Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Patriotism

Dan at tdaxp has posted a comment on patriotism from one of his commenters that has spawned an interesting discussion:

I'm afraid I don't find patriotism some quality to aspire to. It's racism minus the pigmentary convenience.

The error in this statement is one of reductionism: reducing the definition of patriotism to something very narrow and then projecting that meaning onto anyone who self-identifies as a patriot regardless of what they actually mean by patriotism. It is certainly true that some manifestations of patriotism are forms of bigotry. But there are many others that have nothing to do with any form of bigotry. Lexicographers gather evidence of how words are used and then put together the dictionary definitions, updating them as usage changes. I suggest that this is probably the best method to use in this case.

The kinds of patriotism that are forms of bigotry should be unacceptable in a free society. But what kinds of patriotism are appropriate, even necessary, for a free society? Here are some excerpts from Maurizio Viroli's short but very interesting book Republicanism:

Republican patriotism is capable of crossing national boundaries. It is stronger than cultural and religious differences. A person who loves the common liberty of his or her own people also loves and respects the liberty of other peoples and commits himself or herself to defending it...

Classical political writers were quite clear on this point [i.e. the difference between republican patriotism and nationalism]: the political and cultural values of the fatherland* differ from the non-political values of the nation. They used two different terms to describe them: patria and natio...

The ancient distinction is still valid. Theorists of republican patriotism considered that the republic's political institutions, and the way of life based on them, had the highest political value; nationalists, on the other hand, put the people's cultural or ethnic or religious identity in the forefront...

For republicans, as I have pointed out, love of country was an artificial feeling that required constant stoking and nourishment by political means, first and foremost good government and participation in public life. For nationalists, in contrast, love of country was a natural emotion which, to thrive and grow strong, had to be protected from contamination and cultural assimilation. This difference obviously derives from the former considering the republic as a political institution, and the latter considering the nation as produced by nature, or God.

...The republic, being a political order and a way of life, is a culture. Machiavelli spoke of living free; others defined the republic as "a certain life of the city." Thus republican patriotism has a cultural significance: it is a political passion based on the experience of republican equality and love of a certain culture, although it does not assign great value to the matter of being born in a given territory, belonging to the same ethnic group, speaking the same language, having the same customs, or worshipping the same gods or god...

Republican patriotism, then, differs from both ethnic and civic nationalism. In contrast with the former, it recognizes no political or moral value in the unity and ethnic homogeneity of a people, while it does recognize the moral and political importance of values of citizenship, which are entirely incompatible with any form of ethnocentrism. In contrast with the latter, it proclaims allegiance not to culturally and historically neutral political principles but to the laws, constitutions, and ways of life of specific republics, each with its own history and culture.

* The political writers of the Enlightenment used the word "fatherland" synonymously with "republic," because they believed that the true fatherland could only be a free republic. This identification was not merely polemical: it summarized the idea that under the yoke of a despot, citizens are without protection and cannot participate in public life; they might as well be outsiders, and they therefore have no fatherland.

My own views are similar to Viroli's. I have always been strongly patriotic, but that patriotism has been for the ideals, institutions and culture of liberty that are at the core of the American Experiment and which act in opposition to racism and bigotry. And a key element of the American Experiment is open citizenship: people of any race or ethnicity can become citizens. That, I believe, is a patriotism that is appropriate for a free society.

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