JR'S Free Thought Pages
THE MEANING OF PATRIOTISM
Love for one's ancestry, culture or homeland is the root meaning of patriotism. Derived from the Greek
kputrios ("of one's fathers") or patris (one's fatherland") the Oxford English Dictionary defines a patriot as
"one who disinterestedly or self-sacrificingly exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country."
A patriot is "one who maintains and defends his country's freedom or rights."
While we tend to think of a patriot as a person who puts his country first in opposition to another country,
originally the term meant one who supported the rights of "country" or "land" against the King and his court.
In other words, a patriot stood for the rights of local self-government and was opposed to tyrannical rule-even
by his own king. Thus, true patriotism is the impulse to defend one's land, country or way of life against
unjust governmental oppression.
From Ben Johnson..."Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
Similarly, from Thoreau, "Patriotism is a maggot in their heads."
George Bernard Shaw has said..."You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the
Oscar Wilde said "Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."
Leo Tolstoy described patriotism as "the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers".
Gustave Herve calls patriotism "a superstition, one far more injurious, brutal and inhumane than religion".
Patriotism, he said, is artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods. It is
a superstition that has robbed man of his dignity, self-respect and increased his arrogance and conceit.
"Indeed, conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism," said anarchist Emma Goldman.
"Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate.
Those born within this little spot consider themselves superior, nobler, more esteemed and more intelligent
than the living beings inhabiting any other spot.
"It is therefore the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose
superiority upon all others. The inhabitants outside that little spot reason in the same manner, of course."
Patriotism demands the creation of territorial boundaries. To sustain the equilibrium of such territories,
countless laws and regulations are imposed, rendering humans to a prison-like state of affairs.
Patriotism provokes a psychology of hatred for those outside those territories. Several bogeymen are
portrayed by the government of the day as enemies attempting to destroy peace and harmony.
Throughout history, governments confine their citizens by incessantly brainwashing the minds of men,
women and children with the evils of past colonial masters, communists and foreigners who are deemed to
have nothing better to do than to find ways and means to overpower those who are weaker.
Teddy Roosevelt a war militarist and war monger by any standard may not be the first person you'd expect to
utter this quote:
"Patriotism means to stand by the country. IT DOES NOT MEAN to stand by the President or any other public
office save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country".
Maybe that is the meaning of the famous dictum, "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels". Advocating
true patriotism certainly does not make one a scoundrel; the dictum refers only to the pseudo-patriotism
Teddy Roosevelt spoke about: what "scoundrels" do is to use their own proclamations of patriotism to bully
others into going along with certain policies -- policies that, more often than not, turn out to be against the
true interests of America.
Roosevelt was very precise in his terms: "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand
by the President or any other public office SAVE EXACTLY TO THE DEGREE in which he himself stands by the
Meaning, a true Patriot is someone who supports -- or opposes -- the policies of the President and other
leaders, EXACTLY TO THE DEGREE that such policies are right -- or wrong -- by the democratic standards of
justice and fairness. True patriots are people like Martin Luther King and those who protested against
the Vietnam War - people who genuinely wanted a more just and equitable society.
One of the more serious but so far little discussed questions raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the
United States is about the nature of patriotism. What does it mean to be patriotic? Is it just flying the
American flag? Just singing “God Bless America” at every turn? Just voicing support for our national war
If, in fact, patriotism does not go beyond those responses, it isn’t worth much. I certainly am not suggesting
flags and songs are wrong or silly. Not at all. But they’re the frosting on the cake. Real patriotism runs deeper.
It’s multilayered and not merely a short list festooned with reds, whites and blues and set to a rousing
If patriotism is just waving the flag, then Samuel Johnson was right that “patriotism is the last refuge of
a scoundrel.” And, worse, Guy de Maupassant was right that “patriotism is the egg from which wars are
An insightful essay on patriotism by Robert Jensen, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, can be found at:
The precursor to patriotism is nationalism. The following is an essay by A C Grayling, philosophy professor
at the University of London and Oxford. The essay is taken from his most excellent book The Meaning of
Things (2001). His personal web site is at http://www.acgrayling.com where he has posted some of his
Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. `Patriotism' is its cult. - Erich Fromm
Nationalism is an evil. It causes wars, its roots lie in xenophobia and racism, it is a recent phenomenon - an invention of the last few centuries - which has been of immense service to demagogues and tyrants but to no one else. Disguised as patriotism and love of one's country, it trades on the unreason of mass psychology to make a variety of horrors seem acceptable, even honourable. For example: if someone said to you, 'I am going to send your son to kill the boy next door' you would hotly protest. But only let him seduce you with 'Queen and Country!' 'The Fatherland!' 'My country right or wrong!' and you would find yourself permitting him to send all our sons to kill not just the sons of other people, but other people indiscriminately - which is what bombs and bullets do.
Demagogues know what they are about when they preach nationalism. Hitler said, 'The effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.' And he knew who to appeal to: Goethe had long since remarked that nationalistic feelings 'are at their strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture'.
Nationalists take certain unexceptionable desires and muddle them with unacceptable ones. We individually wish to run our own affairs; that is unexceptionable. Most of us value the culture which shaped our development and gave us our sense of personal and group identity; that too is unexceptionable. But the nationalist persuades us that the existence of other groups and cultures somehow puts these things at risk, and that the only way to protect them is to see ourselves as members of a distinct collective, defined by ethnicity, geography, or sameness of language or religion, and to build a wall around ourselves to keep out 'foreigners'. It is not enough that the others are other; we have to see them as a threat - at the very least to 'our way of life', perhaps to our jobs, even to our daughters.
When Europe's overseas colonies sought independence, the only rhetoric to hand was that of nationalism. It had well served the unifiers of Italy and Germany in the nineteenth century (which in turn prepared the way for some of their activities in the twentieth century), and we see a number of the ex-colonial nations going the same way today.
The idea of nationalism turns on that of a 'nation'. The word is meaningless: all 'nations' are mongrel, a mixture of so many immigrations and mixings of peoples over time that the idea of ethnicity is largely comical, except in places where the boast has to be either that the community there remained so remote and disengaged, or so conquered, for the greater part of history, that it succeeded in keeping its gene pool 'pure' (a cynic might say 'inbred' ).
Much nonsense is talked about nations as entities: Emerson spoke of the 'genius' of a nation as something separate from its numerical citizens; Giraudoux described the 'spirit of a nation' as 'the look in its eyes'; other such meaningless assertions abound. Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.
The blindness of people who fall for nationalistic demagoguery is surprising. Those who oppose closer relations in Europe, or who seek to detach themselves from the larger comities to which they belong, do well to examine the lessons of such tragedies as the Balkans conflicts, or - the same thing writ larger - Europe's bloody history in the twentieth century.
Gleaned from The Meaning of Things by A C Grayling (2001)
This book is an excellent read
An interesting web site with a strong anti-war message and thoughtful views on the real meaning of patriotism can be found at Birdman's Anti-War Page .