We’re less than a week from the Fourth of July, which means most of us here in ‘Muricaland are getting ready for our annual red-white-and-blue orgy of food, fireworks and unbridled patriotism.
I love Independence Day. But, before we indulge in too many hot dogs, blow up a little piece of this country we love (but hopefully not our fingers) and listen to a few over-played Lee Greenwood songs, I’d like to pause for this brief public service announcement on the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
We ‘Muricans have a hard time keeping these two separated, especially when an entirely self-interested politician decides to gain votes by whipping our relatively benign but far-too-easily manipulated patriotism into the hate-mongering, war-starting cancer of humanity known as nationalism.
There is an immense gray area between the benign frivolity of sparklers and those damn Lee Greenwood songs, and the soul-snatching malignancy of a morally bankrupt ideology that puts children in cages, starts trade wars willy-nilly and waddles toward global conflict with all the intelligence and diplomatic aptitude of a fourth-grade bully.
To help me draw a firm distinction between the two, I call up Sydney Harris, a Chicago journalist born in 1917, at the height of one of humanity’s worst nationalism-fueled bouts of idiocy, the First World War.
“The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does,” Harris tells us. “The first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
Harris would recognize in our willfully inhumane treatment of migrant children the kind of blind obeisance to flag-waving power that led up to two world wars. In our president’s blissfully arrogant attitude toward a war with Iran, Harris would recognize the same nationalist folly that ignited those wars.
But, that nationalism – then and now – didn’t start as an obviously malignant movement. It started as pride. It started as patriotism. It started with a little flag-waving. And, from there, all a few evil and ambitious men had to do was stir in some xenophobia and hatred, and Shazam! – a fervor of death and destruction that claimed, between the two world wars, roughly 85 million lives (give or take a few million dead people).
All that death and destruction started with the conviction – whipped into a fury by ambitious politicians – that some lives were simply worth more than others, and that the “others” needed to be feared, reviled and, ultimately, constrained by violence (that means killed).
Charles de Gaulle was well aware of nationalism’s reliance on ginned-up xenophobia when he made this important distinction: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”
The benign patriotism most of us knew growing up – a patriotism that loved America without having to hate “others” – has degraded into the latter half of de Gaulle’s observation, with the ascendance of il Trumpo, and the morally, spiritually and intellectually rancid ideology of “America First.”
“America First” is not new. It started as a nationalist movement in the early days of World War II, with strong undertones of antisemitism and fascism. Today’s “America First” is just as odious. A friend aptly described it as “Sean Hannity patriotism,” named for the president’s Faux News sycophant, whose greatest claim to ill-begotten fame seems to be disguising racism and xenophobia as patriotism.
The success of Hannity, Trump and the likes of them speaks to a recurring human tendency to abdicate responsibility and sensibility in favor of blind leader-worship, or, as Sydney Harris put it, being proud of the country and its leader, no matter what transpires.
Nationalism requires that kind of blind lickspittling, because the fruits of nationalism don’t stand up to scrutiny with any level of integrity. The person who stands up and defends the Holocaust, Japanese internment, or the intentional separation and caging of children is a good nationalist, but they fail to embrace the integrity needed to be a true patriot or, dare I say, a decent human being.
Patriotism, on the other hand, doesn’t need false pretenses and contrived hate to maintain its footing. Patriotism looks with open eyes on the unvarnished truth of our flaws and our horrible misdeeds – slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, endemic racism, gender inequality, LGBTQ persecution and the damning specter of kiddie concentration camps.
Patriotism surveys the littered field of our moral failings, accepts responsibility and looks for the difficult path to a fuller realization of our nation’s tremendous potential.
Nationalism looks at our nation’s challenges and asks, “Who can we blame?” Patriotism looks at those challenges and demands: “How can we work together to make this country better?”
I pray you all enjoy this Fourth of July. I pray more fervently we, as a nation, will proclaim our independence from nationalism, and chart a course back to the far more honorable realm of true patriotism.