September 11, 2011

Lessons in Patriotism

Tile made as part of a project that let people create their own commemorative tiles in 2001; they were later hung on a chain link fence in New York City's Greenwich Village (photo A. Zalman)

Patriotism—love of one’s country—is a treacherous emotion. Too little of it, and we aren’t motivated to make necessary sacrifices on behalf of our national brothers and sisters.  Too much of it, or too much of the wrong sort, and exclusionary nationalism—in the form of various ethnic and religious hatreds– takes over.   The challenges of getting patriotism right people think that we should avoid these dangers and keep emotion out of our public lives, substituting instead our critical faculties to reason our way to being fair and kind to each other.

But, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, we require this form of love, “distinct from simple approval, or commitment or embrace of principles” in order to act on behalf of people we have never met—those people invoked by the idea of nation.

There is almost inevitably a strong narrative component to devotion to nation.  In Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom, Nussbaum cites psychological studies that that demonstrate that altruism can be elicited in people when they are deeply engaged in someone else’s story of distress.  Such stories train us in empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of others.  In order to engage us, however, narratives must be particular–they must have details about people, places and events, rather than articulations of principle, no matter how high-minded:

Patriotic emotion typically does … this: it seeks devotion and allegiance through a colorful story of the nations past which points, typically, to a future that lies still in doubt. Indeed, the idea of a nation is, in its very nature, a narrative construct. To say what a given nation is, is to select from all the unordered material of the past and present a clear narrative that emphasizes some things and omits others, all in the service o f pointing to what the future may hold—if people care.

In one of the most insightful and justly influential discussions on the idea of the nation, French philosopher Ernst Renan argues that a nation is not simply a physical location, it is an idea, a “spiritual principle.”  This spiritual principle involves; on the one hand, a story o the past, usually a story of adversity and suffering and then a commitment to the future, a willingness to live together and face adversities for the sake of common goals.  The two sides are linked: the story of the past has to tell people what is worth fighting for in the future.  Renan remarks that the past has to have in it something great or glorious, but it also needs to have loss and suffering:  “Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties and require a common effort.”

In Nussbaum’s view, we can teach both patriotic love and critical thinking in our schools, which will help us avoid the pitfalls of misplaced patriotism.  When cognition and emotion are taught together, we build robust, inclusive minded, citizens whose love of their country includes a profound  commitment to listen to critical dissent, or express it themselves, when it is necessary.  What a strong way to begin conceiving patriotism, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

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One thought on “Lessons in Patriotism

  1. That’s an interesting point that patriotism acts as a unifier for people that are otherwise strangers. I think we often focus on patriotism as a divider too often. I’ll have to make sure to be an example of healthy patriotism for kids growing up.

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