Patriotism does not equal nationalism


Dose of Logos


Now that we are a few weeks removed from the election, the realization that the world has not come crashing down upon us with President Barack Obama’s second term victory finally dawning on some of the more eschatologically driven among us, it may be therapeutic to review some of the more problematic rhetorical positions tossed around: patriotism and nationalism.

This past election would not be the only time such a word — complete with all its nuances — has been used for political gain. I’m not the first person to want to speak on the difference between patriotism and nationalism, and I probably won’t be the last.

But the distinction between the two is not a subtle one and, unfortunately, the two are often erroneously conflated. Some of humanity’s greatest minds have saturated the definitions of these words — George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy among them — and it is due to this heresy that the term patriot has become a terrible concept indeed.

Making the two mean one and the same might have a long history, as Sir Robert Walpole in 1740 stated, “The very idea of true patriotism is lost, and the term has been prostituted to the very worst of purposes. A patriot, sir! Why, patriots spring up like mushrooms!” And the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy aptly notes “discussions of both patriotism and nationalism are often marred by lack of clarity due to the failure to distinguish the two.” Patriotism, which might be the most abused by politicians and pundits, stems from the Greek root patri?t?s, which was used to distinguish a fellow countryman from another. Whereas, nation stems from the Latin word n?t??, which signifies “country” as in “race” or “culture.” The two are not necessarily exclusive, but they are different.

My ancestors, expelled from Germany more than 230 years ago because of religious persecution, fought and sacrificed for this country in order to secure a future for their descendants. There was no single national identity. There was only a dream—the so-called American Experiment, where liberty would be granted to almost everyone, but that a chance would exist for a nation of many cultures to live together free from tyranny. Unfortunately, slavery would not be abolished for another 80 or so years and it would not be until the civil rights movement that one might say rights were given to all—but that remains up for debate in some circles, and certainly more needs to be done to truly secure rights for everyone. The original (and I’d say better) motto goes, “E pluribus unum” — or, “from many, one."

But the times, they have changed. Since the start of the Cold War, the United States has done away with this motto, replacing it with a theological standard by which the new American culture — a singular culture — is dominated by a lust for greed and the love of one nation. The many cultures that made us strong have since faded with the normal decay of time — the advocacy of assimilation and acculturation has served its purpose, rendering past traditions useless in light of “American” ones.

I’m not complaining. The world is as it is. I was born into this tradition, and I accept it as much as any other American. But what we have here today is a nationalistic society — a culture that has placed values on us that we accept, and sometimes agree with, but which maintains little of that old world, where out of all our differences, we find unity and strength. But this is not what certain politicians mean when they say, “We’re patriots.”

Don’t let them fool you — they are not patriots. A patriot, philosophically speaking, is someone willing to sacrifice oneself for their country and countrymen, while a nationalist believes in sacrificing only for their culture. Their values — the value of their nation over the rights of their fellow countryman — are important. They exemplify the new motto “in God we trust” over “out of many, one” because for them this is a “Christian nation” void of any diversity. Or at least, it should be. They have become the tyrants, the religious persecutors of my forefathers. The irony of such political language is not lost on me. Hopefully, good reader, this irony will not be lost on you.

Tom Verenna is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in classics and history. His column, “Dose of Logos,” normally runs on alternate Mondays.

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