The word is bandied about with such ease and regularity that it must resonate with great numbers of people. Yet, try as I might, I have never been able to figure out what it means.
I know the Latin word pater, meaning “father”, is the root of the Latin word patria, meaning “fatherland”, which in turn is the root of the English word “patriotism.” Is “patriotism” then, love of one’s fatherland? If so, what is one’s fatherland? Is it the place of one’s birth? And if so, how can we have so many “patriotic” immigrants who collectively through the decades have enshrined that vacuous myth: “Only in America?” Shouldn’t they be loving Columbia or Korea or Italy or Kenya or Ireland or Pakistan or wherever they were born?
Well, maybe “patriotism” doesn’t just mean loving the country you were born in but also the country you’ve adopted. Okay…but then what do you mean by “country?” Is it that specifically bordered piece of geography embracing beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, plains, forests, and oceans? If so, I certainly love those! But I don’t think I love them any more in one place than I do in another. I mean, after all, aren’t the Alps and the Andes and the Himalayas just as breathtaking as the Rockies – a little different, maybe, but just as awesome? And did you ever see the Aegean surrounding the Greek islands? Wow!
So if “country” isn’t to be taken physically, maybe it signifies those ideals a place tries to live by – like freedom and democracy and justice and opportunity. I sure love the hell out of those things, too. But like stunning landscapes, they’re also found in lots of places. What’s wrong with France’s liberte, egalite, and fraternite? Aren’t these ideals just as lovable and pretty much the same as those in our “fatherland” where, incidentally, they can often seem in short supply? Is an American “freer” than a Frenchman or Englishman – or is there less “justice” in Switzerland? And as for “opportunity,” it’s retreating at breakneck speed in America.
It certainly seems that “country”, outside of being a legal, world-recognized entity, can’t be defined by exclusive ideals either. And if you try “culture” as the definitive lovable element of fatherland, you get into an even worse mess.
For example, as the offspring of Italian immigrants, I was reared in the Mediterranean culture that crossed the Atlantic with them. That meant the food, music, language, gestures, expressions, turn of mind, and other cultural peculiarities of my young life were different from those of the four-generation “American” down the block. On top of that, I lived in a huge polyglot city that had yet its own “culture”, which was a planet away from that of a dinky Mormon town in Utah.
I now live in a dinky rural town in Vermont where an Afro-American face is a pleasant rarity and where the polite, low-key Anglo-Saxon country culture of my neighbors, so different from the brashness of mine, is often as amusing to me as it is rewarding. So what is the “culture” that defines a “country” and inspires “patriotism” – particularly in a “country” as vast as the U.S.? There may be something you could call the American “character”, derived as it historically is from pioneer courage and independence. It’s very lovable, but there are different, yet equally admirable national characteristics all over the world. How about the studiousness of the Chinese or the friendliness of the Hawaiians or the hard-work ethic of the Germans? And besides, there’s an awful lot of contemporary American “culture” I can happily do without and which I won’t get into here.
So it seems that “country” can’t be defined by a “culture” meriting the exclusive love required by “patriotism.” As a last shot at definition, could it simply be the place that someone is used to, where he or she feels utterly comfortable and “at home” – like I feel in my little Vermont town and which I truly love? Maybe. But then again, with my background, I have a feeling that I could move to Bari and be happy hanging around all day under the warm Italian sun sipping espresso with the uomi at the bocci court. After all, look at all the happily expatriated Americans living around the world. As a matter of fact, a century ago it was practically de rigeur for wealthy Americans to set up housekeeping for a good part of the year in Europe, where I’m sure they felt more “at home” with their aristocratic European counterparts than with the poor working folks in the states whose sweat was creating their fortunes. Read the expatriate writer Henry James.
So you see my problem with understanding “patriotism”? Nothing seems to work for me in defining it. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m open to them. But until then, I’ll have to go where my process of elimination has led me – which is right back to where I began with the Latin word “pater.” I’m stuck with the suspicion that a residual infantile love for pater (or even mommy), when transferred to some nebulous, concocted object called “country” (or patria), becomes the emotion known as “patriotism.” This transference is cleverly manipulated by a nation’s rulers so their interests can be served by these people under the guise of “love of country” – or “patriotism.” It is the ploy – which the late Kurt Vonnegut would call a “granfalloon” – by which innocent youths are sent to their tragic deaths in wars, not protecting the “country”, but serving the wealth of the elite – as in the Middle East oil.
To Samuel Johnson’s words, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” I would suggest adding the words “and simpleton.”
The Manchester Journal 7/01/16