copyright © 2016 Peter Rodman
Creative Commons License
Attribution-No Derivatives. You are free to:
Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, for any purpose, even commercially.
The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.
Under the following terms:
Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.
NoDerivatives — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.
No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.
You do not have to comply with the license for elements of the material in the public domain or where your use is permitted by an applicable exception or limitation.
No warranties are given. The license may not give you all of the permissions necessary for your intended use. For example, other rights such as publicity, privacy, or moral rights may limit how you use the material.
Table of Contents
Sure I love my country. After all, I was born here. Or I emigrated here and became a citizen. Or I invaded your country because my country’s needs are more important than any rights you think you have. Why wouldn’t I love my country?
I display my flag, cheer for my country in the Olympics and in wars, and sometimes I vote. But even if I don’t vote, I can (and will) tell you what’s best for my country.
Patriotism that isn’t acted upon is harmless and even enjoyable—like belonging to a club with no dues. Fly a flag, parrot a slogan, agree that we are, indeed the greatest country/people/government in the world. No one, not even the author, would disagree. It’s a great comfort to belong.
Granted, though most people’s expression of their patriotism is mild to the point of blather, and though patriotism seldom can motivate a person to vote, much less run for office, there are times when patriotism is exploited—not by patriots, but by people trying to manipulate patriots.
Language, skin color, sex, age or youth, dress, religion, political affiliation, culture, wealth or poverty—are all visible or aural reasons to lump people together and pre-judge them. Given all the “sensible” reasons humankind has to hate other people and feel superior to them, patriotism has to be the most odious because it is so insubstantial. Its lack of concrete basis and its fluidity also makes it one of the most powerful forms of bigotry; it allows people who otherwise would not mix to ignore their differences and join together to support or oppose actions solely because of one, shared, commonality. “My country—right or wrong!”
While prejudice is the source of the worst of humanity’s social evils, it is also the basis of science, mathematics, and all human learning. We could never have walked on the moon without prejudice.
Animals categorize things: good to eat, bad to eat; safe smell, dangerous smell; awake during the day, only awake at night; and so forth. A squirrel may have a frightening encounter with a garter snake and so avoid all snakes. This is to its advantage, because if the squirrel treated each new snake as a possibility for friendship, it would eventually encounter a rattlesnake and be eaten. The longer an animal lives, the more things it categorizes in life. Among communal animals, the older animal usually leads the pack because it remembers best how to survive—until it is too weak to fight off a competitor.
This holds true among nomads and in illiterate human cultures. The aged are venerated, often even when they cannot fend for themselves, simply because of their accumulated knowledge. Many cultures have this idea as a cornerstone of their morality even today. But humans have one unique peculiarity: they speak and write.
Writing preserves human knowledge of categories. With it, human children can learn the knowledge of the old without having to listen to it directly. And they can add to it. I know that
the area of a triangle = ½Base X Height.
When I began writing this sentence, I had no idea what the area of a regular hexagon with each side L meters long is, but having stopped and looked it up I can say
A = ¼(6)L²cot30.
I don’t know what the cotangent of 30 is, but I can look it up.
All animals with split hooves are more alike than animals with solid hooves, but they both have fur, which lizards don’t. All plants with spores are more alike than plants with seeds, but they all are green, which mushrooms are not. These are the beginnings of taxonomy, which is the beginning of zoology and botany. Chlorine does many of the same things fluorine does, but none of the things silicon does. This is the beginning of Chemistry.
But the history of science is full of wrong groupings, bad patterns. Alchemists tried to turn lead into gold because lead, being a soft, heavy, metal, was obviously similar to gold. Oak trees, walnuts, willows, and poplars were once grouped together because they all had hanging strips of flowers: catkins. There had to be ether—a mysterious invisible substance—to carry light through outer space because water carried silt, air carried heat, metals carried electricity. All these conclusions were wrong.
But even being wrong, they were written down and later scientists disproved them and corrected the clumpings. So that in the end, the store of human knowledge is larger and more important than any one person’s experiences. The unfortunate side effect is that in the United States today, a 26 year-old with an MBA will be promoted instead of a 26 year veteran who joined the company immediately out of high school. In the U.S. the old are useless, often not even seen by young people. I hope that in Japan young people still bow to age, but I’m afraid the custom may be waning.
