May 30th, 2011

For Memorial Day: on nationalism and patriotism

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 I would guess is rarely or never 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 was 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.

[NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of an older post.]

18 Responses to “For Memorial Day: on nationalism and patriotism”

  1. Gringo Says:

    I also read “The Man Without a Country” in 7th grade. Ditto “The Great Stone Face.” I still remember some lines from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” read in 8th grade.

    My patriotism increased as a result of the time I spent working in Latin America. For all its faults, the US gave the common man more of a chance than did countries south of the border. We were richer, not because of exploitation, but because our institutions and practices were more transparent, more efficient, and less corrupt. I also saw that those who blamed the US for Latin America’s problems didn’t know the facts on the ground in Latin America.

  2. njartist49 Says:

    As I recall, Nolan was condemned to live in a ship off the coast; yet he was never permitted to look towards the coast, only outward.

  3. kolnai Says:

    Gringo – I had a similar experience of “patriotism upsurge” from spending time in another country, in my case, France.

    At the time (I was 22), I honestly had never felt the sentiment of patriotism in my life, and was more inclined to view it as cheesy and “for the mob.” I have a proclivity for feeling good about being an outsider (that’s a fact, not a boast), and while I was locked into one American town or another, I could define my “outsiderness” in terms of “patriotic yokels” vs. “sophisticated, broad-minded ME.”

    Well, when a sophisticated, broad-minded ME goes to France, guess what my outsiderness consists in? Precisely in being an American yokel. After listening to insufferable French college students berate me constantly for being a citizen of America while George W. Bush was President, I was ripe for some “second thoughts.” Could so many preposterous people be right?

    At last, I wound up somehow having dinner with an old couple in Arles, and I went upstairs to tour the abode and managed to catch a room completely decked-out with every crude Bush-Cheney caricature you could imagine – satirical posters, Darth Vader comparisons, Satan and Hitler get-ups, the whole nine.

    We got into an argument later when the old man made an off-hand quip about buffoonish Bush and his nation of slavish American buck-toothed hicks, and I couldn’t hold myself back any longer – I smiled and sarcastically said, in barbaric French,

    “You do have a point, but you have to give us this much – AT LEAST we didn’t elect Chirac.”

    I think I added something later on to the effect of, “Where are the Bourbons when you need them?”; in any case, I had stood up for a President I didn’t vote for [at the time I didn’t vote], didn’t care for, and in the meantime I’d defended a country that – despite being my country – I had never identified with. It felt good, and right.

    Leave it to a Frenchman to turn a bourgeoning post-American bubblehead into a raving right-wing jingoist.

    * On a totally unrelated note, that night in Arles we actually didn’t spend the whole night arguing, and the old man, being a world traveler, managed to tell me one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard (albeit, funny in a bleak sort of way):

    He was in Somalia, I believe, and he and his wife had just got off the plane. Their guide met them at the airport and began to lead them to their hotel. As they strolled down the blocks, the couple noticed that several children were “making doo-doo” on the sidewalks.

    The man asked his guide:

    “Excuse me, but why do they relieve themselves on the sidewalks?”

    The guide replied with a laugh, as if the answer were obvious:

    “So they don’t get hit by cars!”

  4. cathy Says:

    Most everyone thinks they are a patriot, even if they seem to come down against the US. And most people define it in terms of morality. But that is where the split is; people have different foundations on which they build their moral viewpoint.

  5. Gringo Says:


    Ah, the French. I have never been to Europe, so my only contact with the French has been in Latin America and in the US, as fellow tourists, clients, and as roommates. Suffice to say that my opinion of the French didn’t change when Bush invaded Iraq.

    My favorite Franco-American tale follows. When I was a tourist in South America I got along well enough with some French to travel with them for several weeks. I also corresponded several times the next year. We spoke in Spanish, so the issue of linguistic chauvinism was finessed.

