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It’s Hard to Be a Patriot

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It’s Hard to Be a Patriot

When did love of country get such a bad name? January 19, 2020
The Social Order
Politics and law

When I mentioned to my liberal wife that my next book would be dedicated to the defense of patriotism, as an antidote to growing divisiveness, she warned me that my colleagues would consider it a defense of right-wing extremism. When I demurred, she sent me the following quote from the webpage of the Anti-Defamation League, which states that the “‘Patriot’ Movement” is a “collective term used to describe a set of related extremist movements and groups in the United States whose ideologies center on anti-government conspiracy theories. . . . they share a conviction that part or all of the government has been infiltrated and subverted by a malignant conspiracy and is no longer legitimate. . . . [T]here is some overlap between the ‘Patriot’ movement and the white supremacist movement.” This language—the only discussion of patriotism on the ADL website—reflects the tendency of many on the liberal end of the political spectrum to equate patriotism with chauvinism and extreme right-wing politics.

I was thus careful to include, on the book’s front page, a quote attributed to Charles de Gaulle: “Patriotism is when love of your country comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” I argue in the book that people find identity and meaning in their national communities. Indeed, millions are willing to sacrifice their lives for their nation, which they’re not willing to do for the EU or UN. True, such loyalty can be abused when it deteriorates into hatred against outsiders. But we shouldn’t let the abusers of patriotism monopolize a strong and healthy impulse—love of one’s community.

After I sent my manuscript to the University of Virginia Press, an editor told me that he loved it, but that the proposed title, “In Defense of Patriotism,” troubled him. “It will be considered a right-wing book,” he warned. A colleague suggested that I rename it “Reclaiming Patriotism,” a title that the publisher liked because it acknowledged that patriotism can be perverted and needs to be recaptured so that good citizens can proudly embrace it again.

I wanted the book’s cover to show the American flag, but the publisher worried that such a cover would signal chauvinism, and my liberal granddaughter at Yale said that she would not be seen carrying such a book on campus. I argued that a nation needs some symbols that unite us, and that the flag was surely one of those. I pointed out that many liberals, including President Obama, regularly wear an insignia of the flag on their lapel. In response, the publisher sent me a design that included a drawing of a lapel, with a tiny flag on it. We settled on using the colors of the flag on the jacket.

Because the book calls for citizens to rededicate themselves to the common good, I made it “open source,” meaning that people can download it for free (and I get no royalties). I created an ad on Facebook that read: “Are you tired of DIVISIVENESS and POLARIZATION? You can be a good patriot without being a nationalist. Amitai Etzioni shows how in RECLAIMING PATRIOTISM.” Facebook’s response: “Your ad was rejected because it doesn’t comply with our advertising policies.”

I also sought to get the word out on NPR, submitting another ad: “How to shape political and social life after Trump is the subject of a new book, Reclaiming Patriotism by Amitai Etzioni, published by the University of Virginia Press. You can download it without charge by heading to” NPR’s legal team rejected the ad. “It’s too problematic to accept,” they said, “because the book calls for a social/political movement to rebuild the U.S. post Trump Presidency, and crediting the author with reference to a polemical book is still a problem from a news/ethics perspective.”  I responded: “Kindly explain the ethical issues that arise from advertising a book about life after Trump. Note that the ad does not suggest that he is a good or bad president or that he should not be reelected; merely that one day there will be a post-Trump period.”

I’m waiting for a response. I have written about Aristotle, Kant, and other thinkers; spent a year studying under Martin Buber; taught ethics for two years at Harvard. I am not untutored. But I cannot figure out what anyone would consider unethical about advocating patriotism. Clearly, some consider it unpatriotic to be patriotic. That’s a position that should be vigorously challenged.

Photo: flySnow/iStock

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