Samuel Johnson famously observed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and in recent years it has been increasingly common for some people to decry patriotism as mindless, antiquated, and a roadblock to progress toward the accomplishment of a “one world” community. As we come to the close of the Independence Day weekend, and the flags and bunting are stowed away, I want to present a brief defense of patriotism — which I consider to be a salutary, and positive, feeling.
I think some of the disdain for patriotism stems from the fact that it is an emotion that arises from below the level of rational thought — an informed emotion, perhaps, but an emotion nevertheless. Patriotic symbols are uniquely powerful devices. The fluttering Stars and Stripes, the bald eagle, John Phillips Souza marches, and other iconic objects and sounds are capable of stirring deep feelings in ways that cut across religious, racial, ethnic, and class lines. The gut-level impact of such potent imagery makes it possible for politicians to gin up, and then exploit, overzealous patriotism.
The fact that patriotism can be exploited, however, should not detract from its many positive attributes. In a diverse land of immigrants like the United States, patriotism is one of the strong, common threads that bind our people together. Our backgrounds may be different, but we can be united in our love of our country, its history, and its core values. One of the reasons most Americans are patriotic is that they believe, correctly, that we have much to be patriotic about. Our pride in our country is not derived from conquest, but from the abstract concepts of freedom, and democracy, and equality that America has helped to spread and promote throughout the world. In America, therefore, patriotism also has an aspirational component. Patriotic citizens are more likely to work to make America even better than it is, by volunteering to serve their country in some capacity, by voting, by being active in their communities, or in countless other ways. When times are tough, patriotism can lead people to engage in collective sacrifice and mutual support.
Any emotion that can cause self-absorbed, and often isolated, modern Americans to lay aside, however briefly, their focus on themselves and instead to view themselves are part of the greater American community — where we are not Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, or southerners or yankees — is a good thing. The Fourth of July is an important holiday precisely because it is a patriotic holiday, and it is essential that, every so often, Americans stand in a crowd, see the flag, listen to The Star-Spangled Banner and Stars and Stripes Forever, and together experience the lump in the throat and surge of proud patriotic feeling.