    One time Marie gave me an opinion about Americans. She said that friends of hers had hitchhiked around the US as tourists. Back in the 1970s, this was a not unknown mode of transport: certainly much more prevalent than today. She informed me that Americans who had picked up her hitchhiking French paisans had sometimes invited them into their homes. That had also been my experience as a hitchhiker in the US back then. As a Gringo tourist in Latin America I had also been invited into stranger’s homes, so this was an American trait of hospitality, not merely a North American trait.

    Marie informed me that there was something SICK about (North) Americans, that they would invite strangers into their homes.

    I saw no need to reply to that. I concluded that there were distinct differences between French and Americans that were not confined to food and language. From later talking with fellow employees who had gone to Germany for university or for work, I concluded that greater distance towards strangers was not only a French trait but also a German and hence European trait.

    I liked the Somali tale. That is an Ockham’s razor kind of response.

    You might be interested in Everyday Meetings with Common Europeans, from Erik Svane’s No-Pasarán blog.

  6. gs Says:

    The story “The Man Without a Country” used to be standard reading matter for seventh graders.

    It can be downloaded here.

  7. gs Says:

    I meant that it can be downloaded here.

  8. Jed Skillman Says:

    The Man Without a Country is an excellent work, very well constructed.

    The author, Edward Everett Hale was a Unitarian minister. During the Civil War he served as Chaplin for the House of Representatives. His story was written as a message to northerners who sympathized with the South.

    His lesson stated in the story is Think what it means to throw away a country.

  9. Affirming a Moral vs. Immoral Nationalism | Shel: News, Thought, Theology, Teaching.. Says:

    […] For Memorial Day: on nationalism and patriotism […]

  10. Beverly Says:

    I read that in seventh grade, too! It made a mighty impression on me. But Southerners, ironically, are the most “out and proud” patriots in the country, and pretty loud about it, too. So it was still being assigned by our old-fashioned school system after it was probably quietly shelved in other parts.

    Speaking of Europe and France opening eyes: my niece is in Ireland now, after having spent her semester abroad in France. She was shocked and sweetly surprised to find that the French she talked to “really like Americans, Aunt Beverly!” I told her it was mostly the “chattering class snobs” who griped about us.

    She’s also learning that life in these United States is pretty comfy and spacious; she spent the winter in Ireland without central heating. Heh. I told her to take a hot water bottle to bed like the English do, or two on really bitter nights; she was grateful.

    My friend Minna went to the Eastern Bloc when she was in high school, in 1977, with her high school glee club. I don’t know how that came to be. I do know that when those teenagers flew home, and saw the STatue of Liberty, they spontaneously broke out singing “God Bless America”, with tears in their eyes.

    Minna said, “It was so grim over there; it was scary. People were afraid to talk to us — teenagers — because the secret police were watching everyone. The food was horrible, and the cities closed up after dark. All the architecture was gray, cement block stuff. We couldn’t WAIT to get home.”

  11. njcommuter Says:

    Neo, the comments link is affected, too.

    Regarding patriotism: In Europe “nationalism” was loyalty to a region, a prince, and perhaps a culture on a continent where nations had grown from realms in a wilderness to States that occupy every square micron, every barn of territory. Patriotism was thus loyalty to a one State and against its neighbors.

    In the USA, patriotism is usually not “my country against those other guys.” It has been, in the War of 1812 and the War With Mexico. But when other nations have been involved, it is usually the case that the USA has been attacked (or believes it has been).

    Most of the time, American Patriotism is loyalty to an idea, loyalty to principles, loyalty to the same things that provide the claim for American Exceptionalism: We hold these truths to be self-evident …. We The People of the United States of America ….. That is a very different thing morally, psychologically, and in its effective tendencies toward good and ill. We have never sent abroad a Napoleon, a Tamurlane, or a Caesar.

    And that is why the European disrepute for European patriotism should not be applied to American patriotism. They are different categories and characters of things.

