The Accidental Patriot

This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?

July Fourth Brooklyn Greenpoint

I take patriotism very seriously.

Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.


Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.

“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”

“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.

“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”

I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.

It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.

After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.

Dutch Coronation Bakery

Monarchy never looked so delicious. (Visible signs of patriotism were everywhere in Amsterdam.)


This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”

Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.

This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.

Monet 14 Juillet

Monet’s depiction of Bastille Day in Paris is  misleading —  the only place you’ll see this many French flags is a European football stadium.

When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”

My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.

I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”

I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.

Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”

“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”

Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”

“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”

“Oh.” I fell silent.

Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepybut apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)

I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…

It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.

It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.

And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.


Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.

But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.

On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.

American Flag Sunglasses

And thanks to these shades, I could see pretty far.


8 thoughts on “The Accidental Patriot

  1. I certainly don’t feel comfortable hoisting the stars and stripes anywhere where it could be associated to me. Not on my house, not in my office, and certainly not on my gas-guzzling freedom-machine. Upon seeing my name, your gut reaction might be to think “communist!”, but I assure you that the snowy steppes of the Motherland do not inspire any feeling of patriotic or nationalistic unity in me either.

    You describe and cling to a fleeting moment of national unity in the face of events such as bombings, shootings, and terror, but this is a sad reason to be unified. That’s not patriotism, that’s nationalism. However, one does not have to look back so far in the carbon record of this country to find vestiges of true patriotism: a cultural backbone formed by a common literary canon and a genuine appreciation for America’s place in history — see, for example, the Lincoln Douglas debates, and try to imagine words displaying a similar level of respect for the common man being uttered by a contemporary candidate. Those debates were intended equally for, and studied by, farmers and miners as well as the bureaucrats and intelligentsia of the time. Could such a thing hold meaning for such a wide swath of people today? That’s the real meaning of a patriotic country, and with the brainwashing, the exceptionalism, the “tolerance”, in short, with the peculiar American brand of nihilism that we all have been pushed to practice since our first days in the classroom, any chance for such a cohesiveness has been lost together with the motivation for real learning.

    These things *do* disqualify one from patriotism. The flag is not the representation of some ideal if the country it belongs to does nothing to uphold that ideal. The flag is literally a drape over the cage into which are stuffed all tragedies of all the commons propagated by that country, and if you only raise the flag and love your neighbor when a war has been declared, when an Enemy of the State has been murdered without trial, or when a city drowns in catharsis while it congratulates itself with being able to continue normal existence after a Marathon bombing, then you are not a patriot. You are a nationalist.

    Nationalism has not, to my knowledge, led to any global good, and even on a small scale, for every example you can scrounge of people helping others only because they were of the same nationality, there are two examples of the opposite scenario. If you want to be a patriot, that’s fantastic, but that requires a knowledge and love of the country’s literature, history, and culture, and then you will not need any flags to feel love for those who are living that same culture with you. But if you just want to rejoice in the spoils of war, well, that’s also a decision that one can make.

    • How did I know that you were going to take issue with this post? =P

      Anyway, I appreciate your point, but ultimately I disagree and it saddens me that you feel this way. To me, it seems as if you’re conflating nationalism and patriotism. Blind, reckless support for state is not what I advocate. What I’m talking about is compassionate affinity for people who share a common living culture and set of principles (in theory — yes, the reality is different, but show me a part of the world or even a time in history where that’s *not* the case).

      During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, there were 4 million slaves in the US. Far from the Utopian picture you paint of farmers and intelligentsia fawning over words of respect for the common man, this was an extremely ugly time in US history. Similarly, you can argue (and I would agree) that ugliness, hatred, fear, and brutality permeate contemporary culture — but these evils are neither unique to the US nor to modernity, for the simple reason that nations are made of people and people are made of weaknesses, as well as strengths.

      Should we throw our hands in the air, concluding then that we may as well let the worst parts of ourselves and the worst segments of our societies define us? Should we resignedly disassociate ourselves from symbols that held and could still hold meaning, if only we didn’t drop it with disgust into the laps of those who would pollute it? If the word “patriotic” can only be used to describe those who “rejoice in the spoils of war,” as you say — then hasn’t the country already been lost to the warmongers, and aren’t you the one waving the flag of surrender?

      • Please don’t be saddened! This is one of many topics that many people seem to be incapable of discussing without the involvement of sentimentalism, which reduces it to a string of personal attacks. That’s not my intent! I’m looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks.

        You knew I would take issue because, let’s face it, I’m a pretty stereotypical 20-something representative of the current counterculture. A beard with a beer on a bicycle, reading Oswald Spengler at the farmer’s market.

        Anyway, you may be talking about a compassionate affinity for a common culture, but when does this phenomenon manifest itself? Sure, the French wouldn’t flood the streets hollering and high-fiving (or maybe la bise-ing) each other in response to some event, but you know what they do that we seem to struggle with? They vote. Which seems like a more genuine expression of concern for their country? Which is the more profound exhibit of patriotism?

