Goodbye to Patriotism

The following article appeared in ZNet, the web site of Z Magazine, on the November 10 2001 and has been reposted here. It looks at the issue of patriotism. You can see the original article at

Saying goodbye to patriotism
by Robert Jensen
[A talk delivered to the Peace Action National Congress, November 10, 2001]

This summer I wrote a book review for an academic journal -- one of those terribly important pieces of writing that will be read by tens and tens of people, some of them actually people outside my own family. The book is about the history of governmental restrictions on U.S. news media during war, and it's a good book in many ways. But I faulted the author for accepting the American mythology about the nobility of our wars and their motivations. I challenged his uncritical use of the term patriotism, which I called "perhaps the single most morally and intellectually bankrupt concept in human history."

By coincidence, the galley proofs for the piece came back to me for review a few days after September 11. I paused as I re-read my words, and I thought about the reaction those words might spark, given the reflexive outpouring of patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks. I thought about the controversy that some of my writing had already sparked on campus and, it turned out, beyond the campus. I thought about how easy it would be to take out that sentence.

I thought about all that for some time before deciding to let it stand. My reason was simple: I think that statement was true on September 10, and if anything, I'm more convinced it is true after September 11.

I also believe that nestled in the truth of that assertion is a crucial question for the U.S.-based peace movement, one that we cannot avoid after 9-11:

Are we truly internationalist? Can we get beyond patriotism? Or, in the end, are we just Americans?

That is a way, I think, of asking whether we are truly for peace and justice.

I realize that framing of the question may seem harsh. It may rub the wrong way people who want to hold onto a positive notion of patriotism.

I mean the statement to be harsh because I believe the question is crucial. If in the end we are just Americans, if we cannot move beyond patriotism, then we cannot claim to be internationalists. And, if we are not truly internationalist in our outlook -- all the way to the bone -- then I do not think we truly call ourselves people committed to peace and justice.

Let me try to make the case for this by starting with definitions.

My dictionary defines patriotism as "love and loyal or zealous support of one's own country." We'll come back to that, but let's also look beyond the dictionary to how the word is being used at this moment in history, in this country. I would suggest there are two different, and competing, definitions of patriotism circulating these days.

Definition #1: Patriotism as loyalty to the war effort.

It's easy to get a handle on this use of the word. Just listen to the president of the United States speak. Or watch the TV anchors. Or, as I have done, be a guest on a lot of talk radio shows. This view of patriotism is pretty simple: We were attacked. We must defend ourselves. The only real way to defend ourselves is by military force. If you want to be patriotic, you should -- you must -- support the war.

I have been told often that it is fine for me to disagree with that policy, but now is not the time to disagree publicly. A patriotic person, I am told, should remain quiet and support the troops until the war is over, at which point we can all have a discussion about the finer points of policy. If I politely disagree with that, then the invective flows: Commie, terrorist-lover, disloyal, unpatriotic. Love it or leave it.

It is easy to take apart this kind of patriotism. It is a patriotism that is incompatible with democracy or basic human decency. To see just how intellectually and morally bankrupt a notion it is, just ask this question: What would we have said to Soviet citizens who might have made such an argument about patriotic duty as the tanks rolled into Prague in 1968? To draw that analogy is not to say the two cases are exactly alike. Rather, it is to point out that a decision to abandon our responsibility to evaluate government policy and surrender our power to think critically is a profound failure, intellectually and morally.

Definition #2: Patriotism as critique of the war effort.

Many in the peace-and-justice movement, myself included, have suggested that to be truly patriotic one cannot simply accept policies because they are handed down by leaders or endorsed by a majority of people, even if it is an overwhelming majority. Being a citizen in a real democracy, we have said over and over, means exercising our judgment, evaluating policies, engaging in discussion, and organizing to try to help see that the best policies are enacted. When the jingoists start throwing around terms like "anti-American" and "traitor," we point out that true patriotism means staying true to the core commitments of democracy and the obligations that democracy puts on people. There is nothing un-American, we contend, about arguing for peace.

That's all clear enough. As I have said, I have used that line of argument many times. It is the best way -- maybe the only way -- to respond in public at this moment if one wants to be effective in building an antiwar movement. We all remind ourselves, over and over, that we have to start the discussion where people are, not where we wish people were. If people feel "love and loyal or zealous support of one's own country," then we have to be aware of that and respond to it.

But increasingly, I feel uncomfortable arguing for patriotism, even with this second definition. And as I listen to friends and allies in the peace-and-justice movement, I have started to wonder whether that claim to patriotism-as-critical-engagement is indeed merely strategic. Or is it motivated by something else? Are we looking for a way to hold onto patriotism because we really believe in it?

I think it is valuable to ask the question: Is there any way to define the term that doesn't carry with it arrogant and self-indulgent assumptions? Is there any way to salvage patriotism?

I want to argue that invoking patriotism puts us on dangerous ground and that we must be careful about our strategic use of it.

At its ugliest, patriotism means a ranking of the value of the lives of people based on boundaries. To quote Emma Goldman: "Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others."

People have said this directly to me: Yes, the lives of U.S. citizens are more important than the lives of Afghan citizens. If innocent Afghans have to die, have to starve -- even in large numbers -- so that we can achieve our goals, well, that's the way it is, and that's the way it should be. I assume no argument here is needed as to why this type of patriotism is unacceptable. We may understand why people feel it, but it is barbaric.

