Is Teaching Patriotism Justified?

by Harry on April 24, 2006

Peter Levine has a post objecting to my argument in chapter 6 of On Education that schools should not teach patriotism. Peter makes the case for patriotism (understood as “love of country”) being a legitimate feeling in itself, and that it has various instrumental benefits, in particular that it encourages citizens to participate in the affairs of the nation, and that it can play an important role in moral development, training the sentiments to attach beyond the confines of those we are immediately attached to, and therefore helping our characters to learn the virtue of impartial justice. (See also, Sigal Ben-Porath’s nice new book, Citizenship under Fire : Democratic Education in Times of Conflict ). He then tackles two of the main arguments I make against teaching patriotism; that if its agencies promote love of country the state interferes with the development of authentic, legitimacy-producing, consent, and that using, say, History teaching to produce patriotism can conflict with other more academic goals of History teaching (like, e.g., getting the students to learn the truth!). He points out that learning the full truth about Rosa Parks’s involvement in politics can increase one’s sense of attachment to the nation (as it did his) and describes an interesting hands on history project with black students in a local school which was aimed in part at cementing their attachment to their own communities.

Peter’s post is lengthy (if concise), and rather than reproduce it I’ll assume that readers have followed the link and done the reading. Here’s my response:

1. I agree that patriotic sentiment, as he conceives of it, is legitimate. And I agree that we have a particular obligation to try and “understand and be interested in” the lives of those immediately around us.

2. I also agree that patriotism has diverse content; different people with quite different visions of what the society around them is like and should be like can equally count as patriotic. I don’t think that socialists or Roman Catholics (outside Vatican City) are by definition unpatriotic.

3. Finally I agree that patriotism can play the role in assisting the development of our sentiments to bring them more in line with the demands of impartial justice, even in countries which gain (all things considered) from the unjust inequalities in the world.

But I am still skeptical about teaching patriotism. In some places at some times, a clear-headed and what Eamonn Callan calls ‘morally apt’ patriotism is congruent with a sense of justice. But this congruence of patriotic feeling with a sense of justice is a happy accident, and something we cannot rely on. When teachers try to inculcate a just patriotism in children when teaching, say, History, not only do they jeopardize other, more academic aims of teaching History, but they also risk, despite their intentions, reinforcing the unjust patriotic feeling that the students are imbibing from other parts of the culture. My life has been divided between 2 countries in which the dominant strands of patriotism were not congruent with, but at odds with, a sense of justice as I and Peter understand justice. To make matters worse, patriotic sentiment often works directly against other solidaristic ties which assist a sense of justice in the circumstances; most notably working class solidarities.

Patriotic solidarities tend to jeopardize not only domestic justice, but also international justice. Of course there’s a question, which nobody could possibly answer in a blog post, about what precisely are the limits and extents of the partiality that a “morally apt” patriot can show. But in order for love country to be a real motivating force there must be some level of partiality that compatriots are permitted to show to each other. To the extent that the compatriotic beneficiaries of an unjust global order show each other favoritism that has opportunity costs in terms of what they could have done for (by hypothesis unjustly) worse off foreigners.

A case in point is the tendency of Americans to target a large proportion of their voluntary charitable giving to domestic causes. In 2002 less than 2% of tax deductible contributions in the US went to organizations whose primary interest was international, and far from all of that went to organizations concerned with relieving poverty. Could legitimate patriotic partiality really justify such neglect of the least advantaged even in matters of voluntary giving? I’m not even worrying here about the way that American (or British, or French, or Chinese) patriotism might make people myopic about the bad effects of their governments’ behaviors toward others; I’m worrying about the way that patriotic sentiment shores up a tendency to neglect distant others in great need.

When deciding whether to teach patriotism, then, we have to weigh the possible benefits and the possible costs, without a great sense of what the probabilities are of those costs and benefits being realised. So, its always going to be a matter of judgment. But in our circumstances my judgment is, don’t do it.



soubzriquet 04.24.06 at 2:17 pm

Is it possible, pedagogically, to instill patriotism without significant risk of instilling jingoism?

I certainly don’t find that students in the US, for example, are particularly lacking in patriotism. The same cannot be said for their having a realistic view of history (domestic or foreign), world events, international justice, etc.


abb1 04.24.06 at 2:24 pm

Agree with Soubzriquet: teach them not be chauvinistic and if you succeed what’s left will be exactly the right amount of partiotism.


fred lapides 04.24.06 at 2:40 pm

I am not sure what patriotism really is. When I taught, I taught my subject and avoided politics generally, but if students somehow wanted to or managed to bring politics into a discussion, I would be careful to announce what my personal view was and that what it was was my bias. But in general, politics, god, and abortion were subjects I found best avoided and so in essay writing, I told my students to find other topics, subjects less likely to raise blood pressures among the class or readers (me) of papers.

Patriotism? I marched against Viet Nam war but served twice in the American army, once in a war zone (Korea).


Steve LaBonne 04.24.06 at 2:43 pm

Alas, I don’t quite see a way to have the feature (public education) without the bug (instillment of popular / politically approved sentiments). To forestall one possible reply, I don’t think alternate delivery schemes like vouchers would help; he who pays the piper will ultimately call the tune in any case.


