An International Look at Patriotism

My first Independence Day living abroad has led me to do some thinking about patriotism. But I’m not contemplating only American patriotism. Instead, I’ve been pondering patriotism in general.

I come from a country where patriotism is not only highly valued and honored, but also where the word itself is a buzz word–both a shield and a weapon in American political rhetoric. And now I live in a country where patriotism is almost universal; love of country is basically a given among the Thais. In fact, I’d say that the Thais exceed Americans when it comes to national pride. They demonstrate a pride in their country that is so widespread, so resolute, and so dedicated that it almost makes a joke of the word “patriotism” as used in American conversations. If Americans imitated or emulated the Thais in patriotism, we’d have a more united, cohesive, or even homogenous society. And that is what scares me about patriotism.

Now this is where American “patriots” would quip that the Thai sentiment I describe isn’t patriotism, but nationalism. They’d insist that there’s a difference. But I beg to differ, at least among their kind. The Americans that would defend red-white-and-blue “patriotism” are usually the same that would deny, not denounce, America’s transgressions. They would insist that Nazis, Communists, and obedient citizens of other tyrannical regimes are nationalists, not patriots. I say “bullshit.” Patriotism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin–the unwavering love of one’s country seeded and nourished by propaganda, whether by the state or by the culture.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing inherently wrong with being proud of one’s country. There’s especially nothing wrong with cherishing our background, heritage, and culture, and embracing the fact that we are who we are largely because of where we come from. Moreover, I admire at least the gratitude that comes with appreciating the benefits of one’s nationality. But national pride should not overlook the accidental nature of nationality, nor the global circumstances that often contribute to a nation’s power, wealth, or resilience. Upholding the values of our forebears can be a good thing, if thoughtfully and sensibly done. But patriotism often discourages such thoughtfulness and sensibility. For example, American patriotism celebrates the American Revolution, but often ignores or deemphasizes the French role in the victory of our forefathers. Thai patriotism celebrates Thai culture, but remains mostly ignorant of the influences of Chinese and Indian culture, while ironically belittling the Chinese and Indians.

I should also pause to acknowledge that patriotism doesn’t come in one flavor. For example, American and Thai patriotism have keen differences. Some of that stems from distinct variations in culture, forms of government, and social structures. Whereas Thailand fosters a pious adoration of the crown, America was founded upon a rejection of absolute authority. This distinction plays a large role in the way each country’s citizens view criticism as either a value or a liability to national worth. Similarly, American patriotism celebrates the strength of the individual as a testament to national supremacy; Thai patriotism emphasizes the need to “toe the line”–every citizen has a role to play towards the greater good of society. But the irony of American patriotism is that, for all its individualistic sentiments, a “true” American conforms to American Exceptionalism. To suggest that America is not the greatest nation on earth is to be “un-American.” And therein lies the key similarity between Thai and American patriotism–the fundamental characteristic of national pride: your country can do no wrong, and is an invaluable gem among the world’s nations.

It’s also important to acknowledge what’s at stake for Thais and Americans when it comes to patriotism. Unlike Thais, Americans enjoy the rare privilege of being free to criticize their own government. In truth, this is something for Americans to be proud of (even if not uniquely American). But while ideological disputes about governance, especially those that fall along party divides, are the focus of criticism, hardly is the presumed moral standing of America among other nations brought into question. To suggest that America has unapologetically wronged any part of the world is to be “un-American,” or even “anti-American.” It’s such a sanction that makes the don’t-tread-on-me breed of patriotism virtually identical to any other.

Patriotism is more than a philosophically flawed form of arrogance. It has practical implications, with harmful results. Few things have impeded world peace and international cohesiveness than patriotism. Even where other evils are to blame–such as greed or corruption–patriotism has aided and abetted. Patriotism protects multinational corporations who profit from human rights violations. Patriotism absolves nations of the responsibility to deal with the human suffering that persists within their borders. It’s almost banal to point out how many wars have either started or escalated thanks to deep national pride. It encourages the repression of minorities–in the same way an American patriot might warn against the “browning” of America, Thai patriots refuse to offer asylum to the Rohingya. In the same way the Thais have a long history of expanding their territories by warring with the Burmese, Lao, Khmer, and Lanna peoples in the name of Siam, America systematically wiped Native Americans off the continent in the name of Manifest Destiny. Thailand insulates itself from foreign labor, thereby concealing its educational deficiencies, deteriorating the skill of its labor force, and crippling the Thai standard of living; America provides inadequate support to its ultimate “heroes” of patriotism–the veterans–who return with a myriad of mental and physical health issues. And if the human condition isn’t enough of a reason to worry about the ill effects of patriotism, look at how the environment suffers. Neither America nor China will prioritize curbing carbon emissions because they prefer volleying blame and responsibility. Patriotism fosters this finger-pointing and scapegoating. Nothing could be more counterproductive to the amelioration of our planet than the adherence to a stubborn tribal mentality–the insistence that our interests surpass the interests of others.

No nation is great simply because it’s “good.” The strength of a nation should be measured by its efforts to improve humanity as an international whole. No history, no propaganda, no anthem, no pledge of allegiance can conceal the evils of arrogance, no matter how much we pretend they can.

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