But what of the effort to hold onto a kinder and gentler style of patriotism by distinguishing it from this kind of crude nationalism? We must ask: What are the unstated assumptions of this other kind of patriotism we have been defending? If patriotism is about loyalty of some sort, to what are we declaring our loyalty?

If we are pledging loyalty to a nation-state, we have already touched on the obvious problems: What if that nation-state pursues an immoral objective? Should we remain loyal to it? The same question is obvious if our loyalty is to a specific government or set of government officials. If they pursue immoral objectives or pursue moral objectives in an immoral fashion, what would it mean to be loyal to them?

Some suggest we should be loyal to the ideals of America, a set of commitments and practices connected with the concepts of freedom and democracy. That's all well and good; freedom and democracy are good things, and I try to not only endorse those values but live them. I assume everyone in this room does as well.

But what makes those values uniquely American? Is there something about the United States or the people who live here that make us more committed to, or able to act out, the ideals of freedom and democracy -- more so than, say, Canadians or Indians or Brazilians? Are not people all over the world -- including those who live in countries that do not guarantee freedom to the degree the United States does -- capable of understanding and acting on those ideals? Are not different systems possible for making real those ideals in a complex world?

If freedom and democracy are not unique to us, then they are simply human ideals, endorsed to varying degrees in different places and realized to different degrees by different people acting in different places? If that's true, then they are not distinctly American ideals. They were not invented here, and we do not have a monopoly on them. So, if one is trying to express a commitment to those ideals, why do it in the limiting fashion of talking of patriotism?

Let me attempt an analogy to gender. After 9-11, a number of commentators have argued that criticisms of masculinity should be rethought. Yes, masculinity is often connected to, and expressed through, competition, domination, and violence, they said. But as male firefighters raced into burning buildings and risked their lives to save others, cannot we also see that masculinity encompasses a kind of strength that is rooted in caring and sacrifice?

My response is, yes, of course men often exhibit such strength. But do not women have the capacity for that kind of strength rooted in caring and sacrifice? Do they not exhibit such strength on a regular basis? Why of course they do, most are quick to agree. Then the obvious question is, what makes these distinctly masculine characteristics? Are they not simply human characteristics?

We identify masculine tendencies toward competition, domination, and violence because we see patterns of different behavior; we see that men are more prone to such behavior in our culture. We can go on to observe and analyze the ways in which men are socialized to behave in those ways. We do all that work, I would hope, to change those behaviors.

But that is a very different exercise than saying that admirable human qualities present in both men and women are somehow primarily the domain of one of those genders. To assign them to a gender is misguided, and demeaning to the gender that is then assumed not to possess them to the same degree. Once you start saying "strength and courage are masculine traits," it leads to the conclusion that woman are not as strong or courageous. To say "strength and courage are masculine traits," then, is to be sexist.

The same holds true for patriotism. If we abandon the crude version of patriotism but try to hold onto an allegedly more sophisticated version, we bump up against this obvious question: Why are human characteristics being labeled as American if there is nothing distinctly American about them?

If people want to argue that such terminology is justified because those values are realized to their fullest degree in the United States, then there's some explaining to do. Some explaining to the people of Guatemala and Iran, Nicaragua and South Vietnam, East Timor and Laos, Iraq and Panama. We would have to explain to the victims of U.S. aggression -- direct and indirect -- how it is that our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy, has managed routinely to go around the world overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting brutal dictators, funding and training proxy terrorist armies, and unleashing brutal attacks on civilians when we go to war. If we want to make the claim that we are the fulfillment of history and the ultimate expression of the principles of freedom and justice, our first stop might be Hiroshima. We might want to explain that claim there.

If we are serious about peace and justice in the world, we need to subject this notion of patriotism to scrutiny. If we do that, I would suggest, it is clear that any use of the concept of patriotism is bound to be chauvinistic at some level. At its worst, patriotism can lead easily to support for barbarism. At its best, it is self-indulgent and arrogant in its assumptions about the uniqueness of U.S. culture.

None of what I have said should be taken as a blanket denunciation of the United States, our political institutions, or our culture. People often tell me, "You start with the assumption that everything about the United States is bad." Of course I do not assume that. That would be as absurd a position as the assumption that everything about the United States is good. I can't imagine any reasonable person making either statement. That does raise the question, of course, of who is a reasonable person. We might ask that question about, for example, George Bush, the father. In 1988, after the U.S. Navy warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner in a commercial corridor, killing 290 civilians, Bush said, "I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are."

I want to put forward the radical proposition that we should care what the facts are. We should start with the assumption that everything about the United States, like everything about any country, needs to be examined and assessed. That is what it means to be a moral person.

There is much about this country a citizen can be proud of, and I am in fact proud of those things. The personal freedoms guaranteed (to most people) in this culture, for example, are quite amazing. As someone who regularly tries to use those freedoms, I am as aware as anyone of how precious they are.

There also is much to be appalled by. The obscene gaps in wealth between rich and poor, for example, are quite amazing as well, especially in a wealthy society that claims to be committed to justice.

In that sense, we are like any other grouping of people. That doesn't mean one can't analyze various societies and judge some better than others by principles we can articulate and defend -- so long as they are