It is OK to be Patriotic

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 23

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

Happy Independence Day to all of our viewers in the United States. I hope all of you in the states enjoy some time with your family with barbeques, fun at the park, and maybe a few fireworks as you wave the stars and stripes.

But am I wrong to hope that? There are plenty of people who say that celebrations like this are part of the problem. We live in a world filled with ethnocentrism, racism, tribalism, jingoism, extreme nationalism, and supremacism. Given the current political climate and the issues caused by overt national pride, is it really ok to be patriotic?

In this episode, we will do our best to look at this question honestly, not only for Americans but with regard to every kind of national heritage across the globe.

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One idea I continue to share addresses the question of identity. Many of us base our individual identity completely on our race, our social-economic-status, or by some other exclusive social group. I think that is a terrible idea. Doing so immediately creates an “us” and a “them.” When we see ourselves as competing social groups, we lose a great deal of our humanity. This often devolves into groups of “oppressors” and “the oppressed.” With that viewpoint, we more easily believe in the lies of demigods, tyrants, and fascists. An oppressed group identity often breeds resentment, hatred, and civil unrest.

I propose that the most important element of your identity is the one based on your place in the human family. We all belong to one tribe, one clan, and one species. Genetically and historically, this is literally the case. It is a fact and one that I believe we would do well to remember. As we see every other human being as our relative, an equal, above all else, first and foremost, I believe that this can help inform other aspects of our political and moral reality. This puts us in the trenches with the least fortunate members of society. We are their family, and they are ours. When properly understood, this perspective can lead us to treat others with common decency and with respect to their rights and worth as individuals.

I have another episode titled, “What are you worth?” that dives deeper into these themes. But today, we are looking into the question of patriotism. Can we hold the sincere view that we all belong to humanity, while also maintaining a sense of pride in our country? I believe we can, and I believe we should.

National identity, I argue, is a superficial characteristic, or something you happen to inherit. Like your skin color or accent, it is alright to celebrate all of the things that make you, you. I think that is only healthy. But there is a big difference between celebrating something and making something the most important part of your identity. When we take those superficial characteristics and put those above our place in the human family, I believe we’ve made a mistake. It splits humanity into in-groups and outgroups. It is wrong to look at people and see only something like their race, sex, age, nationality, height, or hair color. It is wrong for us to judge groups of people based on these superficial characteristics. It is wrong to think that they all deserve to pay for some injustice committed by a different member of their social group. It is wrong to think that they all act and think alike. It is wrong to think that one of them can speak for all of them. Looking at people this way most often leads to bigotry and prejudice. When all things are considered, and when we are being the most honest, the most fair, and the most just, we should see every other human being both as an individual and as a fellow member of the one social group that matters most, the entire human family. We all belong to one human family but are also individuals who think, speak, act, and behave, with accountability only for our own actions.

From this viewpoint, it is ok to be proud of your family name, heritage, country, and even your ethnic group, so long as you keep the healthy perspective that all these are small things compared to the similarities that unite all people. So, yes, from this perspective, it is ok to be patriotic. But our conversation today isn’t only about identity. It also touches on moral responsibility. If your country happens to be one with a shameful past, would it be wrong to show pride in that country? I think that is a fair question.

My wife and I have had the opportunity to live in different parts of the country. We were raised in conservative communities but also spent years living in liberal communities. I think this has allowed us a certain perspective, one that is difficult to gain. I’ve taken social justice classes where my professors introduced me to “white privilege,” and I’ve also had economy and history professors tell me that this country peaked with Ronald Reagan, only to spiral downward since. Over time, all this has created mixed feelings in me with regard to my country. I’m sure many of you listening can relate, especially now, in the increasingly radicalized and polarized political climate in which we find ourselves.

This leads us back to an important question. Is it ok to be patriotic? Should I proudly wave the American flag, or should I reconsider my support of my nation, given its role in the world and in history? What if I am extremely disappointed in how my country is run? For those of you who already have a gut reaction to this question, I ask that you join me on this line of thought and hopefully by the end, we will all be better for it.

Let’s begin with the argument against patriotism. I will mainly focus on this from an American’s perspective, but I think the argument can still be applied to those from any other country. When you look at the Statue of Liberty, the American flag, Mount Rushmore, or any other icons of your country, you can make the argument that you are seeing symbols that reflect its culture, political realities, and complete history. Hopefully, by now, we all understand that this history isn’t just about liberation, military victories, and admirable policies. Our history is also mired with terrible choices, immoral legislation, and a North American brand of evil. Manifest Destiny, Fraudulent Treaties with the Natives, Transatlantic Slave Trade, The Trail of Tears, Asian Immigrant Internment Camps, Jim Crow Laws, McCarthyism and The House Un-American Activities Committee, the destabilizing of foreign governments, and the Iraq war (initiated under false pretenses to find weapons of mass destruction) all represent just a small list of crimes the United States has committed against Humanity. Depending on your political leanings, these may bother you a little or a lot. But no matter your beliefs, these are the facts of history.

If reflecting on the atrocities committed by your country is a gut-punch to your national pride, should you then feel too guilty to sing the national anthem or watch a 4th of July parade? For many Americans, the answer is “yes.” For many Americans, it is hard to see our flag wave without immediately thinking about these past atrocities done in the cause of freedom, democracy, or whatever other ideals were used as justification at the time. According to a Gallup poll published on July 2nd, 2019, American patriotism is at an 18 year low, showing percentages lower than at any other time in recent history. According to the pole, this drop in self-expressed patriotism was most dramatic among liberals, women, and young adults. Perhaps these individuals are convinced by the argument that national shame is more important than national pride.

Allow me to make a counter-argument.

