Patriotism is Relative, Not Absolute

jacdon at jacdon at
Fri Aug 8 01:14:00 MDT 2003

The following article appears in the Aug. 8 issue of the Mid-Hudson (NY)
Activist Newsletter, published by the National People's Campaign/IAC in
New Paltz, NY, and distributed by jacdon at


Patriotism is relative, not absolute.  As a concept, patriotism is an
expression of nationalism, and nationalism can be either negative or
positive, reactionary or progressive, depending on circumstances.  
Patriotism may have had its origins in the quest for social rights but
over the centuries it has largely come to mean loyalty to the state — 
at times, in America, unquestioning loyalty.

The overwhelming majority of people in the United States profess to be
patriotic to one extent or another.  A year ago, a Pew Research Center
opinion poll revealed that 54% of the American people described
themselves as "very patriotic" without qualification; 38% said they were
"mostly very patriotic."  In another poll, after the invasion of
Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq,  and ABC/Washington Post
poll showed that 97% were "proud" of the U.S. Armed Forces.

In many instances, Washington's call to patriotism and to "love of
country,"  has been misused to coerce people to support the reactionary
policies of the ruling administration, particularly its unjust wars such
as President Bush's invasion of Iraq.  Occasionally, it has positive,
progressive connotations, such as when the Roosevelt administration
invoked patriotism to galvanize the American people in defense of the
U.S. and much of the rest of the world from an attack by fascist

World War II provides other examples as well.   The "patriotism" of the
great majority of the German people in supporting Adolf Hitler's Nazi
war of aggression was a negative, reactionary, anti-Semitic expression
of nationalism.  Those Germans who openly opposed Hitler's policies —
most of whom were vilified for being "unpatriotic," and were beaten,
exiled, imprisoned or more likely murdered — were expressing the best
interests of the German nation and the world.  Who were the patriots in
this situation — those who supported the regime or those who opposed it? 

Consider the Vietnam War. Those American "patriots" who supported
Washington's war against the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam
and North Vietnam were backing a reactionary manifestation of
nationalism based on foreign aggression.  Americans who opposed this
policy were called "unpatriotic," and were instructed to "love America
or leave it," or  to "Go back to Moscow." By the late 1960s the majority
of the population was against the war.  They believed they were
supporting the best interests and democratic traditions of the United
States and of the world.  Who were the patriots — those who supported
the government of the United States when its policies were wrong or
those who sought to change those policies?

(Almost a month and a half  after Sept. 11, 2001, in our first
demonstration in Kingston against a war with the Kabul government, an
evidently "patriotic" passing motorist shouted at this writer, "Go back
to Afghanistan!"  Around the same time, the Mid-Hudson National People's
Campaign received quite a few telephoned death threats from local
numbers, almost all containing the words, "unpatriotic."  We also
received several calls from people who claimed to be progressives who
urged us not to organize a peace protest because it would be

Consider also the war against Iraq, particularly taking the following
points into account:   (1) The rationale for the war — Iraq's alleged
possession of weapons of mass destruction destined for use against the
United States, and Baghdad's alleged connection to the 9/11 raids — has
been proven to be false. Iraq neither took steps to harm the U.S. nor
was it capable of doing so with a weak, ill-equipped defense force and a
sanctions-created dysfunctional economy.  (2) The policy of "preemptive"
war is illegal in terms of the UN Charter, to which the U.S. is a
signatory, and dozens of additional statutes.  The war itself is not
only illegal but unjust and immoral in terms of being inconsistent with
established religious and ethical doctrines.   (3) The idea of
"liberating" Iraq only came into vogue as a last-minute justification
after the U.S. government's argument for the war was exposed as a
right-wing fabrication. What kind of "liberation" is it for the Iraqi
people to have their independence, sovereignty and dignity violated as
their country is occupied and governed by a foreign state?

The Iraqi war was not imposed upon the American people by the regime in
Baghdad.  It was imposed upon them by the regime in Washington, under
false pretenses, in order to expand its hegemony throughout the Middle
East and the world.  The war is an example of reactionary nationalism
par excellence.  Despite this, the government, the corporate mass media,
and virtually all the institutions of society acting in concert insist
that the masses of people support the war as an act of patriotism, as
though it was a positive and progressive act.  Who are the patriots in
this situation?  Are they those who claim they are expressing "love" for
their country by supporting government policy based on right-wing
aggression,  or those who oppose such a policy?

