Two things inspired me to write this short essay: the 4th of July patriotic celebrations of this year, and Jaime Nubiola’s latest post about the growing radical inequality that plagues the United States and numerous other countries (mostly in the third world). My article will use the United States as its reference for talking about patriotism, but I think what I say can be applied to any country.
When people from other countries come to the US, they are frequently a bit awed at the sheer number of American flags: on people’s homes, on cars, as tattoos, on clothing, in billboard advertising and a variety of other contexts. These symbols are carried in the heart, as well: Americans for the most part, genuinely love their country. In America, then, we have a strange situation: we love the symbols of our country, while the plight of those who have to suffer the consequences of inequality is ignored. We are a country that combines high ideals–which we truly believe in–with a striking cruelty towards those who have fallen down the economic ladder. This is a situation explained by a Spanish proverb: ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente (eyes that don’t see, a heart that doesn’t feel). The cruelty we inflict on those in poverty is cruelty due to blindness; we live our lives and hardly ever see the truly poor because we train our eyes not to see them.
As Jaime Nubiola has recently noted, the growth of a huge gap between the economic and cultural situations of the rich and the poor means that those who are poor are left in economic and social systems that can imply great suffering, while the rich become even more crazily wealthy. It cannot be patriotic to see and allow the real benefits of our country’s ideals to gradually become restricted only to those who can pay for them. It cannot be the case that you need to pay substantial amounts of money in order to enjoy the fundamental benefits of being an American citizen. Nor should a person have to pay in order to enjoy basic human rights. But this is the trajectory we are on: one example (of many) is voting, which has become a superfluous luxury for the poor. The working poor can lose their jobs for being absent, or they may simply desperately need the money they make at work. Imagine a thousand “little” deprivations of this sort, and taken all together it adds up to a life of misery and lack of justice.
There are many ways to love one’s country, to be a patriot. One can love a place simply because it is one’s own. This is the patriotism of the man or woman who says “Where else would I want to go? We have the best of the best right here!” Another kind of patriotism is that which celebrates the power of one’s country, or which dreams about one’s country becoming strong. We see this kind of patriotism all the time in the United States: from the urge to conquer and impose democracy on unlikely countries, to the popularity of movies about World War Two, where Yankee strength and ingenuity saved Europe from Hitler and the Pacific Rim from Japanese expansionism. But this is not the patriotism that is most characteristic of the United States; rather, we feel that we have the right to spread democratic and capitalist values because we truly feel that, because of them, our country is the very best that there is on this earth.
What, however, are we loving when we love our country this way? If we look around, the “United States” is difficult to find. We can look in its buildings, its cars, its lakes, its schools, its weapons of war, and, finally, its people. None of these is “the country”; this inability to locate the country and put one’s finger on it leads, naturally, to the production of symbols that will represent the whole. Hence the popularity of flags, monuments and songs, which somehow manage to summarize the entirety of the greatness of one’s country.
But to really find a country one must look in the hearts and consciousness of its citizens. The place that one’s country lives is fundamentally in the human heart. Countries live and function because we believe in their existence. When enough key people cease to believe in its existence, a country ceases to be and another (or several) eventually arise in its place, as nearly happened to the United States during our Civil War. A strong country exists, in part, when the leaders have the same vision of it as do its people. A strong country also, however, requires high ideals that can serve as a compass for the direction of the country as a whole.
Cheap and easy patriotism focuses on the symbols: raising the flag, singing the hymns, participating in parties small and large, visiting one’s country’s monuments. None of which is bad, but if it goes no further it remains hollow, because one is not looking beyond the symbolism to the real things a country consists in: the human beings that are the home of the country’s ideals. One excellent example of this is Poland, which ceased to be an independent state in 1795; during the two centuries that followed (with the exception of the ill-fated Second Polish Republic), the Polish people kept their country alive in their hearts, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain a new Polish republic arose in fulfillment of the promise that their patriotism had held onto those many years.
In the context of growing economic inequity, the truest patriotism will love one’s country’s symbols, but will love even more those human beings who carry the ideals, and therefore the survival, of their country within them. Indeed, a country can legitimately be judged in the light of how it treats those who are most vulnerable. In the case of the United States, the growth of inequality leads to millions falling into extreme poverty, or else into working situations that are little less than slavery: egregiously long working hours, low pay, no vacations, little or no opportunity for advancement, living in high-crime residential areas (ghettos) and, prior to the arrival of so-called Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), no healthcare.
The patriotic duty, then, of those who love their country, is to do their small part to assure that basic human rights and dignity are enjoyed by all those who really (ontologically) make up the country, for it is in their hearts that the values and truths of the nation are carried and cherished. Patriotism wants to be able to say “My/our country is best”, and a country that mistreats those who are most vulnerable will not be the greatest country in the eyes of others (it may, indeed, be a mockery in those eyes), nor, in the depths of the heart and mind, will it be greatest in the eyes of its own citizens. One cannot, I believe, say that one is a patriot while refusing to make the effort to ensure that the great aspirations and values inscribed in our constitution are made incarnate in our treatment of the poor that make up our new underclass. Our country is failing if it does not work hard to ensure that the rights our constitution and Bill of Rights guaranteed to us can be effectively lived out by those even at the bottom of our social hierarchy.