Preserved knowledge, made increasingly more accurate, is how we flew to the moon.
No one wants to think about every object, person, or event encountered in his or her life, it would clutter thinking so much it would paralyze the person. So we pre-judge. Groupings and assumptions allow us to remove details from our lives and ignore them because we’ve already thought about them and categorized them; we can concentrate on more urgent decisions.
But the word prejudice has a negative connotation in English: it implies assumption without real knowledge, or based on false knowledge. This is because humans clump objects (including people) together to simplify their daily lives, and these groupings are often simply wrong. Wrong so often that such pre-judgement is scorned as ignorant or lazy. And rightly so.
When can a person trust a prejudice? When should it be discarded? When ought it to be immediately rejected?
First of all, the prejudice has to be identified. I cannot evaluate a prejudice I don’t realize I have. A close friend may be able to tip me off, if our friendship is not based on the prejudice. If he shares it, he won’t see it as anything but a reasonable value. An enemy may claim I have a prejudice because I don’t share his prejudice. Thus, a person needs a means of testing his prejudices to see whether they are real and useful. This process implies that you care about your thinking and the assumptions you make; many people don’t. Please note that an analyzed prejudice technically quits being a prejudice, and becomes an investigation.
1. Is the prejudice from experience (observed?) or hearsay (taught?) Experience is the most trustworthy source, though limited experience can lead to bizarre conclusions. Adopting a parent’s, friend’s, or teacher’s anecdotal knowledge is dangerous and hard to rid yourself of. A prejudice can be recorded in a book, even a textbook, and be a lie.
Which doesn’t mean that taught generalizations have no survival value. For instance, if the sergeant of a squad on patrol says, “That’s the sort of road where the Baudgyse plant land mines,” it may be wise to look for land mines. For decades school children are educated in society’s prejudices—none of which they personally experience.
“There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.”
Psychological Observation on Education
2. Was any contradictory evidence considered, or has the object of the prejudice been consulted/challenged with it? A conclusion drawn about a people or system that hasn’t been tested is worthless. Again, an observed “similarity,” and especially learned, implied information, is worthless until it is examined. I can’t really trust my feelings about the scurrilous Eskimos if I haven’t met any and know nothing of their culture.
“It is lamentable, that to become a good patriot we must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.”
A person is startled when her pattern is shown to be wrong: “Oh, it’s a cat! I thought it was a dog.” or, “I didn’t expect a Northerner to be so friendly.” Unfortunately, a single exception seldom causes a person to doubt her comfortable conclusion.
3. Do exceptions prove (invalidate) the rule? Heavier things fall faster than lighter things; a hammer hits the ground before a feather. This is obvious and was taught as science (collected information) for centuries. Except when Galileo dropped two different weight iron balls from the tower of Pisa, they hit the ground at the same time. Astronaut David Scott dropped a 1.32 kg hammer and a 30 g feather in the near vacuum of the moon from about 1.5 meters and they both hit the moon at the same time. Unfortunately, the difference between the masses of the hammer and the feather (44 times) is negligible when compared to the differences in the mass the hammer and the moon and the feather and the moon. The distances fallen by each towards the center of the moon are trivial compared to the distance between the surface of the moon and its center. The two objects for all intents weighed the same and spent no distance falling.
Drop a 62,000 kg M1 Abrams Tank and a 46g golf ball to the moon from 250,000 km away, and the tank will hit the moon before the golf ball. The original “science” was correct on a grand scale; Galileo was correct on a tiny scale. Galileo’s finding can be comfortably used by anyone except a literal rocket scientist.
A prejudice can be technically wrong, but still useful in many circumstances. In the United States, all people have the right to free speech. Except the people who don’t. In most cases, a person may organize a protest or rally, and carry it out. But sometimes a person’s opinions may be smothered by the press, hindered by legal obstacles, or even shouted down by the public. But speech in the U.S is freer than many places, and most citizens never encounter censorship. So, sure, people have a right to free speech.
This technique of identifying a prejudice, investigating the truth of it, and judging whether the exceptions are important, is the responsibility not only of philosophers, but of every thinking person.
