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Patriotism, Mom, and the Bums

May 15, 2003

War always seems to bring out a certain kind of patriotism we’d be better off without: the “love it or leave it” variety. A lot of people assume that patriotism means supporting any war your government chooses to get into — or, in this case, any war your president even wants to get into. Some people took it even further, hoping for an even bigger war than President Bush had in mind.

One reader wrote to me that if he had his way, we’d have “nuked Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, and, for good measure, Paris.” He also called the Iraq war “the best thing that has happened for world peace since Hiroshima”!

This is, fortunately, an extreme example. But it does illustrate a common deformity of patriotism — the way love for your own country can turn into hatred of other people’s countries.

Naturally, opponents of the war found their patriotism questioned. Wanting peace was called “anti-American.” It seems to me that equating loving America with desiring war might be rather unpatriotic, but I won’t insist on the point.

My own view is that people are naturally patriotic. It’s normal to love your homeland. You almost can’t help it, in the same way you almost can’t help loving your family.

I was recently rereading one of my favorite books, The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis discusses patriotism in his chapter on affection, the love of the familiar just for being familiar. Affection is the humblest form of love: you feel it for your dog, your old neighbor, your home, just because they are yours, not because they are particularly excellent. You are apt to feel affection without realizing it; it sneaks up on you over time and grows gradually. You may become aware of it only with loss or separation.

You can love your country without approving of its government. This is the hardest part for some people to understand. Bill Clinton once told us, “You can’t love your country and hate your government.” You most certainly can. Many perfectly patriotic Americans found Clinton himself loathsome, disgusting, and shameful. It was because they loved their country that they hated having him symbolize it to the world. Some people feel the same way about President Bush.

Patriotism shouldn’t be confused with national pride. Loving your country is like loving your mother. You needn’t feel she is the greatest mother in the world in order to love her; the fact that she is your mother is sufficient. And insulting other people’s mothers won’t earn you much of a reputation for loving your own.

And you keep loving your father even when you come to realize that maybe he can’t beat up all the other fathers in the neighborhood; or that even if he could, you might not love him any better for that.

America is as preeminent in the world today as Rome was in her day. This may be a matter of pride for Americans, but it is no reason for patriotism. We would love our country even if she were weak and insignificant on the world stage. We love her for many things, but is her power really one of them? I hope not.

That’s why the recent jeering at France for losing so many wars was so unbecoming. French defeats might be a topic of comedy and good-natured raillery, but they are hardly grounds for contempt, except in the minds of bullies. And too many Americans have shown such minds lately. They were really admitting that they wouldn’t love their own country if she’d had the misfortune to lose wars.

Our slogan should be not “My country, right or wrong,” but “My country, win or lose.” That’s real loyalty. It was shown by the New Yorkers who rooted for the Dodgers, their beloved “Bums,” through the long years when the Yankees were always winning the World Series and the Dodgers were taunted for losing. Remember “Brooklyn? Is Brooklyn still in the league?”

When the Dodgers finally won their first Series in 1955, their fans felt a joy inconceivable to those who had always rooted for the Yanks. And even today, aging baseball lovers admire the old Dodger fans.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Joseph Sobran


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