Uncle Kvetch 04.24.06 at 2:43 pm

Lord knows I’ve tried to figure out what a non-nationalistic, non-chauvinistic, non-jingoistic, “progressive” patriotism would look like, I really have. And maybe it’s only because I’m an American that I have such a hard time conceiving of patriotism as anything more than “Shut up and fly this flag…or else.” But the more I think about it, the more I think GBShaw nailed it: “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” Every day seems to bring fresh evidence in his support.


jet 04.24.06 at 2:56 pm

“I’m worrying about the way that patriotic sentiment shores up a tendency to neglect distant others in great need.”

Tell someone how few children make it through school in Brazil (11 per cent of children are completing eight years of primary school by age 15.) and you’ll blow their mind. Ask them to help do something about it, and they’ll tell you it isn’t their problem.


Sharon 04.24.06 at 4:07 pm

Isn’t the point of school education to teach children the stuff they don’t simply pick up as they go along? We learn patriotism from the cradle to the grave. It’s a total waste of education resources to bring it into the classroom as well.


Brett Bellmore 04.24.06 at 4:10 pm

I was under the impression that “teaching patriotism”, very generally defined, was in fact the predominant rationale for having a government run education system in the first place, rather than just issuing “school stamps”.

Jet, it isn’t their problem. Might be nice if they helped with it anyway, but it’s simply the case that other people’s problems ARE other people’s problems.


Colin Danby 04.24.06 at 4:27 pm

Some problems in Levine:

1. It’s not clear in his writing what “teach” means. Sometimes it means to implant beliefs. Sometimes it means a more academic kind of teaching, with the hope that if students know their national history, they will learn to love their nation.

2. Reltedly, Levine can’t make up his mind between an academically-rigorous version of national history and a carefully-selected version intended to implant particular moral lessons. Note the false choice here:

“history should be taught truthfully, but it must also be taught selectively. There is no such thing as a neutral or truly random selection of topics.”

All teaching of history and all writing of history is by definition selective — otherwise you would just publish archives. He’s trying to maneuver us into a kind of relativism which would then make the nationalist version the best of the lot.

3. His patriotism itself is of a curiously milk-and-water variety, defined as things like love and obligation to which nobody can object. But of course those things overlap boundaries. If you look carefully, he grounds the argument for nation as a unit on the fact that nation corresponds to the policy-making government, a circular argument. More generally is Levine’s account a plausible representation of patriotism?

If one instead rephrased this as teaching civics, on the grounds that people ought to know how their governments work, and teaching world history including national and indeed local history, what exactly would be lost?


jet 04.24.06 at 4:33 pm

At some level it most certainly is. For example, the huge amounts of military aid sent to Columbia is putting pressure on FARC and gang to relocate to Brazil. If we meddle in other country’s affairs, we should be doing it to better the world.


nobody.really 04.24.06 at 5:46 pm

The US Founders shared one thing in common: they all betrayed their country, England. How exactly do we promote loyalty to a country that was founded on the principle that we should cherish principle above loyalty to country? At least to an American, it is hard to overlook this conflict.

And if we teach principles – equality before the law, ruling by the consent of the governed, accountability to the public, etc. – do we really need to teach patriotism? Can we not let each student draw her own conclusions about the importance of mutual aid and civic participation?

I’d like to think so. But I acknowledge that this philosophical question is influenced by two factual questions: What is the role of emotion in education? And how much “social cohesion” do we need for self-preservation?

I suspect that emotion has an irreducible place in education. I forget facts, but I remember stories that pit “us” good guys against “them” bad guys. (E.g., colonists resisting king’s taxation without representation.) The story helps me remember the facts. Only later do I try to shrug off the story so that I can analyze the facts from other points of view. (E.g., king taxed colonists to defray cost of defending them during the French & Indian Wars; king could have taxed people in England to cover this debt, but that would have meant taxing the relatively poor people in England for the benefit of the relatively rich people in the colonies.) Does education really require emotion-laden, us-vs-them stories? And if so, are there any less pernicious ways of defining “us” than by nationality?

How much cohesion do we require as a nation? To me, a divided society is a healthy society. During the 2000 elections, the US is about as divided as it gets. Dissent was everywhere. The news reflected concerns that “racial profiling” was violating individual’s rights. Following the attacks of 9/11/01, in contrast, the US was largely united. We adopted the Patriot Act, people began being arrested and held without charge indefinitely, and concerns about racial profiling evaporated. We patriotically rallied to promote the collective interests of society, even at the cost of individual interests.

Patriotic rallying looks like an adaptive response to threat, but a maladaptive attribute otherwise. How little patriotism can we get away with to ensure an adequate supply during emergencies, but no more than an adequate supply?


Max Hansen 04.24.06 at 6:22 pm

I’m afraid that any distinction we may want to make between nationalism and patriotism may be more illusion than reality.

I admit there are reasons I owe a bit more to my fellow Americans than to the people of France or Burundi or Nepal. But the only one that comes to mind that might fit the concept of patriotism is that my compatriots are somehow pledged to defend and protect America, and since this is my home, they are pledged to defend and protect me. Mutuality in this matter is probably a good thing; I feel I owe them the same.

