Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Is Patriotism Good or Bad?



 There is a lot of talk about patriotism these days. The new president wants to make America great (again).

 Also, I just read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a pretty good book. The author describes with great honesty his feelings about his Appalachian origins, and his feelings about that subculture, as well as about America in general. He was a marine for four years and served in Iraq. He is an “enlightened” patriot. He gets teary-eyed when he hears Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

So I am thinking: Why don’t I get teary-eyed when I hear that song? What’s the matter with me? I am an American, too!

And why do I admire Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er quarterback who kneeled during the National Anthem instead of standing at salute? The vast majority of the public in the stadium booed him, and he might not be hired by any NFL team next season. His act of defiance was in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He is paying a high price and I I find his behavior heroic.

I am in a bit of a quandary. As an immigrant to America, I must owe allegiance to my adoptive flag and country. But I sometimes feel that I belong to at least four different countries: I was born in Hungary and I have lived nearly a decade there, then a decade in France, then a decade in Holland, and the rest of my life in the US. Is it unreasonable to say that at least parts of me belong to those other countries? Or am I a man without a country?

Samuel Johnson is credited with the saying that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” So I could hide behind this, and simply claim to be a citizen of the world.

When I was in high school in Europe, I was a World Federalist. It seemed logical to me that the world would eventually evolve towards one unified state - the United Nations gradually becoming a world government. That seemed to me to be the only way to end war once and for all.

Before you label me a turn-coat or a traitor and tell me to go back to where I came from (which some people have done), I must tell you that I have worked hard at defending America. While I did not serve in the military, I have often expressed my appreciation for what I was able to accomplish in this country. I have spent many years combating the disease of vicious anti-Americanism. I have done so where it counts the most and where it takes the most guts, namely overseas, where I am often surrounded by intellectuals, who tend to be the most guilty of this. Anti-Americanism was especially virulent during the Bush years. I got into innumerable arguments during that period.

When 9/11 happened, some people DID dance in the streets. Not in New Jersey, as Donald Trump averred, but certainly in some parts of the Middle East and elsewhere. I got mad. I saw people jump out of the 80th floor windows of the World Trade Center and I cried for America.

But flag waving has never really been my thing. And today, I find that there is way too much of it going on - everywhere, including America. Nationalism and war go hand in hand. The more virulent the former is, the more inevitable the latter becomes.

The question is: Are nationalism - and therefore war - inevitable? Are these rooted in human nature? 

It is a fact that man is a group creature. Ever since the classic work of the Sherifs, (Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif), Social Psychology has demonstrated over and over again that humans form factions, take sides, and end up engaging in inter-group conflict.

Belonging to groups and fighting for your group and against other groups seems to be an anthropological universal. It takes the form of nationalism, tribalism, the curse of organized religion, and feud between clans and families. “Blood” is an exceptionally strong motivator of in-group loyalty: The Hatfields vs. the McCoys. Don Corleone, steeped in “family values” and willing to murder any number of outsiders. And aren’t most of us, parents, ready to take (or fire) a bullet if it is necessary to save the life of our child?

But back to nationalism and patriotism: The requirement that one LOVE the particular piece of real estate where one lives is a bit problematic, especially when it is required that the love be UNCONDITIONAL.”My country right or wrong.”

I DO love America - up to a point (and I also love France almost as much as America, and I love Holland, just a little bit less).

The question is: When does withholding your love become treasonous? Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for giving the Soviet Union America’s top nuclear secrets. Treason. Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA information. Treason? The Trump team may have collaborated with Russia to rig the election in its own favor. Treason? Jane Fonda visited Hanoi during the Vietnam war and supported the North Vietnamese. Treason?

To its credit, America has been the kind of society where the people’s will prevails: Public pressure forced the regime to abandon the Vietnam war. That’s how democracy works.

But the Germans did NOT force Hitler to stop.

Neither did either side prevent the slaughter of World War One: What if the millions of French AND Germans who marched off jubilantly to the front in 1914 had refused to fight? But they did not. Their love of country resulted in forty million deaths.

America is NOT Germany. Fortunately, we don’t have to make the choice which Europeans were facing several times during the twentieth century - accept or reject their country. Instead, our choice is whether or not to IMPROVE the country we love. Maybe the best kind of patriotism is not to die for your country, but to live for it and improve it...
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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