“Are you a Patriot?”

November 19, 2007

This is a question I was asked in class today (yet another “introduce yourself” deal). In fine logical positivist tradition, I’m trying to deduce whether this question has any meaning at all. That is, if I claim to be a patriot, what does that claim entail?

Patriotism, to go with a definition off the top of my head, is the same as “love of country.” So, you are a patriot if you love your country. Well, I’m immediately reminded of Meg Ryan’s line in French Kiss, where she says that the statement “I love my mother” means nothing because “everyone loves their mother. Even people who say they hate their mothers love their mothers.” As I see it, love of country is similar. Nobody hates their own country. Your country is familiar, and even if there are things you don’t like about it, it’s still your country. On this understanding of the question, countries and mothers are comparable; you may claim to hate them, but you really love them. So yes, everybody is a patriot.

Which brings me to the second, slightly more interesting interpretation. You could take “Are you a patriot?” to mean “Do you believe that your country was founded on just principles, and that, generally, those principles are being honored and upheld by your countrymen?” On this interpretation, you would be able to call at least some people unpatriotic. People living in the Soviet Union, if they believed in individual rights, for example, would be in fundamental disagreement with the foundation principles of their country, and thus one could say that they are not patriotic. An American who believes that individual liberty has no inherent value would be unpatriotic. If an American thought, for example, that people shouldn’t have the right to choose their religion because they might choose the wrong one, that would be unpatriotic. This second definition is meaningful; it is possible to not be patriotic by these criteria, but I would be shocked to find that I know any Americans who would look at this definition and say “No, I’m not a patriot.”

A third interpretation produces a lot more non-patriots, but at the cost of conflating jingoism with patriotism. Here, you could define a patriot as a person who believes that America can do no wrong, or specifically, that no American government can do anything wrong. To be a patriot, then, you have to blindly accept and defend everything America has ever done since its foundation, or since the arrival of Europeans in North America. Well, by this definition, it is absurd to be a patriot, so that rules all non-absurd people out.

Ultimately, I resent being asked whether I am a patriot, because when I give this answer:

“Yes, I am a patriot. I believe that America was founded on good and just principles, and that our system, in which individual liberty is protected and celebrated, is morally superior to a system, like communism, that deals with ‘society as a whole’ rather than respecting individuals.”

I get the feeling that my interrogator only hears “Yes, I am a patriot, blah blah blah” and assumes that I am an extreme nationalist who would destroy the rest of the world without a second thought if it furthered American interests. At the same time, I refuse to say “No, I’m not a patriot” because my country actually is important to me, and I’m not about to deny this just so that some European won’t think I’m a “typical American.”

Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart did a web show related to this subject. It’s about 10 minutes long.

Addendum: It occurs to me that I should expand my second definition to include people who hold different opinions on what America represents. In my discussion, I assumed that because America claims to stand for individual liberty and natural rights, it actually does stand for those principles. It is possible to believe that these principles are good, but America in no way represents them. One could hold that America stands for systematic oppression and the perpetuatual advancement of the privileged class while the people in power mask their true intent by paying lip service to individual liberty. A person who holds this view would basically agree with me on what makes a country worth loving, but would disagree with me on whether America meets that standard.


4 Responses to ““Are you a Patriot?””

  1. Thomas Says:

    As you know, I would take issue with the idea that individual rights are protected and celebrated in America. It seems clear to me that the system we have celebrates and protects the rights of some more than others.

    Also, French Kiss is an AWESOME movie. Really top notch as far as 90’s Hollywood romantic comedies go.

  2. William Says:

    Yes, I wasn’t thinking of your position when I originally composed this post, but it was with this in mind that the addendum was written.

    Indeed, French Kiss is beloved by my sisters.

  3. hayley Says:

    Nobody hates their own country. Nobody hates THEIR own country! It’s so liberating! And decidedly grammatical! Nobody-their! Nobody-their! Long live the plural-go-neuter!

  4. William Says:

    I know. I made it a point to include that sentence. It is a wonderful thing.

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