A Tale of Two Anthems
Patriotism is a term so long ill-used that it is tempting to propose scrapping it completely. But if it is indeed “the last refuge of a scoundrel” as Samuel Johnson famously said, this is due more to the degradation of politics in general than to anything inherent in the idea of patriotism itself.
In my view, much of the harm can be attributed to the confusion between patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment behind the former is quite ancient, while the latter notion is relatively recent—dating perhaps no earlier than the 17th century. Patriotism as I define it is love of country in the oldest sense—i.e., love of the land and the people who live on it, along with their language and culture. Nationalism, on the other hand, really has nothing to do with love. It is allegiance to a state or government, commonly symbolized by a flag. The essence of nationalism is obedience to authority conceived as a primary virtue. Its expression is most often of a military nature, because the state defines itself essentially as separate and distinct from other states. This in-group against out-group stance lends itself perfectly to racist ideas as well, and in the modern era we often see nationalist movements taking on racist ideologies of one form or another.
The two words have, of course, been hopelessly muddled together in political discourse. The common view of patriotism nowadays is most often synonymous with nationalism. When you hear someone say, as Mitt Romney said recently, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, this is an expression of what is popularly considered patriotism. It is, however, nationalistic, because it finds value only by abstractly separating the country from other countries presumed to be inferior. The idea of dissent as patriotic, on the other hand, is foreign to the nationalist mind. To criticize the state is considered unpatriotic by nationalists, and it is significant that dissent is especially frowned upon in times of war, which is, conveniently, just about all the time.
An uncanny illustration of the difference between nationalism and patriotism is presented by two American songs, The Star-Spangled Banner, our official national anthem, and the popular patriotic song, America the Beautiful.
To reprint the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner in full would perhaps only confuse the reader, since its poetry is infamously and ineptly convoluted. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t far off when he wrote that the United States had the only national anthem consisting of “gibberish sprinkled with question marks.” For those few who are unfamiliar with the meaning of the song, such at is, it can be summarized as the musings of a person observing a night bombardment against an American fort and asking, in a rhetorical way, whether our flag is still up and waving. The impression aimed at is that no matter how fierce the attack may be, the flag will always fly proudly.
It’s an innocuous piece of writing, as such things go, I suppose, although the thoughtful listener may be excused for being a trifle embarrassed that his national anthem contains the words “bombs bursting in air.” I wouldn’t normally associate the love I feel for my country with such an image. But of course, as I said before, this isn’t about love of country. This is about the pride of loyalty and allegiance to a national power, and in typical nationalist fashion, the subject of the song is the piece of symbolic cloth on a pole.
A Canadian friend once confided to me how dumfounded he was observing the fetish we have in the U.S. about the flag. Flags are of course symbolic objects—the idea is that all eyes turn toward the symbol in an almost mystical unity of purpose—but I don’t think any other country has taken the flag thing and run with it to the degree that Americans have. In any case, it follows as a matter of course that the “pledge of allegiance” would be to the flag, and the wording even says, “…and to the republic for which it stands…,” a frank admission of the simplistic nature of the symbolism involved here. The idea of a country’s citizens being told to pledge allegiance conveys a certain insecurity that underlies nationalist thinking—a person’s value is tested and conferred by the state, rather than recognized as a birthright.
Now let’s turn to the other song, and here I will actually quote from the first stanza. The other stanzas get us into troublesome territory, but almost no one knows them or sings them.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
Love of the land is the first and primary characteristic of patriotism. Nationalism is concerned only with the abstraction of loyalty to a state. The land is just the place you happen to live, a place to be exploited for all it’s worth.
God shed his grace on thee
Well, the atheists will have a problem with this, and I understand that. However, religion is one of the main cultural aspects of a people, like it or not. And in this case, notice that God is not punishing sinners or calling us to arms against the heathen. God is being asked to shed grace on the country—a humble expression that is incomprehensible to a nationalist who believes only in pride, not humility, despite any lip service paid to such religious beliefs.
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
The reference to brotherhood clinches the case. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) is a state enjoyed by equals, and it suggests compassion, fellow-feeling, and even hints at social justice. Nationalism doesn’t want brotherhood, with its peaceful connotations, but triumph over enemies. Nationalists don’t want to be brothers with anyone except other nationalists—not dissenters, communists, homos, feminists, civil rights activists, or left-wing intellectuals. There are people in the country who represent a threat to the nation—the “enemy within.” Brotherhood is a code-word for weakness.
I’m not arguing that America the Beautiful should be our national anthem. We didn’t have a national anthem until 1931. The branding phenomenon, that plague of modern life, was unknown to earlier generations. They apparently had more important things to think about. I just find it interesting that the opposition of patriotism and nationalism, an opposition that has been purposely obscured and denied by authoritarian ideologies, is so clearly expressed by two cultural artifacts, two songs whose lyrics are recited mechanically more often than not, providing two contrasting windows into a fundamental conflict in the American soul.