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Patriotism: the Future of an Illusion

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In the 1930s Sigmund Freud penned an essay, The Future of an Illusion, wherein he argued that religion and its illusions will eventually fall to the facts and truths of scientific reasoning. Not too many years later, another psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, articulated a nuanced view, claiming that illusions are part of human life and, in some circumstances, they are beneficial. This shift required analysts to consider illusions within the context of the patient’s overall well-being. What is the illusion and does the illusion lead to constructive behaviors, meaningful interactions, or vitalizing experiences? Yet moving out of the therapist’s room into the larger society life becomes complicated. A shared illusion may contribute to constructive behaviors within a particular group may lead to negative consequences for those outside it. Wealthy Wall Street traders, holding fast to illusions about the economic system, may find their work meaningful and beneficial for themselves and their families, yet contribute to much misery among the poorer denizens of society. If we turn to the illusion of white superiority, it is clear that whites have reaped numerous benefits from racism’s illusions, while African Americans and other people of color clearly have not. So when it comes to illusions a group holds dear we need to ask who benefits from these illusions. Who suffers when others hold onto and live out their illusions? Are these the illusions we want to hold onto into the future?

Patriotism and, in particular, U.S. patriotism, like other systems of belief, possesses illusions and likewise falls within an area of ambiguity regarding its positive and negative consequences. In the simplest terms patriotism means love of country and the specific attributes of one’s country and its history give patriotism its hues. In the United States, patriotic love is almost always accompanied by the illusion of U.S. exceptionalism—a belief that Tocqueville noted, with some irritation, in the 19th century:

If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, aye he replies and there is none its equal in the world. If I applaud the freedom its inhabitants enjoy, he answers “freedom is a fine thing but few nations are worthy of it.” If I remark on the purity of morals that distinguishes the United States he declares “I can imagine that a stranger who has witnessed the corruption which prevails in other nations would be astonished at the difference.” At length I leave him to a contemplation of himself. But he returns to the charge and does not desist until he has got me to repeat all I have been saying. It is impossible to conceive of a more troublesome and garrulous patriotism. (in Niebuhr, 1952, p.28)

This belief in exceptionalism was held long before the United States became a superpower, though it seems to have become even more entrenched. Today, a response to a modern day Tocqueville might point to the United States’ military power as proof of its exceptional status. The curious thing about illusions and their knotty persistence is that one can gather whatever evidence fits the criteria, “proving” to oneself the reality, in this case, of U.S. exceptionalism.  There is, in other words, a circular kind of reasoning. For the fellows Tocqueville encountered, the nation was exceptional because of their perceived freedom and morality. Today military/economic power is the criterion for exceptionalism. Tomorrow, when military and economic power decline, patriots will no doubt find other criteria to confirm the illusion of exceptionalism. The future of circular reasoning is that it never encounters disillusionment.

The garrulous patriot would be aghast to think that U.S. exceptionalism is an illusion. It is inconceivable. Where is the proof? This is not unlike trying to reason with a person who is in the throes of romantic bliss. My partner is exceptional; let me show you the ways. The illusions that accompany idealization are seemingly impervious, not simply to facts, but to logic. Indeed, illusions accompany an emotional logic that resists questions, alternative perspectives, and judicious reasoning. Let’s first take Tocqueville’s patriot. When Tocqueville raises the point that there are other democracies, the gentleman simply pivots to saying that Americans are the ones who truly merit the freedom that attends democracy. There is, in this case, no offer of evidence, just a simplistic statement of belief that shuts down further discussion, let alone proof. The same approach can be said for the comment about corruption and morality. If we come to the present day emphasis on American military and economic might, the situation is different. Instead of simply touting a belief, a patriot could point to evidence. But this is spurious evidence, because it involves the circular logic of defining the notion of exceptionalism by the criteria one devises and the evidence one uses. It is also analogous to saying that the richest and most physically martial kid—who intimidates, coerces, and bullies other kids in school—is exceptional. True, the kid is rich and rarely loses a fight, but are those the criteria we wish to use to define exceptional?

