Nationalism or Patriotism?

by Ellen Howell about a year ago in opinion

On Whether it is Useful to Distinguish Between the Two

Nationalism or Patriotism?

During many conversations on the United States and its problems, I hear the phrase "I'm not a nationalist, but I am a patriot." This phrase has inspired me to write on whether there is any appreciable difference between the two. As a student of the humanities, I'm down to debate useful definitions of nationalism, the meanings of particular words and their contextual or colloquial definitions. However, when I come across the words nationalism and patriotism, I find them to be rather similar. Is there any healthy difference between nationalism and patriotism? Does support for your country make you a patriot? Does any support for your country make you a patriot, or does it require a gradient? What fraction of supportiveness do we require for nationalism? What fraction of supportiveness do we require for patriotism? has several different definitions for nationalism. Its second and third definition are most notable. "2. devotion or loyalty to one's own country; patriotism. 3. excessive patriotism, chauvinism." When people use the term nationalism in political discourse, it is mainly with this third definition in mind. However, despite the rhetorical belief in patriotism, I often find that people are loathe to attack their own countries for things it does that are wrong. Nationalist, like eugenicist, or racist, has become a term which the mainstream dictates we should not be. As such, the person who is a nationalist, may simply have a socially acquired aversion to the term nationalist or nationalism, rather than not actually being nationalist.

Patriotism is, according to the same source, "devoted love, support, and defense of one's country." Generally, patriotism is viewed as a less radical version of nationalism. Once again, given the point of the previous paragraph, I must attempt to answer the question of whether this is simply a social aversion to the term, or one grounded in the understanding of the term's meaning. The real question here, is how devoted patriots are to the preservation of the United States on the world stage. Would these self-styled "patriots" support blatantly nationalistic proposals if they would benefit the particular group that they interest themselves with. Patriots, ultimately, aren't patriots as we would understand them to be, in my humble opinion.

There is nothing that distinguishes the patriot from the nationalist. There is no such thing as patriotism without nationalism. If patriotism were simple devotion to a particular government, I could see that. The significant difference is that the patriot attaches their own actions to this broader group of individuals, "the people." During one of my world history classes we had an interesting debate over a discussion of where nations come from. Who are "the people" and why should countries seek their support?

We arrived, eventually, at the conclusion that "the people" are whoever the governors of the country deem they should be. The people, in other words, are a political prop, used by elected officials to justify their own agendas; there is little power behind the group we understand to be "the people." To be a patriot, then, you must logically support the "country" in which you live. A country is not a political unit. A country is almost synonymous with a nation, and I will treat them as such. Does any American patriot believe that the nation of the United States, which for all history has excluded the vast majority of its population, should dissolve as a distinct political unit? Does any nationalist? Does every patriot believe in both the Declaration of Independence and the constitution?

The institutions of the United States as they were enshrined in these documents, supported slavery, the subjection of women, etc. The problem, then, is not that the nation exists, but that the purpose of the nation is turned towards a goal. Timothy McVeigh proclaimed himself a patriot, proclaimed his own dedication to the founding documents of the United States, and declared he would protect them to the death. He killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. He argued it was necessary to defend the nation of the United States from those who would subvert it.

Each patriot has a dedication to the nation which they proclaim to support, and it is nothing different from nationalism. We use here the same historic and political definition of the nation as a group of people bound together by common social conception. However, each self-proclaimed patriot is fighting for a concept of their country formed out of their own preconceptions and opinions. An American Civil Liberties Union slogan is "dissent is patriotic." It indicates that the speaker associates the nation with civil liberties, with that inviolable concept of liberal rights. At this point, I find it a good time to point to two different concepts: the Cult of the Flag and the Cult of the Constitution.

The Cult of the Flag is a focus upon the flag of the United States, and the belief that it stands symbolically for the nation as a collective. It finds its primary contradiction in the fact that the United States has historically not allowed full national citizenship to certain ethnicities and nationalities, certain races and genders and sexualities. The Cult of the Flag implies, contrary to history, that the United States has dedicated itself to liberal rights. Let me stress this as someone who knows much about United States History. It has not. The Cult of the Flag contains as well the belief that the flag is symbolic of the nation.

The Cult of the Constitution is an unwavering belief that we should go by the constitution of the old days, social and technological progress be damned. This too is nonsensical; the Constitution was meant to be a "living document," by the founding fathers. They would have wanted it flexible and changeable, not static and unwavering. The intent of the founders, because it was given in a specific historic context and is bound by the imperfections of both the founders and the founding situation of the United States, is insufficient. This contains the belief that the founding documents of the US guarantee individual liberties, something which any scholar of American history can certify is false. Given the lassitude and easily skirted language of the Constitution, discrimination exists to this day, and black men are shot in the street for little to no reason every so often.

The Constitution is not the answer, and the flag is just a piece of fabric. To believe that this fabric or the Constitution represent something deeper than the people who believe in them is an illogical assertion. There is not a fundamental logic binding the United States together along either the lines of the Constitution or the flag; these symbols have limited meaning for the vast majority of the oppressed masses. The Flag doesn't put food on the table, nor does the constitution pay the utilities. Humans, whose primary concern is for their own welfare, have little need for nations.

Because patriotism implies the existence of an enduring concept of "the nation," or even a steady concept among a group of individuals constituting the belief in a common interest among people in a country, it must contain the seeds of nationalism. The nation is the country. Dedication to one is dedication to the other. Because of this, there is limited use in the invocation of nationalist symbology or of "patriotism." In fact, many of the most vicious terrorists and hate groups proclaim themselves patriotic, use the language of the Constitution and wrap themselves in the flag. Ironically, those who do this paint a far more vivid picture of these two parts of American nationalism. The flag and the Constitution are not symbols of the United States. They are a symbols with significance to a group of people, which form a particular meaning in a particular social space. They are symbols soaked in the blood of Africans, indigenous people, and the workers. The bourgeois settlers of the United States are themselves responsible for more deaths on American soil than any foreign government, any foreign threat.

When a person uses the terms of the Constitution, they are terms which at one point supported slavery. They are terms which at one point supported the massacre of millions of indigenous people, which endorsed the murder of hundreds of thousands of workers, and the starvation of many others. Patriotism, faith in the Constitution, in the military or government, is nationalism, just as it is patriotism. However, nationalism is not itself terrible. It must be recognized as the result of particular economic and social events. Nationalism can liberate people as well as chain them. The important question is not whether nationalism is bad or not, but who the nationalism benefits.

Ellen Howell
Ellen Howell
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Ellen Howell

A woman living in St. Louis and going to school for part of the year in Kirksville, MO. I write about horror and horror stories.

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