  12. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Some years ago, I was going around with some HS history teachers on the web about a Rev. War question.
    Given that the colonists were divided into thirds, rebels, loyalists, and neutrals, I asked, why did so many more rebels than loyalists show up in camp and field.
    After some lame attempts–loyalists were Church of England(?), loyalists were older (?), the teachers resolved the issue by deciding I was a patriot. Solved their problem for them.

  13. Daniel in Brookline Says:


    Most everyone thinks they are a patriot…

    I’d have to disagree there. I’ve met many people (too many!) who consider themselves “citizens of the world”, not beholden to the United States nor even particularly grateful to the United States.

    It’s difficult to get through to such people. They don’t know how very good they have it here (although some should certainly know better); nor do they seem to understand how very fragile our way of life can be. They seem to believe that their civil rights, taken for granted here, will be taken for granted everywhere else too, merely because that’s the way it should be. “They laugh at scars who never felt a wound”, as Neo once quoted.

    (I do sometimes point out that those civil rights were very much in question, in the United States, within living memory. I had relatives who, after fighting in WWII and returning home, had to change their names to have any hope of landing a job. My grandmother was able to vote when she came of age; my great-grandmother was not.)

    Is there a way for such people to see the light, other than being “mugged by reality”? I’d like to think so, but I haven’t seen it.

    Daniel in Brookline

  14. ziontruth Says:

    “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.”

    The idea that WWII was caused by German nationalism (yes, that’s where I place the emphasis) is such a common misconception that it might easily be a Marxist-inculcated lie (we know who’s been educating the kids for the past few decades).

    Nationalism doesn’t call for world conquest, nor does socio-economic theory, nor does religion; but couple any of those to imperialism and you get precisely that.

    Nationalism + imperialism: Germany’s Nazism.

    Socio-economic theory + imperialism: Marxism.

    Religion + imperialism: Islam.

    Nationalism should never have gotten a bad name. It was only unthinking superficiality, most probably aided by Marxist educators with their ax to grind, that made it so. But the deeper thinker will realize the truth that WWII was imperialism that ran amok.

    In WWII it was imperialism, and in the Cold War it was imperialism, and right now it’s imperialism. The fact that the imperialism is tied to a different base doctrine changes little.

    Those who think they escape the mindset of Nazism by embracing either the Marxist or the Islamic agenda don’t realize their “clean” ideology is in fact a kissing cousin to the reviled Nazism. And why? Because they share the component that drives people to desire to subjugate all outsiders: Imperialism.

  15. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Just as an aside, there was a real Philip Nolan, and Edward Everett Hale afterwards felt rather regretful about having used the name for his story.
    I did a post about him here –
    The real Philip Nolan had a very, very adventurous life, and one of his close personal associates was discribed as “the most consummate artist in treason that the nation ever possessed,” and probably better deserved an exile aboard ship.

  16. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    By the way, I never read “The Man Without A Country” in school either. Thanks for the link, gs — I read it yesterday, and I’m very glad I did.

  17. ErisGuy Says:

    “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. ”

    If only Mann (and others) had made a similar statement about the other half of Nazi ideology. If only they had denounced unbridled and amoral socialism (the only kind). Somehow the “excesses” of Nazis were ascribed to the Germans while the nationalism of other Europeans never led them to mass murder, while the normalcy of mass murder in socialism was never ascribed to socialism even thought the socialists killed more people (and with genocidal intent) than the Nazis.

  18. madmilt Says:

    By no stretch of the imagination was this story ever intended to promote patriotism.

    Fact: The sentence imposed by the court martial in that story would have had the same effect on the defendant even if the story had been set in the worst totalitarian entity ever concocted by history or fiction because any country, any homeland, is better than no homeland at all.

    Fact: The message that the story conveyed was not patriotism but distrust of one’s mentors and courts – specifically it conveyed the message to never expect so much as a sequitur response to any expressed protest.

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