The story “The Man Without a Country” used to be standard reading matter for seventh graders. In fact, it was the first “real” book–as opposed to those tedious Dick and Jane readers–that I ever was assigned to read in school. As such it was exciting, since it dealt with an actual story with some actual drama to it. It struck me as terribly sad–and unfair, too–that Philip Nolan was forced to wander the world, exiled, for one moment of cursing the United States. “The Man Without a Country” was the sort of paean to patriotism that probably would never be assigned nowadays to students.
Patriotism has gotten a very bad name during the last few decades. I think part of this feeling began (at least in this country), like so many things, with the Vietnam era. But patriotism and nationalism seem to have been rejected by a large segment of Europeans even earlier, as a result of the devastation both sentiments were seen to have wrought during WWI and WWII. Of course, WWII in Europe was a result mainly of German nationalism run amok, but it seemed to have given nationalism as a whole a very bad name.
Here’s author Thomas Mann on the subject, writing in 1947 in the introduction to the American edition of Herman Hesse’s Demian:
If today, when national individualism lies dying, when no single problem can any longer be solved from a purely national point of view, when everything connected with the “fatherland” has become stifling provincialism and no spirit that does not represent the European tradition as a whole any longer merits consideration…”
A strong statement of the post-WWII idea of nationalism as a dangerous force, mercifully dead or dying, to be replaced (hopefully) by a pan-national (or, rather, anational) Europeanism. Mann was a German exile from his own country, who had learned to his bitter regret the excesses to which unbridled and amoral nationalism can lead. His was an understandable and common response, one that helped lead to the formation of the EU. The nationalism of the US is seen by those who agree with him as a relic of those dangerous days of nationalism gone mad without any curb of morality or consideration for others.
But the pendulum is swinging back. The US is not Nazi Germany, however much the far left may try to make that analogy. And, in fact, that is one of the reasons they try so hard to make that particular analogy–because Nazi Germany is one of the very best examples of the dangers of unbridled and amoral nationalism.
But, on this Memorial Day, I want to say there’s a place for nationalism, and for love of country. Not a nationalism that ignores morality, but one that embraces it and strives for it, keeping in mind that–human nature being what it is–no nation on earth can be perfect or anywhere near perfect. The US is far from perfect, but it is a good country nevertheless, striving to be better.
So, I’ll echo the verse that figured so prominently in “The Man Without a Country,” and say (corny, but true): this is my own, my native land. And I’ll also echo Francis Scott Key and add: the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.