Imagine that you are settling into your college dorm. Soon enough, you meet your new roommate, an immigrant from Eastern Asia. They are very polite and friendly, but you notice them putting up the red flag of the People’s Republic of China on the wall. To you, this flag represents communism, tyranny, sweatshops, corruption, evil dictators, starvation, and harsh oppression. So do you say anything? Is this person wrong to show pride in their nation of birth? When they refer to China as “my country,” is this a problem?

Recently, I watched a video of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, in which she was handed a German Flag during a press conference. She quickly rolled it up and discarded it on a shelf nearby. I am reminded of a French national symbol, the Notre Dame cathedral, recently burning to the ground. A large part of the discussion that followed involved the construction of a multi-faith, multinational shrine erected in its place. A related topic is the open-borders policy of many members of the European Union, often championed with a palpable hatred toward traditional national identity.

I bring up these cases because they strike me as odd. They seem to reflect a special kind of self-hatred. If we wanted to, we can come up with other lists of shameful atrocities committed by China, Germany, France, and other nations. But to what end?

I think it is time that we acknowledge that all current human societies have evolved from morally degenerate ones. We all are descended from ruthless tyrants, cultists who practiced human-sacrifice, slave owners, war criminals, and worse. Every single nation on earth has shameful histories or was created from the remnants of previous nations with shameful histories. If we go back far enough, we all came from ape-like ancestors who literally tore apart their rivals and their rival’s children.

Here is another point to consider. What about your own history? Have you made mistakes, done terrible things, or hurt others? Of course you have. We all have. If we are honest with ourselves, we all have to admit to some degree of wrongdoing in the past. We have all harmed those around us, intentionally, unintentionally, and even with the best of intentions. Now, what is the healthiest way to deal with that? Should we always hide our faces in shame whenever we come close to the mirror? Should we despise our names and think of ourselves only in terms of our mistakes? Of course not. That is completely unfair, unrealistic, and unhealthy.

We are, each of us, a work-in-progress. We are still in the process of personal refinement. We are unfinished works of art. We are each on a hero’s journey, a story, in the middle of its telling. In my opinion, it is wrong to let our mistakes hang over us as our defining characteristics. This would be just as immoral as shaming an infant for falling down as they are learning to walk. We must be willing to admit and recognize our faults, learn from them, and move on. We can’t live in the past. We should always be forward thinking.

I recommend that we look to our national histories with a similar amount of grace. We must look into the facts of the past, unflinchingly, learn from our past, and allow ourselves to move on. We can move our statues of hate-filled leaders to museums, we can keep corrupting manifestoes in our libraries, and we can, and should, keep the darkest parts of our histories in our history books. But that doesn’t mean, for one moment, that we should define ourselves by our mistakes and misdeeds. It is simply the wrong path to take, a defeatist attitude that only leads to resentment, anger, and despair.

With that said, we will all still carry the scars of the past. We must be honest about the dark parts of our histories, teach them, learn them, and learn from them. But we cannot let our shame hold the future hostage.

If you want to hate your country, I am sure it will be easy to find good evidence and reasons to support that viewpoint. If you want to love your country, I am sure it will also be easy to find good evidence and reasons to support that viewpoint. So it really comes down to the question of what your country really means to you.

My home country, the United States, holds a special place in geopolitical history. It preserves the freedom of speech, a right that is completely ignored, even today, by many nations of the world. It was not created as an ethnostate or homeland for one race or group. Rather, it was founded on ideas, on the recognition of natural rights that were denied to the colonists by a tyrant. We were the first ones who ended slavery. We ended the Second World War. We have protected tiny democracies from complete obliteration such as Taiwan and Israel. We have done more than any other country to impede the spread of Communism. Most importantly, we have created a society that people from every other nation see as a an ideal place to come, work, and live.

But in all honesty, it isn’t the political history or military might of the United States that moves me. It is our many contributions to the progress of all mankind. Americans are well represented in the field of science. We have added rows of newly discovered elements to the periodic table. We have launched rovers, probes, and telescopes into space! We have cracked the codes of nature, discovering the secrets of the atom, the nature of space-time, and the existence of other galaxies and worlds like ours. We eradicate diseases and send our vaccines across the globe. We lead the world in new technologies, engineering, and computer science. We invented the Internet. We were the first ones to walk on the moon! We discovered and mapped Pluto. We have New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Phoenix. We have the Smithsonian, an impressive fossil record, Silicon Valley, National Forests, and NASA! We invented comic books and superheroes! We give the world the best music and we make the best movies. We have Broadway, Hollywood, and the original Disneyland. No one donates to charities or worthy causes as much as we do. We feed the world and lead the world in many fields.

I say “we,” because even though I didn’t personally belong to any of the teams behind these accomplishments, I do belong to and support the society that gave rise to them. That is one beautiful thing about patriotism. When you see an artist, an athlete, an Olympian, a scientist, a humanitarian, or an officer from your country accomplish something impressive, you are allowed to share in that celebration.

If you want, you can show your American patriotism for all of these reasons and more. But for me, the most beautiful thing about the United States is that it is my home. It is my home, and it is where I belong. No matter where you live, be it Bhutan or Bangladesh, Iceland or Ecuador, Canada or the Congo, it is alright to be proud of where you live and where you’re from. It is like looking at a modest home and being happy to call it your own. Sure, your door may not hang straight. There may be a crack in your window, but it is your home. National Pride can be much like accepting yourself for who you are, warts and all. Should you hate your skin color or body shape? No. All that is a part of you, and it is wonderful - because it is yours.

Whether it be your own skin, your house, or the borders of your home country, it is alright to love your home. It is healthy to have pride in where you belong, and it is ok to be patriotic.

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That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative