America’s True Patriots
Here is the trouble with America’s jingos, warhawks, drum-beaters, glory hounds, world-improvers and idealists:
They are not patriotic.
A jolting, nearly scandalous claim, it is true. Do these Americans not cry tears red, white and blue?
Do they not yell about American “greatness”… American “exceptionalism”… the “shining city” atop the hill?
That and more they do, yes. Yet they are not patriotic.
That is the curious case we haul before the jury today.
Yes, we are stepping away from our normal beat of manna and markets… and reflecting upon the virtue of patriotism.
This, at a time when fists furl in the direction of Iran, China, Russia and other hellcats that menace the happiness of the United States.
(We first doff our cap to the late writer Joseph Sobran, upon whose insights we rely today).
Country or Empire
Famed English writer G.K. Chesterton once denounced Rudyard Kipling’s “lack of patriotism.”
The fellow’s lack of patriotism? What does Chesterton mean?
Kipling was chief rah-rah man for the British Empire, its loudest bugler.
English civilization overtopped all rival powers, he bellowed — as Everest overtops all rival peaks.
And as was proper… Great Britain gave the law in all four corners of Earth.
From Kipling’s story Regulus, citing Virgil’s Aeneid:
“Roman! let this be your care, this your art; to rule over the nations and impose the ways of peace…”
Substitute Britain for Rome and you have Kipling. Why then did Chesterton deny his patriotism?
The reason is subtle. Subtle… yet critical.
“He Admires England, but He Does Not Love Her”
Chesterton argued that Kipling admired England because she was powerful. He did not love her because she was England:
He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.
Now Chesterton. He loved England as England — its customs, its eccentricities, its people. Even, if you can believe it, its “food.”
A man loves his mother. It is a wordless love, wide and deep.
He requires no reason. He requires no justification.
And as he loves his mother, so he loves his country.
Be it China, be it Russia, be it Chile, be it Romania… it is all one.
Of course Chesterton was right. You love your country as you love your mother — simply because it is yours, not because of its superiority to others, particularly superiority of power.
A Spacious Patriotism
Does the other fellow believe his own mother towers 900 feet over all others?
Well, friends, maybe he does believe it.
But that in no way irritates, annoys or threatens the other fellow.
No harm flows from it. After all…
Adults allow children to cherish the fiction that reindeer fly and round men descend chimneys…
A husband allows his wife to cherish the fiction that she is a superior cook or automobile operator… as a wife allows her husband to cherish the fiction that he is a skillful and formidable lover… or that his bald head is ennobling.
These are benevolent fictions conducive to the domestic peace and happiness.
In that spirit, the patriot’s attitude toward the foreigner is relaxed. It is accommodative. It is spacious.
He understands this fellow’s affection for his country is essentially the affection for his mother.
But a Kipling does not love his country as a man loves his mother.
His country must show all others its dust. It must outrace them all… else he feels diminished.
The Patriot Loves His Country Regardless
The United States of America stables many such gentlemen.
They are dizzied, wobbled, staggered by a higher American vision. Their eyes roll perpetually heavenward.
To these fellows, America must always be up to something big in this world.
She must be forever charging up San Juan Hill, going over the top, storming Omaha beach, bearing any burden, paying any price…
She must be beating the Russians to the moon, beating the world at basketball, beating democracy into someone’s head.
Tall deeds, some of these, and fantastic attainments.
But would the patriot love America less if she fell short of the glory… if her history was a page mostly blank?
He would not.
It is — after all — his country. And he loves her as he loves his mother.
But to that certain species of American, America must dazzle and glitter upon the world’s stage.
She must be the “indispensable nation.”
If not indispensable… then dispensable.
If dispensable, then unworthy of his love.
Hence his lack of patriotism. He is Kipling.
The Difference Between the Patriot and the Nationalist
Sobran takes their measure:
Many Americans admire America for being strong, not for being American. For them America has to be “the greatest country on Earth” in order to be worthy of their devotion. If it were only the second greatest, or the 19th greatest, or, heaven forbid, “a third-rate power,” it would be virtually worthless… Maybe the poor Finns or Peruvians love their countries too, but heaven knows why — they have so little to be proud of, so few “reasons.”
And so Sobran trains his cannons on the nationalist ideologue:
The nationalist, who identifies America with abstractions like freedom and democracy, may think it’s precisely America’s mission to spread those abstractions around the world — to impose them by force, if necessary. In his mind, those abstractions are universal ideals… the world must be made “safe for democracy” by “a war to end all wars”… Any country that refuses to Americanize is “anti-American” — or a “rogue nation.” For the nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change the world.
We might list some names in point… but our legal counsel is wagging his finger and shaking his head.
The patriot and the nationalist babble the same American tongue. The one is therefore mistaken for the other.
Yet lean in. Listen closer. You will find they speak alien languages:
Because the patriot and the nationalist often use the same words, they may not realize that they use those words in very different senses. The American patriot assumes that the nationalist loves this country with an affection like his own, failing to perceive that what the nationalist really loves is an abstraction — “national greatness,” or something like that. The American nationalist, on the other hand, is apt to be suspicious of the patriot, accusing him of insufficient zeal, or even “anti-Americanism.”
A Patriotism of the Heart
The patriotism Sobran hymns is a relaxed, natural, healthful patriotism.
It is a patriotism of the heart.
This patriotism flies no ideological flag, hauls no missionary cargo, steers by no heavenly star.
It is the patriotism of the prairie, of the plain, of the lonely jackrabbit crossroad, of the greasy spoon, of the truckstop, of the front porch, of the pool hall… of Main Street.
And his fellow countrymen? The patriot takes them as he finds them.
Might they sometimes neglect to wash behind the ears? Might they mistake the salad fork for the dinner fork?
Well, sometimes they may. But they are his countrymen… and it does not matter to him.
The patriot allows himself to laugh — not at his fellow Americans — but with them.
The nationalist, meantime, does not laugh.
He hectors. He preaches. He scolds.
“Patriotism Is Relaxed. Nationalism Is Rigid.”
“Patriotism is relaxed,” as Sobran concludes. “Nationalism is rigid.”
We in turn conclude, paraphrasing Chesterton:
The relaxed patriot, the average American, the American who tends to his own business and sweeps his own stoop, the American who loves his country as he loves his mother — this fellow is all right.
But the rigid American, the uber American, the zealous American, the American nationalist hot to put the world to rights — the American who admires America for her strength — but fails to love her as herself?
This fellow… he’s all wrong.
Managing Editor, The Daily Reckoning