However, this reason doesn’t even carry me as far as believing I owe my compatriots armed defense and protection. This fact leads me to say that I defend my country by keeping it as just and as inoffensive as possible. “Righteousness exalts a nation,” and I think I’d believe this even I weren’t a Christian.

But for most people to whom patriotism matters a good deal, this attitude hardly qualifies as patriotic.

And beyond this small nod I make toward patriotism, all the other reasons I owe more to Americans than to others have only to do with my resources, given me as a citizen. I have more responsibility to America because it has given me more responsibility and more power to act.

I have more voice in the US than I have in France or Burundi or Nepal. I have the vote here, not there, and that vote is on many levels, each of which effects the others. I have more economic clout here than there. There are many levers I may legitimately pull here to effect change that I simply don’t have over there.

Leading me to agree with Colin Danby that if the matter were reframed as civics rather than patriotism, it would be hard to deny the importance of teaching it.


Pithlord 04.24.06 at 6:59 pm

I agree with Levine. Patriotism is a good thing, as long as we don’t imagine that it is the only good thing. No reasonable person doubts that crimes have been committed in the name of patriotism, but the history of the last century shows that pretty much any political idea, including solidarity with the wretched of the earth, can become totalitarian if it is exclusive.

In Canada, we have provincial educational systems (and often denominational or racial ones, as well.) The last thing such an educational system wants to do is make controversial patriotic statements. But the result is not a wonderful critical history. In Quebec, the result is propaganda, and everywhere else, it is the progressive retreat from any kind of history whatsoever.

Without patriotism as a motive, why learn history at all? The curriculum is zero sum, and the actual result will be that history is displaced in favour of more instrumental subjects.


anon 04.24.06 at 7:15 pm

“A case in point is the tendency of Americans to target a large proportion of their voluntary charitable giving to domestic causes. In 2002 less than 2% of tax deductible contributions in the US went to organizations whose primary interest was international, and far from all of that went to organizations concerned with relieving poverty. Could legitimate patriotic partiality really justify such neglect of the least advantaged even in matters of voluntary giving?” I really don’t think this is an issue of patriotism run amuck.

In my opinion this has to do with issues alluded to by Max Hansen: “There are many levers I may legitimately pull here to effect change that I simply don’t have over there.” Much as I may wish to help the poor in foreign countries, I don’t trust the vehicles I have for giving aid. At least when I work/give charity in my country or my locality I have some ability to discern whether the organization to whom I give is exercising good judgement in how it uses my contribution. As well I believe in contributing my time, and have acted on this belief by extensive donation of volunteer time to efforts in my community. This inherently is local, unless one chooses to be a fundraiser. Not all of us can contribute in the same way.

As for foreign poverty, I believe that inter-government efforts are likely to be more successful, except in the case of megadonors like Bill Gates, who have the ability to scrutinize the use of their giving in detail.


harry b 04.24.06 at 7:33 pm

I’d like to believe that anon’s epistemic considerations were the central motivation here. I don’t know what proportion of giving goes to national but not local US based efforts; the more of it there is, the less persuaded I am that epistemic considerations are at work. Certainly, though, a good deal of quite local giving has this quality, but also a “close to my heart” motivation that has some legitimacy.

Could someone explain to people motivated by anon’s epistemic considerations how they can tell what Oxfam is doing?


joel turnipseed 04.24.06 at 7:44 pm

I believe Gates qualifies as a gigadonor…

As to patriotism: heh. Unless we so water this down as to be teaching standard civics traditions (including those of protest and constitutional change–and their limits, as evidenced by the grizzly spectacle of 1861-65), it’s worse than bad. What was it Thoreau said: “…a maggot in our heads?” If there were truly a matter of needing to defend your neighbor, you’d just fight (many Quakers fought in U.S. Civil War). And if, on the other hand, you were just being used as a tool for economic/imperial interests, our media have been good enough at pressing that line that we’ve never had a problem getting our guns up.

I just finished reviewing Sallah & Weiss’s Tiger Force, the book-length elaboration of their 2003 Pulitzer winning story of a U.S. special forces unit’s war crimes in Vietnam, and if one thing is made crystal clear: to the extent that jingoism, xenophobia, and discounting of human rights prevail, disaster will follow (including, devastatingly in many cases, for those enchanted by the jingoism, etcetera).


Danny Yee 04.24.06 at 7:59 pm

My main problem with patriotism is that any positive aspects seem minor compared with the possible downside — pretty much every major genocide or ethnic cleansing I can think of seems to have been underpinned by some kind of patriotic nationalism. Encouraging loyalty to symbols — flags, anthems, nations, etc. — may seem innocuous, but who knows how that sentiment may be used in fifty years?


Peter Levine 04.24.06 at 8:04 pm

Thanks, Harry, for the link, for the thoughtful response, and for prompting good comments from others.