        My argument is that there is no “common living culture” in modern America, and as such, it is impossible for the public to have any real sense of patriotism that does not whiff of nationalism. That was the reason I chose the Lincoln-Douglas debates as my one example: not because it harks back to some golden age of morality (quite the contrary, as you rightly point out, but as I’ll mention in a bit, that’s sort of a historical invariant), but because it was a time when the public had opinions that individuals were able to defend in a meaningful way, and the national discourse reflected those opinions and debates that the people were having. I say “defend in a meaningful way” because it seems impossible today to talk about any controversial topic without the conversation very rapidly becoming a blitzkrieg of emotion. People decide how the “feel” about a topic, and whether the topic at hand makes them feel “cold prickly” or “warm fuzzy”, all rational discussion becomes impossible, whether it’s about the sustainability of an economic policy based on the assumption of perpetual growth, or the eerie similarities between the USA’s current involvement in the Middle East and the First and Second Crusades (with regards to both the Arab world and to Israel), or pretty much any other politically significant topic you can name. I don’t expect people to agree with me, but I do expect people who wish to express a point of view to be able to defend it. And if the topics that are relevant to the country and relevant to the culture are things that people have hard, fast and completely unjustified, pre-programmed opinions about, then there is no living culture; the culture has become a stagnant pool. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were significant because they were debates, and they really did signify a living culture. No such thing is possible now.

        As for your point about slavery, you’re absolutely right. However, that hasn’t changed, as the overabundance of artificially cheap energy over the past century combined with a growing sense of entitlement has led to no less effective slavery, the only difference being that now it’s off-shored.

        The worst parts of our societies are making every effort to define us, and if we use the symbolism that they give us, we are letting them do so. I do love American culture. I love Steinbeck and the Hudson River School. I love that when I bike through a village in the Sierra Nevadas with a population of a few hundred on a Sunday afternoon, there’s a phone number on the door only general store in town and, when I call it, the owner gladly opens the shop for me and lets me top off my water bottles, smiling even though I only buy two 50-cent granola bars. That’s a uniquely American experience. But I will not feel any compassionate affinity because someone, somewhere has perpetrated an unforgivable act of violence in the name of the flag, and I will certainly not drape that flag on display in celebration of such.

        The chief difference between patriotism and nationalism is, as I see it, motivation. Patriotism is a celebration of a common culture, and nationalism is a celebration of a common enemy. The idea that everyone is a unique snowflake and that all views should be equally respected has killed any common culture, so what’s left is the latter, and the candlelight vigils, and the high-fives at Osama’s murder, and even the defeat of that enemy Bush, are exactly that.

  2. “The chief difference between patriotism and nationalism is, as I see it, motivation. Patriotism is a celebration of a common culture, and nationalism is a celebration of a common enemy. ”

    Really enjoying reading this exchange. I’m not necessarily sure I completely agree with it but what an undeniably fantastic line.

      • George, I hope I didn’t give you the impression that I felt personally attacked! I’m actually really happy that you’re taking the time to present your point of view. Your argument is both eloquent and substantial, so I am definitely being challenged here to think more carefully about the constructs on which I base my opinion. That’s awesome, and totally welcome (in other words — warm fuzzy, not cold prickly)!

        One point that you make and which I have to concede is voter turnout in France. When you look at those stats (I think it’s 70+% voter turnout in France vs. under 50% in the US), they seem to suggest that the French are more genuinely invested in the betterment of their country. This is an excellent observation, and I completely agree that voting is a more profound form of patriotism than flag-waving. I regret that my post only addressed the more superficial forms of patriotism, when this is a subject which can be explored at a much deeper level.

        Where you and I part ways is the question of living culture. Where you see a “stagnant pool,” I see a thriving ecosystem. Of course there are those who react to topics with entrenched prejudice and pure emotional resistance — but this was just as true during the days of Lincoln-Douglas as it is today. I would say it was probably even *more* true back then. After all, as you may recall, a significant enough contingent of Americans held on to their “hard, fast and completely unjustified, pre-programmed opinions” that a Civil War broke out only a couple years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

        With regards to your point about the distinction between celebrating a common culture and celebrating a common enemy — I think this is a statement which *sounds* smart and snappy, but is ultimately specious. Sometimes celebrating a common culture means defending it against a common enemy, and I don’t intend that as militant statement *at all*. I simply don’t agree with your interpretation of cohesiveness in the wake of tragedies and attacks as some sick symptom of nationalism. On the contrary, I see these episodes of unity as understandable acknowledgements of our common humanity in the face of very real existential threats.

        I will have to leave my argument at that. Actually, I think our views are much more closely aligned than these blocks of texts would suggest. I’m a pacifist socialist feminist who also considers herself patriotic. I just can’t be convinced there is some contradiction in that.

      • I’m happy to leave it at that for now, thanks for taking the time to respond at all. It’s usually the case that points of view which seem very disparate end up only truly differing in very small but fundamental ways, provided they are well thought out. There’s a fantastic quote to that extent by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., but I can’t be arsed to dig for it at the moment (it’s somewhere in “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table”).

        I’d certainly like to hear your thoughts on Allan Bloom’s book “The Closing of the American Mind,” as well as on the interpretations of history offered by Spengler or Toynbee, should you ever get around to caring about such things. Much of my ability to formulate my current ideas is due to these works.

        I’ve got my own little bundle of contradictions that I carry around with me, so I’ll cease trying to rob you of yours 🙂

      • *Tentative hand raise* Will there be a review session before the final? 😀

        Anyway, thanks. That was fun, and I look forward to seeing you!

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