So-called "patriots" who wrap themselves in the flag (regardless of what
is done in the name of that emblem) demand to know of peace-minded
Americans,  "Don't you support the troops in Iraq?" This is an
intentionally deceptive question that substitutes for putting  forward a
convincing argument in support of the war.  It is intended to portray
opponents of war as lacking patriotism and not loving their country, a
decisive indictment at a time of government-induced hyperpatriotism. 
Charges such as this are inevitable in a society where people pledge
allegiance to an emotionally charged national symbol (the flag and the
state for which it stands), not to a set of concrete progressive ideals
or even the society's founding democratic principals.  Indeed, those
principles, such as the protection of individual liberties by the Bill
of Rights, have often been ignored by these same "patriots" in the name
of national security.   Examples include the Palmer Raids of several
decades ago, the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s,
McCarthyism and loyalty oaths in the 1950s, intrusive FBI surveillance
in the 60s and 70s, and Bush-Ashcroftism at present.

If by "supporting the troops" is meant backing an unjust war — and that
is invariably what is intended — the principled response to the question
can only be "no," with an explanation. Logically, in this situation, the
progressive position is to support the resistance to the invasion and
occupation in both the United States and Iraq.    There are, of course,
different ways of saying "no."   One of them is to declare, "I believe
the war is unjust, so I support the troops by calling on the Bush
administration to withdraw from Iraq and bring them home immediately."  

There is something to be said for the expression, "My country, right or
wrong."  But the phrase has two interpretations, one implying knee-jerk
loyalty to the state, the other  implying an individual's civic
responsibility to insure that the state adheres to progressive
principles.  For example:

(1) To some, it means automatic support for whatever actions Washington
chooses to take, often at a moment of real or government-contrived
peril. This appears to be the definition of the so-called "patriots" who
claim the peace movement is "selling out America" by opposing the war in

(2) To others, generally those of a progressive bent whom the right-wing
characterizes as "unpatriotic" for criticizing the war, the "right or
wrong" phrase means to support the country (i.e., the govenment) when it
is right and to work toward changing government policies or the regime
itself when it is wrong.    

Of the two interpretations, the second one has been responsible for the
good things about America, starting with 1776, when many colonists
considered it patriotic to fight a war to overthrow the existing state
to rid themselves from an oppressive regime.  Colonists who remained
loyal to the British monarchy viewed the rebels as unpatriotic.  Decades
later, was it unpatriotic to oppose slavery before it was abolished
because it happened to be the law of the U.S. government? Was it
unpatriotic to support the women's suffrage campaign when only men had
the vote and male-only balloting was the law and custom of the United
States? Was it unpatriotic to oppose the unjust Iraq war?  Of course
not.  In an important sense, the struggle against this war is also an
effort to force the state to adhere to its own expressed rhetoric about
sovereignty, independence, legality, nonaggression, mutual respect, and
engaging in wars only as a "last resort."

Many people in the peace movement consider themselves patriots who love
their country too much to remain silent when it perpetrates a colossal
misdeed.  And they think of the flag  as being just as much theirs as
that of the right-wingers and war mongers who attempt to appropriate it
for themselves.   

Others, including ourselves, are internationalists committed to
left-wing political ideals concerning our world and its inhabitants. 
They do not necessarily claim to love a country or a flag in the
abstract or make efforts to portray themselves as national patriots.  
But as responsible citizens committed to progressive ideals — which of
course include a love of humanity regardless of national boundaries and
actions to create a truly just society in the United States in
fulfillment of a broader vision of world peace and cooperation — they
seek to defend what is positive about the country and change what is
negative, such as militarism, racism, and systemic economic and social

The important thing in terms of our movement for peace and social
justice is that we remain strong and uncompromising in the face of those
exponents of reaction in the White House and elsewhere who try to
intimidate us by questioning our patriotism.  It is this widespread
reactionary form of "patriotism" — when the notion is used as a bludgeon
to enforce conformity or adherence to a right-wing agenda — that
perfectly fits the definition, "the last refuge of scoundrels."

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