Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Return (for now)

Okay folks (all two of you) I'm back. I thought that in order to balance school work and a return to the blog, I'd ease myself back into this by posting my work in school. The following is the first research paper I've had to write in almost 20 years! The assignment was to find an excerpt from our text, Power and Choice, An Introduction to Political Science by W. Phillips Shively, and take a position on it. The difficulty for me was finding something Shively wrote that I could find an arguement against. It is, after all, a basic introduction to politics and government. It is a text comprised mostly of indisputable facts. Then, I stumbled across the following quote:

"One striking, and sometimes disturbing, reality about the modern state is the way it has been able to enlist its people in its cause. Citizens of a state generally identify themselves strongly with it and will defend it with passion. This passionate identification with a nation, or a state riding on the coattails of a nation, is called nationalism, and like any passion, it can make people noble or base. An alternative word is patriotism, which is actually more directly associated with the state. Some have performed great acts of courage and self-sacrifice under the influence of this sentiment, and others have carried out cowardly assassinations and brutal massacres under the same influence. Whether it makes people noble or ignoble, nationalism is undeniably convenient for governments." (W. Phillips Shively, Power and Choice, page 59)

Mr. Shively’s definition of nationalism and patriotism, while accurate and descriptive, is incomplete in his implication that the two terms are synonymous. “Great acts of courage and self-sacrifice” and “cowardly assassinations and brutal massacres” have been committed in the name of both nationalism and patriotism alike, and each can “make people noble or ignoble”, but there is enough of a difference in their definitions that they merit further distinction. While it can be said that “nationalism is undeniably convenient for governments”, patriotism, with its own definition, can be quite the opposite.

I remember the patriotic atmosphere in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area in the weeks and months immediately following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. American flags were proudly flown from highway bridges, in front of suburban townhouses and adorned by nearly every car navigating the Capital Beltway. There was talk of justice, talk of vengeance. Paper targets with Osama Bin Laden’s image on them became popular items at gun ranges. It felt good to be an American. According to an Associated Press article published just five weeks after 9/11, Michigan State University conducted a survey in which ninety percent of respondents claimed to be “proud to be an American” ("Surge of Patriotism In Schools Leads To Questions About Right To Dissent," 2001). I was right there with that ninety percent and accordingly, I stickered my car, flew my flag and cried, “We must do whatever it takes to find those responsible and bring them to justice!” Like many of us, I supported our government's efforts to accomplish that task, even though I did not fully understand its methods. I felt like a patriot, but what I was actually participating in was nationalism.

Nationalism is a blind devotion to one's nation, and the state that accompanies it, without regard for how it conducts its affairs. Qiong Li and Marilynn Brewer from Ohio State University take the definition a step further, describing nationalism as “chauvinistic arrogance and desire for dominance in international relations” (Li & Brewer 2004). Essentially, it is everything a government could want in a soldier, or a civilian for that matter. What better, more efficient way to give orders or create policy than with little or no opposition? This is the “convenience” outlined by Shively, and it is necessary for a government to be successful. It should be no surprise then that governments will make a concerted effort to foster nationalism. Shortly after 9/11, the Nebraska State Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse 1949 law requiring students to learn patriotic songs. In the same time period, the United States House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the words “God Bless America” be proudly displayed in public schools. Both were designed to inflate the bubble of nationalism that was naturally occurring as a result of 9/11. They were also presented to the public under the guise of patriotism, a far more palatable term than nationalism, further blurring the distinction that Shively failed to note.

Patriotism is also based on a devotion to one’s nation and its government, but with an educated, deeper understanding of how it operates, and protesting what one believes to be wrong with it. It is the desire to better one's nation through debate, dissent and the democratic process. The Founders of the United States were true patriots in this sense. Americans were dissatisfied with the ruling regime in England, and protest led to revolution, independence and the creation of a new, improved government. Whistle-blowers in government offices who expose mismanagement and wrongdoers are acting in the spirit of true patriotism. It is this element of dissent that leads to criticism of patriots by nationalists. Terms like un-American and unpatriotic are thrown about by nationalists when true patriots protest in a democratic, non-violent way about the policies of their state. Barack Obama, while still a Senator campaigning for the Presidency in late 2007, was sharply criticized by opponents when he stopped wearing his nationalist American flag lapel pin. His response, as reported by the Chicago Sun Times, "The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security." (Golab &Pallasch 2007)

If dissent is a core component of true patriotism, then it cannot be considered "convenient" for the ruling regime. In fact, it can be downright harmful. Consider the extreme case of domestic terrorism, most notably Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 of his countrymen, most of them employees of the United States government, with a truck bomb in Oklahoma in 1995. Not exactly "convenient" for anyone, particularly the government. It was McVeigh's twisted form of patriotic protest to an incident he believed was mishandled by the government. He never expressed any remorse for his crime, and until his execution, he believed he had done the right thing for his country. While many American patriots might agree with McVeigh philosophically or ideologically, and that dissent is indeed called for, it is safe to say the vast majority of them disagree with his methods.

Clearly then, patriotism is not an alternative term for nationalism. It is true that both are founded on a love of one's country, but with dissent as the primary dividing line, the similarities end there. We can see that nationalism, as well as its wrongly perceived interchangeability with patriotism, is indeed convenient for governments, while true patriotism, with the element of dissent, is not. Like a parent who supports a son or daughter no matter who they are or who they become, all the while teaching them right from wrong, a good American is one who can find an appropriate balance of both nationalism and patriotism.


Surge of Patriotism In Schools Leads To Questions About Right To Dissent (2001 October 18) Associated Press. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from

Li, Q. & Brewer, M. (2004) What Does It Mean to Be an American? Patriotism, Nationalism, and American Identity After 9/11. Political Psychology, 25(5), 727-739.

Golab, A. & Pallasch, M. (2007, October 5) Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved June 21, 2009, from,CST-NWS-obama05.article