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Patriotism or Nationalism?

     

This is a season of patriotism, but also of something that is easily mistaken for patriotism; namely, nationalism. The difference is vital.

G.K. Chesterton once observed that Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of British imperialism, suffered from a "lack of patriotism." He explained: "He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English."

In the same way, many Americans admire America for being strong, not for being American. For them America has to be "the greatest country on earth" in order to be worthy of their devotion. If it were only the 2nd-greatest, or the 19th-greatest, or, heaven forbid, "a 3rd-rate power," it would be virtually worthless.

This is nationalism, not patriotism. Patriotism is like family love. You love your family just for being your family, not for being "the greatest family on earth" (whatever that might mean) or for being "better" than other families. You don’t feel threatened when other people love their families the same way. On the contrary, you respect their love, and you take comfort in knowing they respect yours. You don’t feel your family is enhanced by feuding with other families.

While patriotism is a form of affection, nationalism, it has often been said, is grounded in resentment and rivalry; it’s often defined by its enemies and traitors, real or supposed. It is militant by nature, and its typical style is belligerent. Patriotism, by contrast, is peaceful until forced to fight.

The patriot differs from the nationalist in this respect too: he can laugh at his country, the way members of a family can laugh at each other’s foibles. Affection takes for granted the imperfection of those it loves; the patriotic Irishman thinks Ireland is hilarious, whereas the Irish nationalist sees nothing to laugh about.

The nationalist has to prove his country is always right. He reduces his country to an idea, a perfect abstraction, rather than a mere home. He may even find the patriot’s irreverent humor annoying.

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Joseph Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one of the most significant American writers of his time. See his website and his intellectual journey.