America’s True Patriots
Here is the trouble with America’s jingos, warhawks, drum-beaters, glory hounds and idealists:
They are not patriotic.
Come again, you say?
Do they not cry tears red, white and blue?
Do they not howl 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 surprising case we haul before the jury today.
Yes, we are stepping away from our normal beat… and reflecting upon the virtue of patriotism.
This at a time when war shouts are rising against Iran, Venezuela, Russia — or whichever hellcat presently menaces the happiness of the United States.
(We first bow before the shade of 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.”
Lack of patriotism?
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 it should… 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
Substitute Britain for Rome and you have Kipling.
Why then did Chesterton deny his patriotism?
The reason is subtle. Yet vital.
“He Admires England, but He Does Not Love Her”
Chesterton argued that Kipling admired England because of her power. He did not love her for who she was:
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.
In contrast, Chesterton loved England as England — its customs, its eccentricities, its people — even its food.
A man loves his mother.
It is a wordless love, wide and deep.
He requires no reason. He need offer no explanation.
And as he loves his mother… so he loves his country.
His country is simply his country — be it China, Russia, Chile, Romania.
And so it is worthy of his love.
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.
But that in no way irritates, annoys or undoes the genuine patriot.
No harm flows from it. After all…
Adults allow children to cherish the fiction that reindeer fly and round men descend chimney chutes.
A man allows his wife to cherish the fiction that she is a superior cook and automobile driver… as she allows her husband to cherish the fiction that he is a skillful and formidable lover.
These are harmless fictions conducive to the domestic peace and happiness.
In that spirit, the patriot’s attitude toward foreigners is relaxed. It is accommodative. And spacious.
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 fellows.
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 Normandy beach, bearing any burden, paying any price…
She must be beating the Russians to the moon, beating the world at basketball, beating democracy into somebody’s head.
Tall deeds, many of these. And sources of authentic pride.
But would the patriot love America any less if she fell short of the glory… if she left a gaping hole in the history books?
He would not.
It is — after all — his country.
And he loves it as he loves his mother.
But to the professional American, America must dazzle and strut upon the world’s stage.
She must be the “indispensable nation.”
If not indispensable… then dispensable.
If dispensable, then unworthy of his deep affections.
Hence his lack of patriotism.
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 peels away the patriot from his photographic negative — 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 offending names — but our legal counsel has just whispered into our ear.
But the patriot and the thunder-thumper babble the same American tongue. The one is therefore mistaken for the other.
Yet listen closer. They in fact 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, healthful patriotism.
It is a patriotism of the heart.
This patriotism flies no ideological flags, hauls no metaphysical 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 forget to wash behind the ears?
Sometimes they may. But it makes no nevermind.
They are his countrymen… and that is enough.
The patriot allows himself to laugh. Not at his fellow Americans — but with them.
The nationalist, meantime, does not laugh.
“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 — the fellow is all right.
But the rigid American, the 100% American, the thunder-thumping American, the American determined 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