It’s easier to say what outcome one wants than what kind of education will get us there. I want people to recognize that all human lives have equal value. They should not commit or condone sins of omission or commission against human beings in foreign countries as a result of placing more value on the lives of their fellow citizens. Giving only 2% of charity to foreign or international agencies (the statistic that Harry notes) is a sin of omission–although giving 50% would surely pass muster, even though most of the human need is abroad. (In other words, some partiality seems acceptable, but not as much as we observe in today’s America.) Our handling of Iraq involves several sins of commission, in my opinion. Both sins may be traced, at least to a degree, to Americans’ not caring enough about foreigners.

(Note, however, that our lack of interest may also prevent us from ever being effective imperialists, which is a good thing. In the 1/12/06 New York Review of Books, which–characteristically–I am reading now, John Gray writes, “The fervent, inward-looking nationalism [of] the US military does not encourage any sustained interest in other societies.” Effective imperialists need “sustained interest”; that’s what motivates them to learn the languages and cultures of the peoples they subjugate. The US military puts “force protection” ahead of sustained engagement with foreign nations, and that is one reason that we will not stay long in Iraq or Afghanistan.)

While I want Americans to care about humanity, I also want them to participate politically in their own regime–if only so that they can try to improve its foreign policy. Participation requires caring about national institutions, knowing how to vote and protest, and understanding a nation’s rhetorical traditions and political culture sufficiently to be an effective advocate.

Harry writes, “Patriotic solidarities tend to jeopardize not only domestic justice, but also international justice,” as people show favoritism toward their fellow citizens. I acknowledge that problem. But there is also the serious possibility that people will care neither about foreigners nor about their fellow citizens–at least, not enough to act. A legitimate purpose of civic education is to broaden concern beyond the self and the family. Going all the way to humanity is OK with me if it’s really possible and if it leads to civic action. I suspect we’re better off, in practice, aiming for an ethical form of patriotism.

With that goal in mind, I made two propositions–no doubt in a muddled way–about the education we need. These propositions are highly empirical and contingent.

First, I argued that kids should be given a substantially favorable portrait of their own country’s institutions and traditions at an early age, because that builds attachment. If you don’t form a commitment to national institutions at age 8 or 11, you won’t bother to criticize those institutions at age 25. This is not true for everyone, but as a developmental theory, it has empirical support. By the way, it doesn’t require a sanitized grade-school history, but it means that young students should be deliberately exposed to favorable views of the US Constitution, Lincoln, the Civil Rights Movement, and other highlights.

Second, I argued that we should give disproportionate attention to facts and issues from our own national history, because people need to understand that context in order to participate effectively. As children get older, the approach to history and politics should become more analytical and critical, but the focus should remain on our own nation.

Colin Danby (#9) asks: “If one instead rephrased this as teaching civics, on the grounds that people ought to know how their governments work, and teaching world history including national and indeed local history, what exactly would be lost?” I do favor the curriculum that Danby describes, except that I think younger children benefit from a depiction of US institutions that is largely favorable. Furthermore, something like half of our social studies curriculum should be devoted to national history and civics. That is much more attention than the USA deserves on purely intellectual grounds, but it is appropriate because we are trying to prepare and motivate people to participate in the nation’s politics.


Quo Vadis 04.24.06 at 8:22 pm

I question how much control the US government has over the content of public education. Much of it is controlled at the state and local level – witness our ongoing battles with the teaching of creationism. Even individual teachers have a lot of leeway in what is presented and how. Teachers in California are tenured after two years employment.


Quo Vadis 04.24.06 at 9:05 pm


One might say that every major genocide or ethnic cleansing is a consequence of the absence of a sufficiently inclusive communal identity that could, in some contexts be called patriotism.


y81 04.24.06 at 9:26 pm

In the absence of patriotism or some other sentiment of which Harry disapproves, the result is not generalized altruism, but utter selfishness. So Americans will not increase their foreign giving to above 2% of the total, but eliminate the other 98%. In this context, let us remember the phrase quoted here (I am paraphrasing): “It would be wonderful if the soup kitchens and homeless shelters of America were staffed by ACLU members and secular humanists. (Not to mention professors from the local university.) But they aren’t. They are staffed by volunteers from the local churches.”

Similarly, it would be wonderful if the men who stormed Fort Wagner and Omaha Beach were motivated by love for humanity. But seriously, who would get out of bed for that crap? Those men died for flag and country. From a Darwinian perspective, those who don’t believe in particular yet fictive loyalties are such losers, they are barely worth engaging. They are the John Calhouns of history.


harry b 04.24.06 at 9:35 pm

y81; do you think that Americans are intrinsically less capable of concern for foreigners than, say, Western Europeans? I don’t, myself. But then, I’m a foreigner here, perhaps I see the better side of people.