In the U.S.’ style of patriotism the illusion of exceptionalism almost seems to support one’s love and devotion to the country. Could we continue to love the U.S. if it were not exceptional, if it were not a superpower? I suspect some people will lose their sense of love and affection when the U.S. loses it military/economic standing. Others may simply opt for other criteria as suggested above and still others will toil to make America great again. Even if we were to remove the illusion of exceptionalism from patriotism, we would still find the illusion of love for one’s country. Consider the object of this patriotic love. What does it mean to love a country? Does that mean we love all of the territory? Do we love all the citizens or residents? Do we love all the diverse cultures and religions? Maybe we love the symbol—the values and meanings for which the country stands. Do we love the country’s economy? Do we love it for its Constitution? The object of patriotic love is both real and an abstract illusion. It is real to the extent that the person feels affection and devotion. It is an abstract illusion because there is no clear object of love. And when we get to the specifics no patriot loves every single American—at least I have seen no evidence of this. Perhaps this abstract love is what political philosopher Hannah Arendt was responding to when she wrote: “I have never…‘loved’ any people or collective—neither German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working-class or anything of that sort.  I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I believe in is the love of persons. (Hannah Arendt, in Johnston, 2007, p.21)

Of course the abstract illusion of patriotism is quite powerful; motivating some people to kill on behalf of the country or to die protecting what the “country” says must be defended. Freud knew well the power of illusions. That human beings can engage in feats of prowess and heroics for the love of an idea, of an abstract object, confirms just how powerful illusions are. It also confirms that the illusory object of patriotic love is often saved from the more mundane and corrupt aspects of society. A soldier, for instance, may realize that the war s/he is fighting is unjust and initiated by politicians to serve their own political and economic interests. This disillusionment with regard to leaders may not touch the love the soldier has for the country. It is the politicians who have failed the people. The country as an object of devotion remains pure. And yes, if this sounds close to religion we must acknowledge it. There is a religious aspect of patriotism, especially in the U.S. because love binds oneself to the abstract object that is beyond reproach—an object that transcends the routine and mundane. This is not unlike the religious acknowledgement that human beings are sinners, but the object of devotion is free from sin. A patriot can acknowledge the failures of citizens and politicians while the object of love remains untainted.

Before considering the future of patriotism, there is one more interesting illusory twist to American style patriotism. Understandably, loving one’s country signifies one’s identification with the country, providing the individual with a sense of identity. It is a short step to the belief that patriotism is a requirement for an American identity and, thus, for citizenship.  The bumper sticker, “America, Love it or Leave It,” represents this kind of thinking. Any citizen who is critical of the U.S. and does not love his/her country is perceived to be un-American, as if not possessing an American identity. Of course, thankfully there is no constitutional requirement to love one’s country to be a citizen, let alone a good citizen. Instead, it is only a demand of those who wish to retain the illusion of a pure object-country and to bask in the shadow of an idealized, illusory identity. “I love my country and it is exceptional because it is the most powerful in the world.” The benefit of this love is an identity associated with exceptionalism and power.

Naturally, not every patriot holds the view above and some patriotic people are quite critical of the country or, more precisely, aspects of the country and not the country as a whole. We might say these are more reasonable patriots—people who can be self-critical and realistic about the nation’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, patriots of this type are in the minority. Worse, because of their love for country, they are easily seduced to advocate for the interests of Americans, overlooking or denying the needs and experiences of others. Consider the fact that any real or imagined threat to the U.S. has resulted in the overwhelming acceptance of war and other forms of violence. An example of this is one of the 20th century’s political and oft-quoted intellectuals, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was tepidly critical of the country and supported U.S. interventions overseas. Niebuhr’s patriotism was tempered by his Christian beliefs and values, though he sounded more American than Christian. More recently, thoughtful, reflective patriots initially advocated for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only later, did many take a more critical stance, though this was after the loss of much blood and treasure. So, the thoughtful and reasonable patriot of today is no less susceptible to the illusions of love and exceptionalism, than his/her more ardent acritical patriotic fellows. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that reflective patriots are, in times of anxiety and stress, as dangerous and myopic as the more zealous lovers of country.

