We all know this one from 18th-century British essayist Samuel Johnson:
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
That quote was so good that Bob Dylan felt compelled to paraphrase it in his 1983 song “Sweetheart Like You.”
But I also like this one from playwright Oscar Wilde:
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
And this one from Malcolm X:
“You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”
And this angry one from playwright George Bernard Shaw:
“Patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy.”
But that’s not even the best Shaw quote about patriotism. This one, less ferocious and more matter-of-fact, is my favorite:
“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”
I don’t get patriotism. I never have. At least not organized patriotism, or compulsory patriotism. If that makes me a poor candidate for public office, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it. I recall feeling certain pangs of discomfort when being told to chant in the direction of the American flag in the corner of the room in elementary school, even though I had no idea what I was saying. Later, in my late teens, I often declined to stand for the National Anthem at Dodgers games because I was irritated that forced nationalism was being mixed with my favorite escapist pastime.
In an e-mail Monday evening, Kelly Davis, my partner in journalistic crime, pointed out an irony when I told her I was thinking about musing on how I never quite got the concept of patriotism. Out of the blue, she said patriotism “is similar to the loyalty you feel for, say, the Dodgers.”
Interesting. Still to this day, I want the Dodgers, the Lakers and, yes, even the Rams to defeat their opponents—because they were the teams my father introduced me to when I was a wee lad. Through the magic of television (the kind on which you had to turn a knob to change the channel), I grew familiar with these teams and their players, and that familiarity bred appreciation and lasting loyalty. That makes a certain kind of sense, given that the root of “patriotism” is Latin for “father.”
One of the reasons I refused to stand at Dodgers games—a non-action that once compelled a fellow baseball fan to call out, “Go back to Russia!” (I’d never been to Russia, so there was no possible way I could ever “go back”)—was that I didn’t agree with the direction my country was heading in under Ronald Reagan, and I worried that expressing devotion to my home country would be perceived as a de facto stamp of approval on Reagan’s policies. I wasn’t having that.
That’s the thing with patriotism—it’s all mucked up and messy with politics. The word is wielded by unscrupulous politicians and their surrogates in cynical ploys to get you to go along with unsavory things such as elective, unnecessary, illegal wars. Or to dissuade you from voting for a certain politician.
Barack Obama’s patriotism was questioned again this week—in a story by The Associated Press and in an unscientific poll conducted by CNN—months after previous questions had been put to rest about why he doesn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel and didn’t put his hand on his heart during the National Anthem. The resuscitated non-issue came on the heels of Michelle Obama daring to say that the outpouring of support for her husband had made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.
Ms. Obama is seven months older than me, so that means that from the time she was a teenager, this country’s foreign policy included support for murderous regimes in Central America, illegal covert arms deals, looking the other way while genocide occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia and a disastrous invasion of Iraq (two if you count the first one, in which our president abandoned the rebel Iraqis he had emboldened, leaving them to be slaughtered). Here at home, the rich have just gotten richer, and the poor have just gotten poorer. These are some of my country’s accomplishments that I’m not terribly proud of, and I suspect that Michelle Obama’s worldview isn’t far off from mine.
My hunch is that the Obamas consider themselves patriotic in the sense that they’re devoted to and reverent of the principles on which our country was founded—you know, liberty from tyranny, the freedom to pursue whatever makes us happy and the right to criticize the government.
It’s that last one that satisfies me the most. And if more Americans felt that way, too, I’d probably feel better about standing up during the National Anthem at baseball games.
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