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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 online):

Patriotism
Love for or devotion to one's country

Nationalism
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 groups

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 II.

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 us.

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 parents ever.

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 for America.

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