BTW, born in 1963 I obviously didn’t know anyone who died in WWII; I’ve only known survivors. Not a single one I have spoken to said they were motivated by love of flag and country. Some got out of bed for precisely “that crap”, so they said. Contemptible? I don’t think so, myself.


anon 04.24.06 at 10:44 pm

Harry, I believe volunteer activity is more prevalent in the U.S. than in some other countries, and many people give their time rather than or in addition to money. Of course that doesn’t show up in the statistics on charitable giving. Nor would it be likely to fall on the “international” side of the ledger. (However, in my community many of the teenagers I know, including my own two, spent their high school spring breaks building houses in Mexico. I doubt that their labor or their materials appeared in your statistics.) How can you weigh the hungry child or the abused woman in a shelter here against a suffering person across the planet? To turn your back on the person you can see and who can look back at you so that you can send a check to Oxfam because some abstract suffering scale is outweighed by the people at a distance just seems to turn acts of charity into an algebraic equation. Are you saying to the person close to home, “Sorry, you aren’t suffering enough”?


goatchowder 04.24.06 at 10:52 pm

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measels of mankind.” — Albert Einstein


Seth Edenbaum 04.24.06 at 11:00 pm

Democracy like justice is not a cumulative understanding in the sense that science is. Each generation needs to chose it: needs to face the same risks and to discover for themselves the reasons to be patriotic. Patriotism (in the sense of patriotism directed towards democracy itself and not the state one’s born in) is merely the byproduct of a good humanist education.
You’re making the case for every damn argument I’ve ever had on this site.


Aidan Kehoe 04.25.06 at 1:32 am

Goatchowder, #24; And then when the nationalism was one that clearly included him, he declared himself Zionist. It’s fuсking hard to escape.


Martin James 04.25.06 at 1:44 am

I’m so tempted to say “Don’t you know that you can’t teach values; that ‘s why instilling patriotism is so important!”

All this talk of justice is so absurd it just makes my head hurt. Its that justice is so obviously right, yet’s its equally obviously impossible to even begin to act justly. I mean what practical answer is there to anon’s question about the distribution of charity dollars. There is no answer, but anon is obviously being unjust in giving undue weight to local circumstances. (Unless justice follows some kind of inverse square law.)

I mean any rich kid that actually took justice seriously would be subject to guilt beyond measure. Its almost cruel to even bring it up to the little ones.

Again, I think Harry’s likely correct to be sceptical of teaching patriotism, but its just impossible not to “do patriotism”.

First of all, in many places language is correlated with politcal power. What possible reason other than linguistic patriotism, for teaching in the local language. And so we are forced into a choice between, tradition, equal time for all languges, token multi-lingualism and pragmatic language offerings.

As with language so literature. As with literature, so with history. As with history, so with social science. And if one is to believe the social scientists, as with social science , so with science and technology.

Interestingly enough, I may have come to some of these opinions from an experiment in not teaching patriotism.

Harry may have heard of a program called MACOS ( Man: A Course of Study) developed by Jerome Bruner . It replaced the traditional civics class in fifth grade with a study of Eskimo culture, bushman culture and Baboon behavior.

At my 20 year high school reunion a few years back, a group of about 20 of us recounted how we were taught to act baboon grooming rituals and play whale hunting games. I don’t know how the baboon troops and eskimos are doing, but it certainly bonded us.

The program ended after a few years in the back to basics backlash of the late 1970’s.

Now back to ability to teach values. I don’t know what, if any, values I was supposed to learn but what I did learn was that people the world over and justice means ” You eat what you kill. “


abb1 04.25.06 at 2:08 am

First, I argued that kids should be given a substantially favorable portrait of their own country’s institutions and traditions at an early age, because that builds attachment.

This sounds to me like a really terrible idea. At that point, why not just give them a substantially favorable portrait of The Great Leader (it’s merely a shortcut: he is a consequence of these great institutions and traditions anyway) and get it over with.


kth 04.25.06 at 2:49 am

First, I argued that kids should be given a substantially favorable portrait of their own country’s institutions and traditions at an early age, because that builds attachment.

But one would never make this argument regarding the teaching of the history of a country that had gone through a really evil patch, like Germany or Cambodia or Uganda. Thus making this argument commits you to, or implies, a benign or favorable judgment towards the country under study. Not that America or the UK are remotely as bad as Cambodia was, just that taking this pedagogical position commits you to viewing the country’s history through relatively rose-tinted glasses yourself. I don’t see how this conundrum can be avoided.

Not that I would minimize the danger of a “warts and all” approach: kids who are taught that their country is a bad place are more likely to be alienated than radicalized.


Danny Yee 04.25.06 at 6:34 am

In response to #20.

Would more patriotism/natonalism really have helped in Yugoslavia and Rwanda? Was Tito’s failing that he was too internationalist and not nationalist enough?

I think the kind of social integration that would prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing has to be deeper – patriotism by itself can just paper over the divides of race or religion (or class).


Peter Levine 04.25.06 at 7:06 am

In response to #28: Almost every American kid hears a largely positive national story in school, involving Pocohontas and Captain John Smith, Ben Franklin with his kite, Betsy Ross, George Washington, Honest Abe, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. The teachers who present this material don’t naturally slip into talk of the Great Leader.

In response to #29: A positive description of the US makes sense, in part, because America is a good and improving regime. Not all regimes are as good. However, I would hope that modern German kids get (along with attention to the holocaust) a positive evaluation of the Federal Republic and its constitution.


stostosto 04.25.06 at 7:53 am

“Patriotism” means “love of country” in the same way that “Jihad” means “struggle for self-betterment”.


