Three cheers for the red, white and blue – or maybe just the hometown

As our nation – what? sprints? strides? stumbles? limps? – toward its 238th birthday, we prepare once again for our great patriotic festivities. To do so well, however, requires we have some sort of understanding of patriotism. This is a dangerous venture, for one tends to inquire into feelings only when those feelings have become tenuous.

So it is for us. In our time patriotism has become a problem: often bowdlerized by ideological pretenders, or captured in the feckless actions of those Thomas Paine dismissed as “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.”

Patriotism connotes a mode of love, or as Pericles put it in his canonical “Funeral Oration,” in being “lovers of the city.” Being a lover, however, implies a kind of reciprocated passion between two parties.

What is it we are loving, and how are we loved in return? We can start negatively, thinking about what we are not loving. Defenders of Republican government have long held to the view that empires can never be objects of love. It was for this reason that Washington had Joseph Addison’s “Cato” performed regularly for the troops at Valley Forge: to teach the soldiers that Caesar’s quest for glory was “ignobly vain, and impotently great,” purchased with injustice and tyranny, and contrasted to the temperate soul of Cato, defender of liberty and lover of a Rome of “humble virtues, and a rural life.” The lust for dominion creates a civil discord that “shakes our country with alarms/And gives up Rome a prey to Roman arms/Produces fraud, and cruelty, and strife/And robs the guilty world of Cato’s life.”

Nor can it be militarism, with its brutality and coarseness. The patriots of ’76 uniformly feared the possibility of a “standing army” not only because it was a threat to liberty and an invitation to onerous taxation and debt, but also because it corrupted morals. An army “will inevitably sow the seeds of corruption and the depravity of manners. Indolence will increase ... the springs of honesty will generally grow lax, and chaste and severe manners be succeeded by those that are dissolute and vicious.”

The militarization of America was feared by no less a patriot than Patrick Henry, who saw in public support for an army and a navy only a desire for “a great and mighty empire,” the preference for a “splendid government” over “a simple one,” the latter which alone had liberty as its “primary object.”

Nor can it be a large, centralized bureaucracy. A state is distinct from a nation, and its defining features are absorptive and monopolistic, and thus a threat to liberty. It doubles-down on this threat to liberty by operating with a client-based politics that creates dependent subjects rather than self-sufficient citizens. As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote it is “a supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money;” and at the same time demands that these clients be prepared to sacrifice their lives on its behalf, which, MacIntyre says, is “like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

What happens to patriotism when love becomes simple obedience, on one side, and perpetuated dependency on the other? This is the soft despotism Tocqueville feared, one which would “resemble paternal power” if it sought to prepare persons for adult life, but instead tried to keep them in a perpetual state of childhood, the effect of which is to “extinguish their spirits and enervate their souls.”

One solution resides in a patriotism that stresses a love of the place of one’s birth. There is no program to overcome this contingency which does not result in the attenuation of the freedom Americans purport to love. It would stress our enmeshment in particular communities and commitment to particular places that alone can give value to our efforts without diffusing them.

As Tocqueville said, a nation cannot be strong where each person in it is individually weak. To strengthen each individual requires enlarging them by shrinking the scale of political life. A true patriotism starts locally and radiates out. I love Holland more than I love Michigan; and I love Michigan more than I love America. The Founders would have approved.

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Javan Kienzle
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 11:11am
Am not sure how Professor Polet can be certain that the Founding Fathers would have approved of the priority of his loves. Many Michiganders were born elsewhere, some in other states, some in other countries. Should each of them love their birth city, state, country more than they love Michigan or the U.S.? Is it possible to love one's city, state, country equally? Would one die for one's family? Would one die for one's city? Would one die for one's state? Would one die for one's country? Most of us would say, Yes, I would die for my family; many of us would say, Yes, I would die for my country. Would as many say, "I love my hometown enough to die for it?" I don't know the answer to that question. Possibly, in one way, it is like being asked which of your children you love the most. Most parents would say, "I love them all equally" or maybe, "I love them all, but each in a different way." In 1776, the Colonists fought the British under many different flags -- local and regional. Virginians, New Englanders, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers. Some Colonists of Irish ancestry fought AGAINST the British as much or more than they fought FOR their adopted home. In the Revolutionary War, colonists fought for independence; in the Civil War, Northerners fought to save the Union -- their country; some Southerners each fought for his individual state. Prior to the Civil War, the term 'the United States' took a plural verb; after the Civil War, it took a singular verb. In World War II, Pearl Harbor sent Americans into battle to defend their country -- and their country's freedom. Did any of the soldiers die for their hometown? Or did most die for an ideal? The Online Etymological Dictionary defines 'patriotic' as "of one's own country," from French patriotique or directly from Late Latin patrioticus, from Greek patriotikos, from patriotes. Meaning "loyal, supporting one's own country"; The American Heritage Dictionary lists the etymology of 'patriot' as "Old French, compatriot; Late Latin patriota; Greek patriotes; patrios, of one's fathers; pater, patr-, father. Patriotism can be murky, meaning different things to different people The term 'city' derives from the Latin word for citizen; the term 'nation' comes from the Latin word meaning 'to be born.' Many northern European countries use the term ' Fatherland'; many other countries use the term 'Motherland.' I have deep feelings for New Jersey, where I was born and grew up; for West Virginia, where I lived for a year as a child; for Minneapolis, where I started my married life. But I am an adopted Michigander; I came to Michigan in 1956 and expect to be buried in Michigan. Yes, I love Michigan -- but I love my country and its ideals more. I don't always agree with my country's actions, yet I would not give up my U.S. citizenship for anything in the world. And if Michigan were to secede, much as I love it, I would not go with it. So, Professor Polet, I salute your love for the region of your birth, yet I question whether the Founding Fathers would agree with your ranking your hometown of Holland above your country.
dick b
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 12:33pm
Two thoughtful and intelligent insights on patriotism, yet I find myself torn between them. Maybe the fact that we are different in our backgrounds makes us lean in one direction or the other. The view of the professor on government is a strong and valid point, but the local vs. country is questionable in my mind. Most of us I believe will fall somewhere in-between, me leaning toward Javan's view on country first. What do you think?
Tue, 06/24/2014 - 8:58am
Interesting observations but I suspect for most people the 4th of July is just another one of those go through the motions holidays with little serious reflection.