Patriotism is widely regarded as a natural and essential virtue. Other views of the matter are, however, defensible. I do not feel even remotely patriotic, and I’m suspicious of the motives and intellectual capacity of those who do. Here are the principle difficulties that I see with patriotism.
National boundaries are, in every case, the result of historical accident. How is it even possible to align oneself emotionally with the outcome of a historical accident? Two hundred years ago, California was part of Mexico. Two hundred years in the future, it may well be an administrative region of China. I feel some affection for the hills and valleys of California, but how could I sensibly transfer that feeling onto the United States of America?
National boundaries are an abstraction, and exist only for administrative purposes. There is, in fact, no such thing as a border between nations. A border is an abstraction that exists only because we all agree that it exists. You can walk, if you care to, from France to Russia without at any point crossing anything that could be construed as a physical (that is, geological) boundary. National borders exist only because they are guarded by soldiers, and the soldiers are there only because rich and powerful men issue the orders. The motives of the rich and powerful we should always regard with deep suspicion.
The world is a single entity. Thanks to the global reach of our transportation systems, it is the height of foolishness to promote the interests of one group of people at the expense of another group. No man is an island: all are part of the main. Because the interests of one group of people will always, sooner or later, come into collision with the interests of another group, we must learn ways to resolve the conflict that recognize the legitimate needs of all groups. We dare not cling to an archaic sensibility that asserts that the interests of one group (namely, us) are automatically superior to the interests of another group (also known as “them”).
Patriotism is quite often invoked in order to incite violence. If you’re trying to whip large groups of people into a frenzy that will cause them to take up weapons and butcher other people, you will almost invariably do it by appealing to their patriotism. This in itself, even apart from any other issues, would make patriotism morally objectionable.
My place of birth is a historical accident. Come to that, my entire identity is a historical accident: There is no such thing as “me” apart from an astonishing concatenation of accidents. So it doesn’t quite make sense to say that “I” could as easily have been born in Thailand, Denmark, or Costa Rica. It makes as much or more sense to say that “I” was indeed born in all of those places. “I” am not anyone special, and my point of view is not special. I’m sure that those who were born in Denmark may feel some special affection for Denmark, those born in Thailand may feel some special affection for Thailand, and so forth. That fact does not make Thailand superior to Denmark, nor vice-versa. Any feeling of affection that a Dane or Thai may feel for his or her place of birth is based on an accident.
Every nation has good and bad features. The tendency of the patriot is always to inflate the magnitude and importance of the good features of his homeland, while minimizing or entirely denying the bad features. This is intellectually dishonest. I prefer not to be intellectually dishonest.
Noble traditions are meaningless apart from noble actions. It is perhaps understandable that one might feel some affection for the legal framework or cultural traditions of one’s native land, if they are indeed admirable. But all too often, people who feel that they love peace find excuses to wage war. People who feel that they love freedom find excuses to repress those who are different from them. Institutions that nominally exist to serve everyone all too often bestow their benefits on the rich while neglecting the poor. To admire a noble tradition, then, is another form of intellectual dishonesty. Let us admire noble actions, and let the traditions fend for themselves.
The United States of America is disgusting. The nation in which I happen to have been born and have lived my life has a long and wretched history of oppressing, if not butchering outright, anybody who got in the way of the grandiose ambitions of the rich and powerful. Not long after the white men succeeded in decimating the native population of North America, they set their sights abroad and began establishing military outposts in distant places like Hawaii and the Philippines. The quagmire in which our military is now floundering in Iraq and Afghanistan is not an aberration: This is what the United States of America has been doing, over and over, for the past two hundred years. We are bullies in foreign policy, we fail to care for the weak and helpless at home, we use far more of the world’s vanishing natural resources than we have any right to, and with a few shining exceptions, our culture is a dismal farce.
I trust that explains why I’m not going to stand up while you salute the flag.