James Kroeger 04.25.06 at 8:49 am

I would like to propose that Patriotism be recognized by all intellectuals as a ‘Suspect State-of-Mind.” It should be recognized as such, not for political reasons, but for ‘professional’ reasons. If the ultimate objective of living an Examined Life is discovering the Truth, then Patriotism must be viewed as one of those states-of-mind that has the scary potential to seductively blind us to the Truth, sometimes with devastating consequences.

During the 1930’s, the German people (and the Japanese people, as well) let their enjoyment of patriotic feelings lead them down a path that ended finally in their complete destruction and profound humiliation. Contrary to our propaganda films of the time, the German People were not all savage monsters who wanted to conquer the world and enslave all who were inferior to them. They were people just like you and me. They simply gave in to the desire to feel good about their country. What they fell for then is the same thing that Americans fall for today.

What people ‘fall for’ when they succumb to the patriotic state-of-mind is the good feelings they experience when they hear themselves being praised by patriotic speakers/authors. It is characteristic of this kind of praise that it is indirectly expressed. People normally find indirectly expressed approval much more enjoyable because attention is not directly focused on them at the time.

When we participate in the Group Comparison Game, we [normally] experience a feeling of pleasure whenever a member of our group criticizes a member of some other group (not us). If we mock their imperfections, we are implicitly asserting that the members of our group do not have those imperfections and that we therefore deserve praise for our superior level of perfection. Everyone understands this, on an intuitive level.

This same dynamic is at work in politics and war. Whenever we criticize our [external] enemies, we are praising ourselves, indirectly. That’s why patriotism feels so good (some have reported that their love of America is one of the primary sources of personally experienced happiness in their lives). So if it feels so good, what is the downside? Well, for one thing, it encourages people to “trust” leaders who (like Bush and Hitler) are criminally inept and misguided. The guy who’s been making you feel good about your country tells you that he needs to send the army out to fight a Noble Cause. You find yourself wanting to believe he’s right.

Because the emotional payoff of patriotism is so strong, Patriotic Intellectuals quite naturally become biased observers of the facts that unfold. It becomes extremely difficult to for them to recognize when criticism of their group is justified. That is why patriotism often becomes an obstacle to clear perception of the Truth. It may be possible for intellectuals to be both truly patriotic and intellectually objective, but the only way to really protect yourself from its seductive influence is by maintaining a constant concern re: the dangers of misguided patriotism.

What this means, ultimately, is that true intellectuals need to be willing to ‘fight it out’ with many of the individuals and groups out there in society who claim to be great patriots, but who are actually a great threat to the country they profess to love. When intellectuals challenge these so-called patriots, they need to insist that they are the true patriots in this country, who are trying to protect their country from the great harm that simple-minded patriotism can cause. In other words, we cannot be hoping to experience a comforting UNITY in such situations, but must be willing to subject them to a lot of ridicule, instead.


Aidan Kehoe 04.25.06 at 9:18 am

Peter Levine, #31; what are some ways in which the US is improving? I’m curious why you say that.


Martin James 04.25.06 at 9:18 am


Is the logic war is suspect, patriotism leads to war, therefore patriotism is suspect?

Or could the causality be reversed. War is bad, losing wars is worse than winning them, therefore patriotism exists.

I’m just not sure what the “objective truth” about war is. That it happens over and over and over and…?


harry b 04.25.06 at 9:37 am

anon; I didn’t mean to sound dismissive of your point, which is a good one in the abstract. There there are lots of legitimate reasons for attending to nearby urgent needs, including the epistemic reasons you give in your first comment, and (I think even more powerfully) the reason you articulate in your second comment; that needs of others exert an immediate pull on the motivations of decent people when they encounter it. These, and other reasons, could justify a great deal of locally focussed action even at the cost of some much more effective action at a distance to overcome much more urgent needs. So yes, I’m as appalled as you by the Mrs. Jellybys.

But when it comes to helping distant co-nationals and distant foreigners, why should we give preference to co-nationals? And whatever the answer to that is, does it justify giving in way that addresses only a small amunt of co-national need, even though the same amount of money would have addresses an enomrous amount of foreign need?

I can’t sort out the figures in the necessary way (because I don’t have them to hand, and even if I did there would be the methodological problems you raise, and others), but the question is how much of the domestic giving is local in the way your considerations legitimate, and how much is non-local, even though domestic. That’s the portion we should be thinking about. I worry that encouraging patriotism encourages people to give preference to co-nationals illegitimately (whereas educating children to become decent people will lead them legitimately to do lots of good things for people around them, most of whom will happen to be co-nationals).


harry b 04.25.06 at 9:40 am

PS, anon, Richard Miller has a terrific paper in Philosophy and Public Affairs which explains in a very fancier way why the insight in your second comment is right (before reading his paper I think I’d have been more dismissive). Its called “Beneficence, Duty and Distance” … and googling it I find it here:


jet 04.25.06 at 9:56 am

nobody.really in 11 hits the nail on the head. We shouldn’t be teaching patriotism at all. We should be teaching the ethics that our country/fellow citizens most cherish. Patriotism seems to do more to confuse those ethics than to reinforce them.

And nothing is more important than having ethical people.


