Patriotism and Nationalism are not the same thing

Patriots serve their countries; nationalists promote their countries.

Flag Pole with U.S. Flag in sunny yard.
Flag Pole with U.S. Flag in sunny yard.

I was chatting with some friends a few weeks back about patriotism versus nationalism and it became clear that over the past decades we have pivoted from being a country who strives to be a beacon of freedom to one which sees itself as exceptional in isolation.

Once again, we have a generation who grew up seeing patriotism as pride in, and service to democratic principles aghast at another generation who thrives on nationalism. Not “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, but “my country right or wrong.” Way back in 1872, the retort to that nationalistic jingo was “my country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. “

So, as we watch retired military who have served aboard and “moms” who serve at home take to the front lines of protest in cities across in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets, we need to ask, “Who are the patriots?” Are the protesters patriots trying to set right what they see as wrong? Are the defenders of statues of historical figures and government buildings patriots too? How do we balance property versus lives?

I asked my son, why is it that there are no signs that say, “Patriots believe Black Lives Matter” or “Patriots wear Masks?” His reply was that patriotism is currently viewed by some as loyalty to one man in office or party rather than loyalty to an entire country striving form a more perfect union and so to use the word “patriot” is to be seen aligned to a divisive nationalism. The origin of this alignment may lie in the post-9/11 national trauma and search for resilience and pride after being attacked, but two decades later, we should not still be afraid, should we? Or maybe we are still afraid as the former “vast right-wing conspiracy” battles against “deep state” and “fake news”?

With patriotism so associated with symbols, I took a look at the tall flagpole in our front yard and thought about those who knelt during the national anthem asking for what is “wrong to be set right”. I wondered if someone like me who served their country abroad and saw my role there as demonstrating what was best in America would be expected to find a new symbol besides the flag to demonstrate patriotic pride in my country rather than nationalism in isolation.

No, the flag stays.

Our flag is a symbol of unity among our states and our people. We can only hope that it guides us to that more perfect union envisioned by our founders with liberty [, equality], and justice for all. We can be the “Land of the Free” again when we can also be “Brave”.

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