Nationalism is Unpatriotic
June 23, 2005
By Joseph Hughes
They criticize us for opposing the invasion of Iraq. They shout
over us when we say anything critical of the Bush administration.
They scowl and scoff at our support for equal rights for every American.
They say we're being "unpatriotic" and that we "hate America."
They, of course, are wrong. Dangerously so, in fact.
There are many distinctions being blurred in America these days:
democracy and fascism; church and state; news and propaganda. But
perhaps the most far-reaching and easily blurred distinction that
affects us all is the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.
So we're all on the same page, let's pretend this is an elementary
school and get some definitions out there (courtesy Merriam-Webster
Love for or devotion to one's country
Loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of
national consciousness exalting one nation above all others
and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and
interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational
Seems to me like most people would be able to grasp the difference
- that being patriotic means loving America, while being nationalistic
places America, which can do no wrong, above other nations. The
former is good. It's healthy. It promotes pride in one's nation.
The latter, however, is not good. It's very unhealthy. It promotes
arrogance to the point of hostility.
What everyone is missing is the slow but sure shift from a nation
of predominantly patriots to one of predominantly nationalists.
We've moved beyond a love of country to a love of this country -
and no other. We've shifted from a respect for other nations, other
cultures, other ways of being, to a marked disrespect for anything
not emanating from within the United States. And it's allowing us
to be dragged, flags waving, into the next national crisis.
Patriots feel the way they do because they love America and they
hope for its success. Nationalists, on the other hand, feel the
way they do because they love America, but they fear for its failure.
They fear, as my girlfriend Casey so wonderfully put it, progression
- progression as regression - and often wish for a return to a mythical
"older time" that existed for 15 minutes shortly after World War
Patriotism is nuanced, complex; nationalism is not
I, for instance, am a patriot. I love America. I also cherish
and respect other nations, cultures and ideas from around the world,
but I'd love to see America do well in the global community. People
like Sen. Dick Durbin are patriots, too. He loves this country as
much as any Republican claims to, but it pains him to see that his
nation isn't more dissimilar from Stalinist Russia or Hitler's Germany.
He and I and many others love America, so it especially stings when
we find the problems we work so hard to combat cropping up in our
own behavior. We would never want to leave at the first sign of
trouble; we are more likely to stay and try to fix what troubles
We love America like parents love their children: we look after
them, champion their achievements, but aren't afraid to step in
and practice tough love, fixing their mistakes. Nationalists love
America, too, but they love it like young children love their parents.
Mommy and Daddy are always right, can do no wrong and are the best
This "my dad can beat up your dad" mentality causes nationalists
to ignore America's bumps and bruises, blaming others for our problems.
Nationalism leads people like Scott McClellan to refuse to work
with Rep. John Conyers because of how he voted on the war. It causes
people like Chris Wallace to defend our actions in Guantanamo Bay
by citing other regimes' more outrageous abuses. And it causes people
like President Bush and Vice President Cheney to scapegoat Amnesty
International, hiding our own malfeasance behind crass jingoism.
Suddenly, patriots find themselves being blamed for "defending
terrorists" and "supporting our enemies" when all we're trying to
do is defend America from itself, fixing its problems.
Patriotism is rational; nationalism is not
Being a true patriot is a difficult endeavor these days. Applying
logic and careful thought to our current affairs has become, in
many peoples' eyes, problematic and evidence that one "hates America."
Patriots love America, though they realize that the world is more
complex than black and white, good and evil. This is not a true-or-false
world in which we live; it's an essay question, one that requires
much thought and demands due respect.
Being patriotic is much harder than being nationalistic. If your
side is always good and the other side is always bad, choosing and
defending a course of action is obviously much easier. It's much
easier to blame someone else for your problems than to take a hard
look at yourself.
Sadly, we've done a tremendous job at electing Republicans who,
themselves nationalists, play on these beliefs and fears. The Bush
administration has produced myriad scapegoats: gays, unions, environmentalists,
scientists, the media, Muslims. The list is endless. Using these
trumped-up bogeymen, Bush has played also on the inherent desire
for many Americans to abide to a strong paternalistic instinct.
The more leeway we grant leaders like Bush, the farther they will
go to achieve their goals. Other nations have made the same mistake
we're making now. Unlike them, there still may be time for us to
prevent the spread of nationalism, a belief set that only leads
to negativity and unwanted outcomes.
And to prevent that is, I believe, a very patriotic thing.
Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a
liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at
his blog, Hughes