Pithlord 04.25.06 at 11:31 am

The problem is that an abstract utilitarianism isn’t ethics. You can’t be a normal person, let alone a good one, without some particular loyalties.

Most of the commenters have loyalties that put them at odds with their national government. But you are deluding yourself if you think that means you have escaped the whole samsara of particular loyalties, and care equally about all humanity. You don’t. You just dislike your national government.

Any loyalty whatsoever can become demonic. Any loyalty can lead to atrocity. But children and youth need to address these issues. And it seems far more sensible to me to try to teach them that loyalty to their own is good, but only within limits, then to try to make them into little Peter Singers.


james 04.25.06 at 2:38 pm

There are plenty of people willing to teach that the United States is an evil country. Many of them teach in some of our finest Institutions of higher education. Is this really an issue?

On a more relevant note. National identity is different in the United States compared with other nations. It’s a shared set of ideals as apposed to a common race, religion, or culture.


soubzriquet 04.25.06 at 2:58 pm

40: Like Canada, or (less so) UK, or Australia, or … you mean?

There is a big difference between `teaching that the United States is an evil country’, and teaching accurate history, or avoiding blind patriotism (or worse, jingoism). You can study the mistakes made along with the triumphs, the failure to live up to ideas along with the ideals itself, no? Noting that a country has done evil and or stupid things as well as great things (to use a problematic terminology, but I’m just following along) is hardly judging it evil, right?

Oh, and if you feel that the nations finest institutions of higher learning education are full of (or even contain a significant number, e.g. `many’) people teaching that the US is evil, you are pretty much out to lunch, as far as I can see. So no, it wouldn’t be an issue, if some people weren’t dead set on pretending it were true, against all evidence….


Marcus Stanley 04.25.06 at 3:49 pm

Wow, what a great discussion. Maybe schools should just teach the debate about whether to teach patriotism, it’s very educational. (Peter seems to sort of suggest this in his post).

To my mind the most important issue is how we shape patriotism. I don’t think that public schools really have the choice *not* to teach patriotism, if you leave the field on such a powerful and important emotion to the jingoists then you are asking for disaster. I also agree with Peter that patriotism is a positive thing in certain ways. The question is how you can shape patriotism so it is in a critical tradition of holding one’s country to certain ideals vs. raw, unquestioning loyalty. And then how do you agree on those ideals. The fact that the “critical tradition” of patriotism has gotten associated with ideals that people think of as particular to one political party is a big issue in U.S. politics right now. And that’s not because most of those ideals are in themselves so questionable, but because the other party has chosen to emphasize a jingoist ideology.


james 04.25.06 at 5:32 pm

soubzriquet – Ever looked at the material for Feminist or Middle East studies? There are entire majors where people rail against the “male patriarchy” or “US imperialism”.


soubzriquet 04.25.06 at 6:00 pm

43: yes, actually; see my previous remark. I note you didn’t address the point(s).


harry b 04.25.06 at 7:21 pm


you;d be very hard put to find more than a smattering of people willing to teach that the US is evil in our institutions of higher ed; still harder put in high schools. Lots of people oppose US imperialism. most of them are patriots, just as most British opponents of British imperialism were. Really; what is extraordinary to me (as a Brit) is how much consensus there is among educators of right and left on the legitimacy of teaching patriotic sentiment. I agree with you, and other, by the way, that there is something more innocent about the ideas around which American patriotism is organised than those around which, say, English patriotism is organised.

marcus stanley — that is a great idea (and yes, what a good discussion). Any chance of my book being one of the texts?


Martin James 04.25.06 at 8:10 pm

harry b,

The concensus regarding legitimacy of teaching patriotism may be explained by the fact that it appeals both of the dominant moral systems, what George Lakoff refers to as Strict Father and Nururant Parent moral systems. I assume the strict father support of patriotism makes sense to you, its the whole-hearted support of the nurturant parent crowd that surprises you.

I would guess that patriotism, despite its war-mongering potential, still represents the responsibility and community themes that are central to the nurturant parent morality.

Or maybe its just that almost everyone thinks that “us” are better than “them”. Everything else is just choosing sides. (Darn there goes the strict father, life is competition meme again.)


tom bach 04.26.06 at 7:32 pm

If one teaches something is there not the requirement of testing the knowledge imparted? How would this work?

Essays (min 500 words):

Why is America so darned peachy?

Explain why living elsewhere would be unthinkable.

Answer the question: If we are so bad, why do they hate our freedom?

Or multiple guess (circle all that apply)

Sure, we invaded Iraq but we did not

a) participate in the Thirty Years’ War.
b) start WWI.
c) render the League of Nations impotent.
d) invade Poland.

Jackson’s Indian policy may have been misguided but

a) many Americans now feel badly about it.
b) casinos abound.
d) yeah, well Armenians, Jews, and Huguenots.
e) Remember the Alamo, er except for Tejano participation.

Optional Extra Credit:
List three Patriotic acts you performed today, and neither recycling nor enger conservation count.


engels 04.26.06 at 10:41 pm

Patriotism 101. Sample question.

It is rumoured that people in other countries may not all think quite as highly of our country as we do. Why do you think this might be?

