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Mailbag Monday: Patriotism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

Alam writes,

Bro, what’s the deal with patriotism? Isn’t patriotism (or being proud of your heritage) just being proud of some arbitrary bullshit? It seems like we have no really good reasons to be proud of where were were born or what our genes are; we sure as hell didn’t get to decide that shit. Am I right, or am I way off base here?

What’s up, Alam? This seems to be a growing sentiment, even if it’s not a new one; George Carlin maybe put it best:

I could never understand national or ethnic pride, because to me Pride should be reserved for something you achieve on your own. Being Irish isn’t a skill, it’s a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn’t be proud to be 5'11". You wouldn’t be proud to have a pre-disposition for colon cancer.

Really, who gives a flying fuck where you were born? What does that say about you as a person? I was born in America, but I’m perfectly literate and I even believe in evolution. Sweeping generalizations about any nationality will be false. I have certain habits that I’ve acquired culturally, sure, like my preference for “fucking” over “bloody”, but why should I be proud of those? Aren’t those as arbitrary as where I was born? How does my being American give me any title or claim over the American victory in WWII? I wasn’t even a glimmer in someone’s eye yet. Shit, I barely have anything to do with the course of American politics now. What exactly have I accomplished to justify this pride?

Where your ancestors were born is even more arbitrary. The Jersey Shore cast is fucking thrilled to be Italian, but that doesn’t really inform how they go about their days at all. Plenty of Italians are intelligent, hard working members of society who make valuable contributions; it’s not like all, or even most, Italians are fuck-ups with abs. And plenty of fuck-ups with abs aren’t Italian. In fact, being Italian has nothing to do with how those fucking assclowns act. Besides, how far back are we supposed to go? We all likely came from Africa at some point - why aren’t we all just fucking thrilled to be African? Wherever your ancestors are from, their ancestors were almost certainly from somewhere else.

So it seems like this all boils down to tribalism, a tendency left over from the ancestral plain where it was useful evolutionarily to identify strongly with a group of bros who had your back. We naturally want to belong to tribes, which is why people get so fucking worked up about sports teams that they have no connection with, except maybe a city. Isn’t nationalism just that same tribal urge, and wouldn’t we be better off leaving it behind?

But here’s the thing: are you sure that national pride or patriotism is pride in strictly an accident? For starters, some people emigrate to other countries and choose to become citizens. These people, more than anyone else, have a right to be proud - they achieved a goal, which was membership in a group of which they were not a member, and which likely has requirements that must be met. And if we can justify national pride for naturalized immigrants, why can’t we justify pride for birthright citizens? This flips the problem on its head - am I not justified in being proud of being American, just because I was accidentally born here? Does my place of birth somehow naturally exclude me from national pride? That doesn’t make any more sense than my place of birth automatically entailing national pride.

Sure, being here isn’t something I achieved, in the same way that a naturalized immigrant achieved. But staying here is something I’ve achieved. It was easier for me to become a citizen, but that doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of actively embracing my citizenship. Maybe you wouldn’t be proud of being 6'11", because that’s a genetic accident. But you might legitimately be proud of being a fucking world champion in basketball, even though a genetic accident made that much, much easier. Maybe you wouldn’t be proud of being predisposed to colon cancer, but you sure as fuck could be proud of beating colon cancer, even though a genetic accident made that much, much harder.

Yeah, okay, but is citizenship in a country really comparable to a championship in sports? Being born with the genes to become 6'11" is not the same as being born a champion. Being born predisposed to cancer is certainly not the same as being born a cancer survivor. In both of those examples, a genetic accident contributed to an achievement, but it wasn’t the same as the achievement; there was work to be done to get to the achievement. If I sat around and did nothing all the time I would still be an American citizen. In fact, there are plenty of American citizens who do that. That’s not a very high bar for achievement, is it?

At best, though, that makes the case that not every American has grounds to be proud to be an American, that not every Brit has grounds to be proud to be a Brit, and so on. Perhaps we should have to earn our national pride in some way or other. This is not a new notion. As far back as Plato, you owed just about everything to the City-State. You couldn’t just hang around and do nothing; you could leave if you wanted to, but otherwise, you fucking followed the law and you served your time in the military and then you didn’t do shit like corrupting the youth. And these contributions to state, those contributions justified your pride in your city-state.

Of course, it seems like contributing to a city-state or a nation justifies pride only if contributing is something to be proud of - so here’s an important question: Is the existence of Athens or America or Italy or any state a good thing, something that we can justly contribute to or participate in? This in turn raises difficult questions about what exactly a state is. Is America its current government? Is it the body of institutions that comprise that government? Is it the set of values ostensibly enshrined in the founding documents? Is it the laws, or the enforcement of those laws? Some of these are more worth contributing to than others. The ongoing existence of a body of law in America, for example, is probably a more worthwhile project than keeping the current members of the American government in power.

Now, it’s no surprise that I think that American democracy is something worthwhile to participate in; I grew up in America. I’m a bit biased, of course. So what’s the big fucking deal if I further “American values”? Should I be proud of that? That’s what I was taught to do, and it was purely accidental that I was taught that.

Look at it this way: if I was born and grew up in a successful anarchist colony that was surrounded by giant capitalist systems, would I be justified in being proud that our colony has survived? I was raised as an anarchist, and my entire culture was anarchist. Of course I would think anarchy is something worth furthering. But that doesn’t mean that anarchy is meritless, or that I don’t have grounds for believing that it is something worth furthering. It’s possible some of my fellow anarchists have rejected anarchy and gone to live in capitalist society, the pigs, just as it is the case that some of my peers who were taught the same “American values” I was taught have rejected those values; my predisposition, whether to anarchism or America, does not render me incapable of overthrowing those values, and it does not render the act of retaining those values completely insignificant.

Ethnic pride might work the same way - typically, ethnic pride carries with it overtones of a particular culture, and this is the guide to how far back one might go. Puerto Rican and Irish prides aren’t simply celebrations of a genetic inheritance, or at any rate they shouldn’t be; both of those ethnicities have strong cultures attached to them. If the members of those cultures have good reason to believe that there are elements of that culture worth furthering, then perhaps they can legitimately take pride in furthering those elements of the culture.

Under this rubric, discussions of whether national pride is justified become discussions of whether furthering a nation is worthwhile. Am I justified if I’m proud to be an American? Well, that depends: is America - whatever America is ontologically - worth furthering, and do I participate in that? That is a lengthy and heated debate; any American who denies that America has problems is as blind as any detractor of America who denies that America makes any positive contributions to the world. However, that ongoing debate challenges the fundamental premise of the attempt to undermine patriotism per se - that patriotism (or ethnic pride) really is a celebration of strictly accidental features of an individual. I’m not saying we should all blindly accept the goodness of our environment, but perhaps we can legitimately decide to take advantage of our genetic accidents and participate in the opportunities for good that those accidents have presented us with.

Man, this is a hot button issue, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion in the comments. I’ve favored the argument that Patriotism is possibly justified, because the original question assumed it isn’t, but there are likely significant problems with the sort of patriotic rhetoric that states use to justify obedience to that state. It’s a nuanced issue; I’ve just tried to crack it open a little wider.

Plato’s Republic lays out exactly how a city-state should work according to Plato, and in several of the Five Dialogues, especially the Crito and the Apology, he discusses our relationship to the law.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls discusses how we participate in social contracts by benefiting from the institutions those contracts set up, and argues that those benefits should be available to all, since all are equally bound by the contract.

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