The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp.
A prejudice becomes bad, even evil, when it is based on poorly perceived similarities (rumor, propaganda, “logic” without experimentation), when it is institutionalized (with nicknames, jokes, or in law), and when it becomes symbolized to eliminate thought or contradiction (usually, political—flags, anthems, oaths.)
Kate Clark makes the assertion that a good country (democratic, egalitarian, freedom-loving) must extol patriotism to its children, else the bad countries (authoritarian, bigoted, repressive) will overrun them and the world. The problem with this point is that blind patriotism does not distinguish lies from the truth, so that an authoritarian, bigoted, repressive government will call itself democratic, egalitarian and freedom-loving, and its enemies the opposite. A devoted patriot will hate his country’s enemies, whatever their actions and however “good” they may be. Every country extols patriotism.
“Patriotism varies, from a notable devotion to a moral lunacy.” William R. Inge
William Inge considered patriotism to be a benign, logical, expansion of love of one’s home, progressing from the home, to the clan, to the region, to the state. It binds the state together with a national unity, and in its crudest, most violent nature, provokes war. Geographical love is easier to “patriotize” than love of an artificial system or doctrine, such as communism, or racial superiority.
But patriotism can exist in countries of mixed races, religions, and political views when the love of country is based on moral agreement of the people. Agreement of the fairness of the system of laws, of tolerance for differences, of shared rights and responsibilities—those are the positive reasons for a country’s existence, and they bind disparate people together.
Tolstoy found nothing benign: “since there is no country which was not based on conquest, and it is impossible to retain what is conquered by any other means than those by which it was acquired, that is, by violence and murder. But even if patriotism is not retentive, it is restorative,—the patriotism of the vanquished and oppressed nations.”
Patriotism is the excuse for conquering other lands, for forcing a foreign people into a State they do not want, and for the conquered people to rebel. During the U.S.'s Viet Nam War both the pro- and anti-war factions acted for what they considered the good of the country—they were all patriots.
Factual contradiction can destroy or modify a prejudice, but seldom does. Too often patriotism is not based on knowledge or experience of a thing, but on simple ignorance. Even ignorance of one’s own country will suffice.
Few other prejudices are actively promoted when the object of the prejudice is absent. The object usually triggers the prejudice. Not so with patriotism. Citizens are systematically inculcated with patriotism using flags, slogans, pledges, anthems, and parades, even when there is no particular reason to be thinking of one’s country at the moment.
Patriotism threatens freedom when those who represent the people twist it from a fellowship of like-minded people into loyalty to a government, all the while trying to manipulate the actions of the governed. This happens immediately upon the establishment of a government; any threat to the government is viewed (by the government) as a threat to the nation.
“The power of the governments is maintained through public opinion; but, having the power, the governments by means of all their organs, the officers of the courts, the school, the church, even the press, are always able to keep up the public opinion which they need. Public opinion produces power,—power produces public opinion. There seems to be no way out from this situation. “
Patriotism is a shield, painted the nation’s colors, used to deflect logic and morality. It hides many sins. For instance:
Pride. The most evident demonstration of pride is through arrogance. Patriotic travelers in other lands brag about their country’s superiority. They are rude to natives, and disregard local customs. The national leaders may also be arrogant and meddling. They demand impossible conditions from other countries, threatening them, if need be, interfering where they are not wanted. They frequently blame their victims for the crimes they commit. Thus, the U.S.‘s Second Gulf War was necessary because of the actions of the Iraqis that never happened.
Greed. Our country needs more land, more oil, more slaves, more fish. It is very hard to make the point to any country that they have a sufficiency of anything. My country will always come before yours. Patriotism is the traditional disguise of the urge to invade, steal, and oppress.
