Pride and shame: patriotism as a contested concept

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

Donald Trump’s declaration of a ‘National Day of Patriotic Devotion’ raises a big question: which patriotism? The philosopher W. B. Gallie invented the idea of essentially contested concepts, whose ‘proper use,’ as he put it, ‘inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.’[1]

Patriotism is such a concept. If you define it as ‘love of country,’ you’re in the realm of metaphor. Nobody really loves a country, however you conceive of it. Self-described patriots often do love the landscape of at least parts of their country; as the son of an Englishwoman, I think of Englishness as tied up with such sentiments. ‘Oh to be in England,’ Robert Browning wrote, celebrating birds and flowers of spring in his native land, while deprecating the ‘gaudy melon flower’ of Italy, where he was at the time.

Loving England for its nature and countryside, however, wouldn’t have you loving the nation-state (which doesn’t seem, in any case, like the kind of thing you could love) and certainly wouldn’t mean loving the government. And almost no one can claim to love all their fellow citizens. Nor are any of these kinds of love likely to be, as Dr. Johnson famously put it, ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ (What Dr. Johnson presumably had in mind wasn’t, in any case, being patriotic but pretending to be patriotic.)

What’s more, when someone claims patriotism, they are of course thinking of it as a virtue. But loving your country is surely only a virtue if your country deserves your love. Commending love of country is usually commending the country itself, though some people admit that they love their country, right or wrong. That’s why we speak of love, I think: love – romantic, familial, brotherly, sisterly – is not something you earn, and not something you can usually lose through bad behavior. Love is, in a certain way, uncritical, which is why I don’t think it’s a good attitude to have toward the nation-state, which is prone to do terrible things if we don’t keep a critical eye on it.

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My own favorite way of thinking about patriotism is somewhat different. And my definition, too, is meant to capture something that I think can be a virtue. The patriot I say identifies with her country. She thinks of it as profoundly hers. And she imagines it as a character on the world’s stage, acting things out. The test of this sentiment is simple: do you feel pride when your country does what is good or beautiful, and do you feel shame when it does what is evil or tawdry?

Thinking of it that way, most modern patriots are bound to be conflicted much of the time; for modern states are, indeed, constantly doing things of which some are good and beautiful and of which others are evil and tawdry. You put your state in the hands of the people. The people pick governors. But the temptations of power are great, and so the governors misbehave in our name. But sometimes – because we, the people, make it plain that many of us expect it of them, or because they themselves are decent and honorable, or because a well-ordered constitution makes it easy or necessary to do so – they do something in our names that can make us proud.

The shame though is, in a way, more important: for the patriot’s sense of shame means she has to work hard to do what she can to erase the stain. Donald Trump’s histrionic nastiness is a stain on the Republic that has already motivated millions to march against him. In my view, that’s patriotism at work.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University

[1] “Essentially Contested Concepts”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.56, (1956), pp. 167–198.

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

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