On patriotism


in Canada, Ottawa, Politics

Having been exposed once again to the summer light show outside parliament, I find myself thinking about patriotism once again. It seems to me that you can approach it from two different directions. In the first case, you develop a list of virtues that a country might possess. These could include a good human rights record, international generosity, the rule of law, and so forth. You then evaluate any particular state on the basis of your pre-existing preferences. The alternative is to simply assert the unique value of a particular state, as derived from its history and so forth.

The first approach strikes me as far more valid. It is absurd for someone to assert the superiority of their country in a non-comparative fashion, or without relation to particular characteristics which establish a state as worthy or unworthy of admiration. Admiring states as means to desirable ends has a fundamentally liberal quality, while the alternative is mythical, with a distinct whiff of fascism.

In general, love of country seems more dangerous than beneficial. We can certainly admire states that do a good job of advancing human welfare, but we should value the states only as vehicles to those ends, not as inherently valuable entities. The doctrine of “my country, right or wrong” seems unacceptable in a world with so much experience of nationalist war and state sponsored moral outrages.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon August 11, 2008 at 9:51 am

The peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: “Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”

– Carl Shurz

The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyranny; flattery to treachery; standing armies to arbitrary government; and the glory of God to the temporal interest of the clergy.

– David Hume

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

– George Bernard Shaw

tris August 11, 2008 at 12:16 pm

I have trouble understanding what the deep difference is between the two approaches. You speak as if, in the first approach, you are to develop a list of virtues a country might possess in a vacuum so to speak. This is unrealistic – in fact one develops this list having already been inculcated into a complex ideological framework made up of explicitly state apparatuses (i.e. political debates), and implicit ones (i.e. schools, churches, etc…).

So, won’t one simply construct a list tailored to the virtues that are appropriate to one’s country – or rather which have been made to appear so by the influential upbringing? For example, I think a good human rights record is important, but to what extent is that a product of being raised in Canada? So, this list constructed “in a vacuum” is just as much a mythical repetition of fhe originary Canadian virtues as ever – certainly enough to smell the whiff of fascism.

Especially when one recognizes that the very ideal of objectivity, of coming up with these virtues in a vacuum, is precisely a liberal-democratic virtue itself.

Milan August 11, 2008 at 1:06 pm


Two ideas come to mind.

Firstly, while the political environment in which we live certainly affects our choice of values, there are some that we might adopt that are nonetheless not yet fully manifest in that environment. For instance, we might see equal rights for homosexuals as an inevitable product of the application of our political ideals, but it may not yet have come to pass.

Secondly, placing the emphasis on values rather than states allows us to be critical when the latter strays. We can legitimately criticize Canada for its domestic failure to protect the rights of marginalized groups; similarly, we can criticize its failure to live up to international commitments on things like foreign aid and climate change.

Milan August 11, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Part of the difference between the two lies in the belief that it is immoral to publicly criticize “one’s own.” Just as there are people who say that family disputes should be settled internally, and it is immoral to mention them to outsiders, there are those who assert that public criticism of one’s state is a moral breach.

While there is some degree of validity to the argument in a family context, it does not strike me as appropriate in the context of a state.

David Scrimshaw August 11, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Hi Milan, I don’t think it is fair to say that loving something implies comparing it favourably with every other thing like it and it does not imply that you would not try to make improvements in that thing.

I love my house (I am using my house as an example because I think love of country is more like love of a house than love of a spouse). In some ways it’s better than other houses and in others it’s worse. But it’s a terrific house for me.

It is incredibly cluttered right now, the roof needs work, there’s a plumbing situation I’d better straighten out, electrical work, and more. My love for this house does not blind me to them. And I don’t mind discussing these problems outside my house.

Chris August 12, 2008 at 2:16 pm

“Let me pick up an ashtray from a dime-store counter, pay for it and put it in my pocket—and it becomes a special kind of ashtray, unlike any on earth, because it’s mine”

Patriotism, is in some ways, a manifestation of the “endowment effect”

. August 15, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Nationalism versus Peace

By Alex Tabarrok on Economics

Paul Krugman has good column today on the threat of nationalism to globalization.

Shortly before World War I another British author, Norman Angell, published a famous book titled “The Great Illusion,” in which he argued that war had become obsolete, that in the modern industrial era even military victors lose far more than they gain. He was right — but wars kept happening anyway….

…the belief that economic rationality always prevents war is an equally great illusion. And today’s high degree of global economic interdependence, which can be sustained only if all major governments act sensibly, is more fragile than we imagine.

Anon August 18, 2008 at 10:10 am

William Ralph Inge

“A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbors.”

. June 8, 2009 at 12:38 pm

“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”

-Bertrand Russell

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