“But what produces war is the desire for an exclusive good for one’s own nation,—what is called patriotism. And so to abolish war, it is necessary to abolish patriotism, and to abolish patriotism, it is necessary first to become convinced that it is an evil, and that it is hard to do.” Leo Tolstoy
Anger. The remembrance of past wrongs, rather than suggesting forgiveness (as some quaint philosophies instruct,) gets stirred by patriotism into resentment and demands for revenge. That is the beauty of patriotism: it blinds people to their own moral code and gives a positive twist to the most barbarous behavior. The admonition “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” is pathetic in its own blindness. Those who remember the past are the cause to today’s turmoil. Yugoslavia was a patched-together country held by Marshal Tito. But the Bosnians, the Slavs, the Serbs, and the Croatians remembered. When Tito died, “our people” (whoever they are) could finally get revenge for past crimes. A hundred, a hundred and fifty year old crimes. So there was war. Who was better at remembering history than Adolf Hitler? Perhaps only Benito Mussolini. Ignorance and amnesia serve the cause of peace better than history.
Gluttony. If greed is wanting more, gluttony is grasping all you have—selfishness. A trivial inconvenience to a blessed country could be an enormous windfall in aid to a country struggling with disease, starvation, and drought. Patriotism invariably kicks in the moment compassion is suggested. A surplus of food and medication doesn’t matter, “We’ve got ours—get your own. It’s all ours, even to waste. “ Patriotism allows one to conveniently ignore that one country’s blessing and the other’s curse is through no one’s virtue or fault.
Envy. Ah, but what if you are the cursed country looking across the sea to the blessed one? Why should their children be fatter than ours? We deserve the blessings because we need them, if the blessed folks do not generously meet our needs, they must be monsters. Patriotism is a convenient way to hide envy and national self-pity, and to point out another group’s faults without examining your own. Even wealthy countries can find something to envy.
Sloth. Sloth is more than laziness and even extends beyond procrastination—the continual delay of needed work. The root action behind sloth is refusing to carry out one’s responsibility, responsibility to oneself, to fellow citizens, to the nation, to mankind, or to the truth. It includes purposely doing the wrong thing to avoid doing the right, such as responding to a disaster with platitudes and a committee, rather than with aid; and includes dissimulation, for instance, responding to a massacre charge by investigating the informant and the victims.
Positive esteem of one’s country can be edifying; dissimulation is only ever petty. On television, when a Finn recently pointed out, “My country has universal health care,” the U.S. senator’s immediate reaction was, “We’re not socialist. Socialism is ruining the world.”
The senator was not going to talk about health care any more than a red-white-and-blue mud clod would. Unfortunately, dissimulation is not rare; rather, it is a tool. A politician will state, “I support our veterans,” but the follow-up question never comes: “How? What do you do?” Too often the answers would be: “nothing,” “cut the funding for their services,” or “create them by encouraging war.”
Of the seven deadly sins, only Lust is missing. In each case, patriotism is used to blind people or nations to their own arrogance, interference, bragging, lack of consideration, criminal actions, aggression, thefts, bullying, resentment, vengeance, selfishness, entitlement, self-pity, laziness, evasion, stalling, hypocrisy, and blaming. Patriotism is essential for any group needing to avoid moral behavior.
But does patriotism cause these behaviors? Strangely, the same arrogant, resentful, hypocritical person who blathers about his nation’s rights over another’s needs can turn compassionate and helpful when the prejudice is knocked aside and he is faced with the real problem—perhaps on a visit to the opposing country. People are often generous and sympathetic to other people in trouble, even strangers. It is when symbols replace people—with patriotism—that the ugliness is vomited. So, yes, patriotism is the cause of much of the world’s cruelty. The antidote is communication, travel, exposure to other countries, and carefully loving one’s own country.
“But the point is, that the deceivers do not deceive because they want to deceive, but because they almost cannot do otherwise. And they do not deceive in any Machiavellian way, with a consciousness of the deception which they practise, but for the most part with the naïve assurance that they are doing something good and elevated, in which opinion they are constantly maintained by the sympathy and approval of all the men who surround them.” Leo Tolstoy
Why is patriotism most odious? Patriotism seldom has a negative tinge in the public’s mind, even when it is being used deviously. Opposing or questioning patriotism casts a stain over the critic, even if the person’s motive is love of his country. If you do not wholeheartedly embrace patriotism, you are a bad citizen, possibly even a traitor. (Why, yes, I am a traitor to write this.) When used, it is never questioned, not checked, not contradicted, and any grotesque statement can be swathed in it and used to manipulate people.
