The Case for Mature Patriotism
We have unconsciously slipped into the trap of choosing between a love for the exceptional qualities of our country and the acknowledgment of its real flaws. Patriotism demands more nuance.
I remember first coming to the United States at age seven. Everything was so different. After landing and getting some rest from our long overseas flight, the family we were staying with took us on a drive along the palm tree-lined streets of Southern California. This was the warm summer evening of our first McDonald’s drive-through experience. The initial bite of that hamburger was unforgettable. But it was the smell of the fast food and the sound of the paper bags and food wrappers being opened in the car that will always stay with me. More than the sensory overload, I was struck, even at that young age, with how open, big, and free everything seemed. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this new country that I would soon consider home. While the story of each immigrant to the United States is unique, there is a common theme that binds them together. For most newcomers to America, there is a lasting appreciation and reverence for a country that seems to open its arms wide to those seeking something new and different and better.
The concept of patriotism – devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country – is, of course, not restricted to immigrants or to America. It is a notion that has elicited from many a fierce, and oftentimes blind, defense. At the same time, love for one’s country has been the subject of ongoing, intense debate. Perhaps more so today than ever. In the most recent Gallup survey, only 42 percent of Americans said they were “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American, down from 69 percent just two decades ago.
Part of this decline in patriotism is a byproduct of a nation that is increasingly willing to take a hard look at and reckon with the sins of its past. But I believe most of the decline is due to a far too simplistic view of patriotism itself. We have unconsciously slipped into the trap of choosing between a love for the exceptional qualities of our country and the acknowledgment of its real flaws. This either/or choice has led to a tragic politicization of patriotism and an increasingly polarized population where many are left fearful that the simple and sacred act of flying the American flag may be misconstrued as an expression of extremism.
Like any complex phenomenon, patriotism demands and deserves more nuance. We must acknowledge that there is wisdom in both poles – in this case, celebration of one’s country on the one hand, and challenge of one’s country on the other. When we over-preference one pole to the neglect of the other, we experience the downside of the preferred pole and are robbed of the benefits of its opposite. In the case of patriotism, an unquestioned, perhaps zealous, support of one’s country can result in a nationalistic arrogance and intolerance unbecoming of America’s ideals. Worse yet, an unexamined patriotism risks being blind to a country’s need for constant introspection and an obscuration of the universality of humanity that transcends national boundaries. Likewise, the excessive denigration of America’s exceptional contributions can lead to a pathology of guilt that serves no one and misses the inherent virtue that results from one taking pride in the accomplishments of a collective people.
What we need instead is a mature patriotism that honors both the need to celebrate and the need to challenge. This requires more complexity of thinking and more courage. The alternative is a country increasingly polarized between those who exaggerate American exceptionalism and those who unfairly deny its greatness. The bringing together of people from different backgrounds and beliefs was American’s great original promise. We would be wise to use the country’s 245th birthday as an opportunity to do just that. We can start by bringing some maturity, wisdom, and nuance to the very subject of patriotism itself.
Arthur Brooks’ latest column in The Atlantic, “The Happy Patriot, the Unhappy Nationalist,” is worth reading.
Paul Graham’s latest essay, “How to Work Hard,” is excellent. One of my favorite lines: “If great talent and great drive are both rare, then people with both are rare squared.”
I greatly appreciate Dan Rose, Chairman of Coatue Ventures, for his Tweet threads in which he shares lessons from his years at Amazon and Facebook. This one on the bias to action from Amazon is great.