Candidates who make a genuine effort to consider this possibility at length will automatically fail. The best answers will be confined to one or two sentences. The highest credit will be given to candidates who answer contemptuously and especially to those who are able to marshall clichés and absurdities in support of their opinions. Credit will also be given to those who indignantly reject the premise of the question as offensive or irrelevant. Candidates may wish to bring to bear historical ignorance they have developed through their lack of study of other papers. An ideal answer to this question would exhibit abuse of English words such as “freedom” combined with a pathological inability to comprehend the motivations of other human beings.


Pithlord 04.26.06 at 10:46 pm

“engels” clearly doesn’t want to distinguish between patriotism and jingoism. (The real Engels did, although frankly he was a bit of a jingo when it came to the Slavs.)


Gypsy Boots 04.27.06 at 2:19 pm

A few of you have adverted to the fundamental difference between American patriotism vs. other nationalisms. But let’s be clear.

European-style patriotism is based first on foremost on blood and birth. This has been somewhat muted and concealed since WWII made blood-nationalism suspect, but not as much as you might think. (I believe all identity-cards in Germany to this day have to include a code for your ethnic group. Greece just had a big debate over whether or not to continue requiring your religion on your ID card.) In many ways, nothing in Europe has replaced the loyalty to a royal dynasty (Hapsburgs, etc.)that once held together (shakily) a melange of feuding ethnic groups.

The EU certainly won’t do it; it’s already mostly dead, and I predict it will be quietly interred within a few years.

The other European reality is a commitment to the state as uber-parent.

American patriotism is not like that. It’s a commitment to a set of ideas and institutional arrangements, embodied in a constitution, the rule of law, and a very few “sacred” things and places (like the copies of the Constitution and Arlington National Cemetery).

Of course we have had racists, blood-nationalists, and European-style advocates of a parent-state, too, but the American idea has also been the basis for challenging these things.

American patriotism is not generic; it’s fundamentally different from that of the rest of the world. If that’s “exceptionalist,” so be it. In no European country would Nixon have lost office simply because he contravened the Constitution. Chirac commits greater enormities than Nixon every year, and it’s business as usual for France. It’s well known that if Chirac didn’t have the immunity from prosecution (!) the French head of state enjoys, he would be in jail for fraud, corruption and embezzlement. And no one over there (except for a few political opponents) even thinks that’s a big deal.

If European intellectuals from Derrida to Habermas can understand how American patriotism is different, why don’t some of the posters here get it? The millions of people who flock to our shores understand these things quite well. They’re not immigrating to be Democrats or Republicans, but Americans.

I always wondered why some of my lefty friends refused to display the American flag because only “jingoists” do. I ask them: So you’re willing to “give” the American flag to George Bush and the Republican Party? Displaying of not displaying the flag should say nothing about your views on Iraq or anything else.

Coda: A colleague of mine has spent years photographing and displaying photos of German churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Evangelical) in the Missouri River valley. He got some money from the German cultural attache to support his work. But when he asked about bring them to Germany, he was told this: “I don’t think you’ll get that much interest. Germans regard those people who left [i.e., in the waves of 19th-century emigration] as social trash and not really interesting.”

–After all this time! And despite the fact that we kicked their butts twice with their “rejects.” The rate of enlistment was highest among German-Americans.

And YES, we should be teaching these things! Why isn’t that a no-brainer?


engels 04.27.06 at 3:58 pm

Au contraire “pith” lord – I’d imagine Jingoism 101 would be more demanding, requiring facility with advanced techniques ranging from xenophobia to racism. Patriotism 101, on the other hand, would only require a run of the mill level of complacency and ignorance, which is possessed by any competent patriot.


abb1 04.28.06 at 3:45 am

American patriotism is not like that. It’s a commitment to a set of ideas and institutional arrangements, embodied in a constitution, the rule of law, and a very few “sacred” things and places (like the copies of the Constitution and Arlington National Cemetery).

Sure, same as so called ‘soviet patriotism’. But why would you call commitment to an abstract doctrine ‘patriotism’? Sounds more like ‘dogmatism’ or something…


Gypsy Boots 04.28.06 at 8:47 am

EXCEPT, abb1, that Soviet “patriotism” was a lie, and was known by everyone to be a lie. What motivated millions of Russians to fight and die facing the Nazis, was not “Soviet” patriotism, but old-fashioned Russian nationalism, which Stalin reactivated in desperation because he realized that Russians would not fight and die for “Communism”, despite official propoganda to the contrary. That’s why he unshackled the Russian Orthodox Church (partly) during the war.

Flip dismissals don’t add up to a rebuttal. My point remains unanswered.


Martin James 04.28.06 at 9:57 am

G boots:

The interesting thing is that the moral universalism that Harry B wants emphasized over patriotism, is very close to a scaled down american patriotism without borders:

Its just all men have inalienable rights with more emphasis on the “all” part.

Borders are just so last millenium.


abb1 04.28.06 at 12:53 pm

Gypsy Boots, I agree about the Soviets, but same is probably true about any ideology, incuding your ‘institutional arrangements embodied in a constitution’ thing. I can’t imagine why more people would be willing to die for the constitution than for communist manifesto, little red book or mein kampf.

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