Business can also exploit patriotism to make sales. In the 1970s, gas prices rose drastically in the U.S. U.S. car makers responded by quickly designing and rushing into production the Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega, and Dodge Omni. These were “economy cars” built to provide better gas mileage and to compete with Datsuns, Toyotas, Fiats, Volkswagens, and Renaults. All these U.S. cars were wretched and had flaws ranging from exploding in accidents, stalling in a rain puddle, immediate rusting, rapid disintegration, and—-poor gas mileage. “Buy American” convinced millions of people inside the borders of one country—and nowhere else—to purchase shoddy products.
The amount of patriotism can’t be measured; some people will never be sure they have enough. A recent newspaper photo of a minor presidential candidate showed him in front of four American Flags, and wearing a flag pin on his lapel. How many flags are necessary to convince an audience of your patriotism? There is nothing wrong with flying the Stars and Stripes, everyone should, if for no other reason than to give Chinese flag makers the means to feed their families.
As a general rule, the sooner a person cites patriotism as a reason to adopt his argument, the less real evidence there is to support his opinion. Patriotism, of itself, contains no evidence; it is an abstraction, vaporous and empty. If the only reason you are being sent to kill people is patriotism, you are being sent for no reason.
Another interesting thing about patriotism is that it observes borders, often invisible borders, sometimes old borders that don’t exist anymore. Cross a border and laws, rights, and status (also all invisible) change, though the person is no different. What better way is there to esteem all this ethereal political legalism than insubstantial patriotism?
Indeed, patriotism should immediately trigger an alarm in any situation except, perhaps, burying a soldier or public servant. The old joke runs: “How do you know when a politician is lying?” “Gee, I dunno—” “His lips are moving.” When a speaker evokes patriotism, start listening for lies.
Arguing with a patriot is fruitless, he will never be driven to a contrary position by logic or even evidence. Evidence only provokes anger. The only way patriotism can be modified is by the patriot recognizing that he has a prejudice and setting out to change it himself. In a land where politicians and even citizens fight to be considered most patriotic, there is clearly a subset of people who embrace prejudice and refuse any analysis of it.
Tolstoy considered patriotism a superstition. He believed that it was possible for spiritual people to reject patriotism and become critical of their nation’s wrongdoing based upon the guidance of their spiritual teachers; he was fond of Jesus. This, of course, is usually pointless; it is often only substituting another prejudice for patriotism. Because there are so many spiritual sects, it is easy to find one whose spiritual teachers advocate virtually anything, resulting in statements such as, “I don’t care if abortion is legal, I believe Jesus and the Founding Fathers would want me to kill clinic doctors.” Patriotic Christians abound.
I am aware that there is no cure for patriotism. It is impossible to pry the average person from the easy, thoughtless life. This essay may even be a useful guide to exploiting patriotism for your own ends. I am not interested in converting my countrymen, or anyone’s countrymen, to critical thinking. I am only interested in making you think. You are not free if you do not think. Why did you start this essay? why have you read this far?
And please remember—love your country carefully.
Teaching the Child Patriotism by Kate Upton Clark More of a primer on good citizenship than exploration of patriotism, she explains how to instill the values of work, voting, piety, etc. into children to benefit the country (the USA.)
Patriotism Included in: Outspoken Essays by William Ralph Inge An essay asserting patriotism is the outgrowth of love of home, town, state, and nation, mostly benign. No real examination of how it is used outside England, or to manipulate the English public.
Patriotism or Peace Included in: The Kingdom of God Is Within You/ Christianity and Patriotism/ Miscellanies by Count Leo N. Tolstoy A letter to a friend (in immaculate English) about France’s manipulation of its people on the arrival of a Russian warship in France. He also examines Russia’s indoctrination of its people through schools, religion, newspapers, songs, parades, and so on. His view is that patriotism is an immoral agent opposing Christian teachings.
All are available for free download at:
The author may be contacted at: [email protected]
Sure I love my country. After all, I was born here. Or I emigrated here and became a citizen. Or I invaded your country because my country's needs are more important than any rights you think you have. Why wouldn't I love my country? I display my flag, cheer for my country in the Olympics and in wars, and sometimes I vote. But even if I don't vote, I can (and will) tell you what's best for my country.