the beginning of the sentence may at some point be dropped for being superfluous.

Only Americans and Russians ever descend this ladder below the top two rungs in noticeable numbers, and only Americans hardly ever stumble along the way. Also unique to America is the heavy representation of this genre of patriotism in the political mainstream. In other countries it is usually relegated to the lunatic fringe, an area inhabited, say, by France’s Front National, German neo-Nazis or our own dear BNP. Other places also have individuals prepared to dive headlong into the swamp of sanctimonious jingoism, except that in those places such willing divers do not represent the dominant, nor even influential, ethos.


  1. I take it your writer friend is not an American? I am a senior American and have NEVER run up against the mindset of “I love my country because it is always right”, much less the next rungs down. The very fact that Americans debate so strongly with each other over every issue that comes up means that a very high proportion of Americans are in disagreement with government policy and actions that emerge from those disagreements. You just can hardly name ANY implemented policy/law/action that Americans wholeheartedly support, either in advance or after-the-fact. We don’t love our country because it is always right, we love our country because it is a wonderful place to live, it is beautiful, it has been made very prosperous by the sweat of our, and our ancestors’ sweat and blood, it allows us extraordinary freedom of speech and action, it has come as near as any heterogeneous nation to eradicating REAL poverty, its foundation (yes, Christianity) was established with a high moral purpose, it has been one of the most generous nations the world has ever seen, it generally rewards personal ambition – and I could go on. Bottom line: We love our country for many reasons, not because we think we are always right, but in spite of the occasional wrong-headed moves it makes.

    1. Alexander Boot was born in Russia, and moved to the United States, where he lived for a few years, at the time of the Soviet Union.

  2. The lowest rung is a pretty good description of the islamic attitude.