If you’re defining patriotism, don’t call it love

There’s a reason we haven’t yet attempted to define patriotism here at National Questions: it’s hard work. National sentiment arouses such strong, deep-seated emotions that it can make even sober discussion difficult, let alone any attempt to dispassionately measure and describe the feelings and ideas patriotism can encompass.

Nevertheless, the obvious inconsistencies in the way patriotism has been expressed in our previous articles – from Clinton’s American-exceptionalism-meets-universal-values to Modi’s increasingly clamorous demands for national respect – deserve at least some discussion. Why are political expressions of the same sentiment so different? What are the common threads between them, if any?


Let’s start with the most popular definition: love of one’s country. From America to Zimbabwe, people find this a positive, popular and populist way to define patriotism. Politicians are especially fond of it for its emotive pull and the sense of selfless devotion it suggests.

There is an issue with this approach, however: love is too broad and multifarious a term to be useful to us in trying to establish a working definition of patriotism. There are so many possible forms and interpretations of it. The ancient Greeks, after all, had three words for our one: agapephilia and eros, or family, friends and sex; the philosopher Spinoza thought there were as many different ways to love as there are things to love. The Filipino language has fourteen words for love, including gigil, ‘the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.’

This range of interpretations is reflected to an extent in English (though gigil is sorely missing), where our lone word is given very different meanings depending on who or what is being loved. When Cuba Gooding Jr., in his Oscar acceptance speech, declared his love for his wife, god, Tom Cruise and ‘everybody involved in the movie’ (all in less than eighty seconds), we can reasonably assume he did not mean he loved them all in the same way. (It’s a little less certain with Angelina Jolie’s 1999 Oscar acceptance speech, which, following a passionate kiss on the lips with her brother, opened with, ‘I’m so in love with my brother right now.’)

So what type of love should a patriot have for his or her country? Parental love? The love of two close friends? Or the love someone professes for Wigan Athletic FC? When Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte or Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta tell people to love their country, which of these do they mean, if any? If we stick with the definition of patriotism as ‘love of one’s country’, we simply cannot know.

Let’s be clear: it’s not our place to tell people what they are feeling. If someone really does believe the best way to describe their feelings towards their country as love, in whatever form that takes, they are of course entitled to do so. And it is important to understand that millions of people around the world will choose to do just that. But for those attempting to study and comprehend patriotism, rather than just experience it, love is too shifting and vague a concept to serve as the basis of a useful definition.


Why is this important? That patriotism, like many other isms, proves tricky to define shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us. A consensus hasn’t been reached on the precise meaning of postmodernism, after all, or to what extent Americanism influenced the Beach Boys’ long-lost album Smile.

However, unlike postmodernism and art-pop, patriotism is a fundamental political force around the world, constantly invoked as justification for political opinions and actions. Its ambiguity allows it to conform to different ideologies and prejudices, and by describing it only as love, we risk overlooking its darker aspects – the xenophobia, military aggression and populism that also associate with national sentiment.

Nevertheless, we are not much closer to definition of patriotism. Nor, you could be forgiven for thinking, will we ever be, given its historically proven flexibility and subjectivity. There are a couple of ways forward. Either we search for a broader patriotic definition that includes not just love but all variations on national feeling: support, shame, pride, anger and so on. Or we try and channel what we think is best about patriotism and fashion it into a safer, nobler sentiment – the patriotism of Lincoln and King, say, or the moral hopes Mazzini had for the Italian nation.

Both these attempts have their attractions and difficulties, and it is to these that we shall turn our attention next time.


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