The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 1)

How far can patriotism go before it becomes dangerous nationalism?

Ever since the idea of a nation emerged not more than a few hundred years ago, nationality has become an integral part of who we as humans consider ourselves to be. When we come across someone with an unfamiliar accent or language, our first question for them is often “Where are you from?” The first words we typically use to associate someone with a group of people are those that tell which country they come from, rather than those that reinforce their humanity. Our nationality has become one of the most prominent features of our identity.

The point I’m trying to make is that nationality has become a very important part of who people consider themselves to be. The word usually used to describe pride in one’s country, culture, or national heritage is patriotism.

Patriotism has always been popular in America, especially as the country was still nascent during the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism. Back at its founding, America was, as many like to say, a “melting pot” of a broad spectrum of people with varying beliefs and ideals. Unlike other, older nations, America was a nation that was deliberately created by its inhabitants, rather than slowly coalescing into gradually more central power, as most European nations did.

But what America, and indeed all nations, can suffer from is over-patriotism, sometimes called nationalism. When someone says “nationalist,” the image that tends to spring to most peoples’ minds is an extreme one of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, where nationalist rhetoric was used to justify horrific violence, racism, and purges. But there’s also a particular brand of home-grown nationalism, a slowly swelling sense of patriotism that subtly (or sometimes bluntly) asserts that “we’re just better than them.”

Though I was only 9 years old when they actually occurred, I’ve seen how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have had a profound impact on the way many Americans view the United States and other countries. After the horror of that day, a stunned silence fell over the United States, and a sense of unity and solidarity prevailed in the country. The thought at the time was, “You’ve tried to destroy us and failed, and instead of falling apart, America has only become stronger and more unified by the evil you brought on us.”

It was out of this sense of unity that an almost fanatical nationalism began to rise. After enduring and recovering from such a heinous attack, Americans’ sense of patriotism rose sharply, as songs like “God Bless the USA” came strongly back into vogue and politicians at all levels began employing forceful rhetoric about national unity and strength as a nation. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this; I think that the unity and solidarity that Americans felt in the aftermath of 9/11 was incredible, and helped bring hope and restoration to the loved ones of those who died. But it also conjured up a dangerous “us versus them” mindset that allowed President Bush to declare a more-or-less unilateral “War on Terror,” a war that has not only cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, but has also tragically heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

Of course, nationalism can be seen in myriad other places and situations as well. In talking to some American friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a tragic sense of national superiority in what they say. For example, American citizens are quick to mourn the more than 4,000 deaths incurred by US Armed Forces in Iraq. I won’t deny the tragedy of this bloodshed, but far fewer Americans show such outrage at the more than 100,000 civilian deaths that have so far come about in the conflict. Many Americans I know seem to feel that they’re simply worth more than others.

I’m going to break this article up into two parts, as I’ve realized it’s getting much longer than I had originally thought! Expect the next post soon!

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Filed under Human Rights, Politics & Power

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