Saturday, February 5, 2011

Problems with Patriotism

I live in a beautiful country, Canada.  I was born in another beautiful country, America and I have travelled to another beautiful country, Mexico. I hope to see many other beautiful countries as I travel our beautiful world. I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and someone who grew up staring at a desert all their lives might find my favourite Rocky Mountain forests a little claustrophobic. For them, the desert is beautiful and rightly so.

Sometimes people refer to other people in generalizations, these things happen. I have heard from tourists and travellers, that Canadians are polite versions of Americans. This may or may not be true, but I contend that it is not our “being Canadian” that produces what politeness we have, but rather the other way around. If Canadians are polite, it is not because they are Canadian but rather because they are a product of living in Canada. Perhaps we have a slower pace, more relaxed attitude, lower populations, lower stress levels, etc. Perhaps it is these things that lead to our politeness. At any rate, we could make up some other name for a citizen of Canada, say a “Canuck,” and we could erase the border between the US and Canada. Now the US goes from Florida to Alaska and in the northern part, there's a bunch of Canucks living. Our nationhood has changed, we're still polite. If erasing the border seems too harsh, just move it further north. Now everyone south of Edmonton lives in America. Are you going to become less polite now, if you live in Vancouver?

Nationhood is not the same as culture. There are many varied cultures within the nation of Canada. Nationhood is the societal equivalent of an individual's desire to express himself, which happens within the definition of culture as well, but where culture can offer us so many things, nationhood offers us only one. Culture is the common expressions of a group. If you take an American from Washington state and a Canadian from Alberta, separated by only a few miles and introduce them to a German, he's not going to be able to tell the difference, by looks, by dress, by accent, by mannerisms, etc. Without an in-depth interview the German may never know the difference. However, if you took an American from Vermont and a Canadienne from Quebec, anyone would be able to point out differences. All of these differences would be cultural, none of them would be national. So what is nationhood? My dictionary defines it as a group having similar descent, culture and language, but this obviously doesn't work, even from within my own country. Granted, there are nations for whom this definition works better, France is full of French people, Sweden's full of Swedes... French culture and Swedish culture are quite different. However, in older countries, such as those in Europe, smaller countries with close neighbours, over the years these people have learned to get along. Of course they fought, establishing the borders they protect and cherish, but now, for the most part, there is no nation fighting any other. They remain distinct, in their cultures, they remain defined by their nations and they remain contained by their borders.

George Carlin, one of my favourite philosophers, has a bit in his comedy routine where he explains his confusion about national pride. Pride, he says, is reserved for something we have done, an achievement. One cannot feel pride for being born Irish, that was just the luck of the draw, you might have been born Scottish. Be happy to be Irish, or Scottish, or whatever. Save pride for something you had something to do with. If, like an individual, a Nation seeks to express its distinctiveness, it is welcome to, encouraged to and expected to, from within its borders. It is when that distinctiveness is disseminated outside the nation that problems can arise. Such as demonstrated by any war you care to mention as well as certain current political, economic or social philosophies actively exemplify. When the individual (or perhaps even, small group,) takes the idea and turns it into action, they express something. When a nation takes an idea and turns it into action, that nation insists on something.

Perhaps, as I am the son of two nations, with an American Mother and Canadian Father, I am particularly well suited to speak to this concern. It seems to me that nationhood matters little, if at all. It isn't national pride that turns us into soldiers or football hooligans, it is just a front for other emotions that need to be expressed, or some action for which we feel we must reciprocate. There is a mean to be achieved in this intentional sphere. An excess of “sense of nationhood, I presume, is called nationalism. For some, this is not an excess, we are to be patriotic, lest we be traitors. Nationalism, really is just Patriotism, they are the same thing because you are a patriot of a Nation. We give our countries the powers they have over us in the same way we react to the news, advertising or any other socially engineered programme. Sometimes the things that patriots brag about making their countries “great” are really the things that distinguish so-called first world and third-world nations. All this does is prove that patriots are proud of their fortune. However, if they are correct and live virtuously, they may lay claim to their nationalism as being eudaemonic. I'm not saying being patriotic is wrong, I'm saying doing anything without it being promotive is wrong. There are certainly armies full of patriots, now and in the past, running around the globe ruining peoples lives.

So why are we patriotic? Why does nationhood matter? I think if you reduce the question far enough, you can come to an answer. We must get past mere opinions about the beauty of the land, past our confusing “nationhood” with “culture.” There are too many cultures in my nation for this to be of any use in our definition, not to mention multitudes of subcultures. I can be a Muslim (culture) African (culture) raised in France (culture) living in Canada (nation and culture.) Then, if I am an eighteen year old ballet dancer, how are “ballet culture” and “youth culture” going to figure into this equation? Culture must be removed from nationalism for this to work. So if I am patriotic, if nationhood matters to me, it must be because of some general idea about the overall quality of life I experience. The possible subsets of opinions are too great to narrow down. Let us ask, what is it that all patriots share? A love of their collective identity. Well, racists share that too, again, it's a cultural thing. Is it possible to have an identity based upon the mere geographical placement on the Earth? Only if your nation and culture are synonymous, which does occur. However, when this is the case, it is culture determining those things that we are patriotic about. It is these things that matter more than the traits we share with other nations. This is a measurement of ingroup, the idea of defending it is an appeal to authority and the idea that it is right, righteous, or God given is an appeal to sanctity. These concerns were dumped by me when I reduced the number of cardinal virtues to three, Harm/Care, Justice/Fairness and Prudence. If I ask myself to consider the virtue of being a Canadian from within only these concerns and while leaving culture out of it, I am left with meaningless x and y positions on a map.

I think, in the end, nationhood, having a mean and being causally self-referential, is of little value, but I do cheer on Team Canada every four years during the winter Olympics. I think this is the domain of patriotism, on ice, as in: very slippery. You have to be careful. I love where I live, I'm happy to be here, but I'm not particularly proud to be Canadian, or American for that matter. In fact, I'm ashamed because we could be doing so much more than we are. In fact, in a lot of ways, we're the bad guys. We're greedy and spoiled. 
So, what are you proud of?


  1. Thanks for this. I'm writing a research paper on the Pledge of Allegiance, it helps to read views on patriotism. We think the same, and I think we're a minority, so every little discussion helps, right?

  2. Happy to help Emily. I hope your fared well with your paper.

  3. You are welcome Cik Ton, happy to help.


Thanks for commenting.