That there are illusions in patriotism is not an argument against its future. Instead, it merely points to the ambiguities that accompany idealized love of one’s country. It can inspire great feats of heroism, deep generosity, and shared identity, as well as cruelty, bigotry, and xenophobia. I am confident that emphasizing heroism, generosity, and shared identity provides fodder for those who argue for its future, while cruelties and tribalism proffer evidence for believing that the future of patriotism is bleak.  Are these side balanced? Does the good that attends patriotism outweigh its sins? This is difficult to answer as well, because if one were to point to a sin, say the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a patriot might object, arguing that the Japanese started the war (a partial illusion) or that the bombings likely saved a million lives of American soldiers (another illusion). We are to conclude from this that the U.S. is innocent—another illusion. The long list of cruelties and injustice perpetrated by Americans within and outside the country can, with a little mental illusory gymnastics, be easily explained away by patriots. Ethnic cleansings of American Indians, slavery and slave labor camps, Mexican, Spanish-American wars, numerous other wars and military excursions, Japanese Internment camps are just some of the events that can be explained away using patriotic illusions. Yet, even in this we learn that the benefits of patriotism, more often than not, fall to those who most loudly proclaim it.

In my opinion, patriotism leads to too many negative consequences for people who feel the boot of the American Empire. Sure, conservative historians like Niall Fergusson and Max Boot, can tout the security and economic benefits of empire, in particular the American Empire, but at what cost and to whom. Pax America is not all that different than Pax Romano or the British and Spanish Empires—peace and wealth for the metropole, insecurity, violence, terror, and exploitation elsewhere.  Given this, we might expect that the future of the illusion is good, in the sense that it will survive and continue to give patriots a shared sense of identity while extending U.S.’ exceptional economic and military power. Yet, in a world where future cooperation among diverse nations will be necessary to maintain a habitable earth, the parochialism of patriotism seems more an obstacle than a benefit.

Some anxious person might wonder what will replace patriotism, suggesting that patriotism is essential for shared identity and cooperation within the nation state. That patriotism and its illusions provide persons with a positive shared sense of identity and that a shared identity can facilitate citizens’ cooperation toward common goals are without question. But I wish to make a case against the future of patriotism. First, patriotism is essential neither to citizenship nor a shared identity. Love of country, in other words, is not crucial for civic cooperation in working toward the common good. Much of life in the polis is not contingent on shared identity, though it may often be assumed. I live in Kentucky, but I do not need to love Kentucky to respect and work with my fellow Kentuckians (or whoever else comes to this state). Love of one’s country or state is not necessary for citizenship and cooperation. Second, it is possible to consider the idea of citizenship in much broader ways. I am reminded of what Virginia Woolf said: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world” (Virginia Woolf, in Nava, 2007, p.54). We may have our particular identities and customs, but we are citizens of the world with a common future—as global warming informs us. Patriotism undermines global citizenship and, more often than not, interferes with global cooperation. The emerging catastrophes and exponential rise of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases reveal to most of us that habitat is not simply local, it is universal. There is one world habitat and if we continue to hold tightly to our patriotic illusions and hubris we will undermine collective efforts to deal with present and future problems associated with global warming. If we are going to cherish an illusion, if we are going to love and be devoted to an abstract object, we will be better served to love our shared world.

I suspect the illusions of patriotism will continue to exist in the future, but I believe the future is made bleaker by its presence. A future where patriotism is limited to a small percentage of citizens feels more hopeful, even in the face of the calamities of global warming. Our shared home invites a common identity as human beings—earthlings—who must cooperate together toward the common good of all humanity.  The poet W. H. Auden, in giving a stark choice that is even truer today, writes, “We must love one another or die.”

References

Johnston, S. (2007). The truth about patriotism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nava, M. (2007). The unconscious and others. In C. Bainbridge, S. Radstone, M. Rustin, & C. Yates (Eds.). Culture and the unconscious (41-57). New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Niebuhr, R. (1952). The irony of American history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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