"Patriotism" is maybe as thorny a word as exists in the English language. It shifts shapes depending on the prism you see the world through; whether a person, action, laws or word is patriotic is solely in the eye of the beholder. Just ask 30 different people from around the country if war protests, flag burnings and, say, Obamacare are patriotic, and you'll quickly catch my drift.
For the 4th of July, when American patriotism is, depending on your viewpoint, at either its best or worst, we've rounded up quotes from four American writers on one of the slipperiest, most open-to-interpretation words in our vernacular.
Mark Twain, “The Czar's Soliloquy”:
"Remember this, take it to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it."
I've included Twain here because, do I really have a choice? This quote is frequently shortened and euphemized by folks — including our sitting president — as "patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it," presumably to make Twain's views a bit shorter and more center palatable. It's also probably the most common quote on the patriotism plastered across the Internet. (Believe me, I've looked.)
But Twain isn't directly addressing American patriotism here; the quote is lifted from a piece written in response to Tsar Nicholas II's 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre, and Twain’s words are directed at the citizens of Russia. Still, the sentiment is clear: The best interest of a country and its people and the best interest of a government are frequently at odds, and if in the 20th century patriotism should matter at all, it’s in a manner that values reason above blind devotion.
Barbara Ehrenreich, “Family Values”:
“No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”
Ehrenreich, a muckraker extraordinaire, has never been shy about where she sits on the political spectrum. She's prided herself on being one of those rare folks who doesn't think "socialism" is a curse word and has made a living calling the American Dream a mythological creature. Her past book titles include Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. That is to say, when it comes to matters of country, her heart bleedeth not. (She also apparently has a thing for flippant parentheses usage.)
The above passage is lifted from an essay that's mostly about how empty she found the "morality" of the Reagan years in America. In Ehrenreich's mind, the true patriots in the United States are the folks willing to stand staunchly against its values. She claims to have inherited this quality from her father, who started traveling down the road to dissent after committing maybe the greatest affront to American values imaginable: pissing in holy water.
Christopher Hitchens, “On Becoming American”:
“The best I could do was to say that in America your internationalism can and should be your patriotism. I still rather like the clumsiness of what I said. In finishing my Jefferson book I concluded more sententiously that the American Revolution is the only revolution that still resonates.”
Hitchens was a famously complex intellect with nuanced political opinions. Given his open hatred of religion and "enhanced interrogation," you'd think he was every bit a liberal, but those views didn't prevent him from spitting acid at all things labelled "Clinton" and being a hawkish supporter of the Iraq War.
Forget that Hitchens was British born and Oxford educated, with a thick English accent he maintained even after decades living in the United States; he wrote the quote above as an American. Hitchens adopted the United States as his country later in life and was unwavering in his love for the founding voices of America, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. The quote comes from a piece he wrote reflecting on 9/11, which led to his decision to become a naturalized American. As an expat himself, when it came to America being a haven for "huddled masses," Hitchens leaned against easy cynicism.
David Foster Wallace, "This is Water":
“Patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers.”
Delivered in the middle of a typically huge and wildly meandering Wallace-onian sentence in his now-famous 2005 Kenyon graduation speech, this quote in context is meant to address the dangers of approaching life in a constantly pissed off frame of mind. Still, this is obviously an observation Wallace (and most of us) have still actually made at some point: The thorny part of thinking that your country is so fucking exceptional is the attitude of entitlement that follows.
Like Hitchens, the last thing you could ever call DFW was an ideologue. Despite open disdain for George W. Bush’s administration, there was that time Wallace called Rush Limbaugh an "extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent," and that time he loved on John McCain for 124 pages. But unlike Hitchens, he never rattled off his political opinions with so much gusto that you might have believed they were matters of fact. In that spirit, the above quote is more of a reflection on adult life and his own internal monologue than any sort of political statement.
For what's probably a slightly more direct musing on patriotism, check out his post-9/11 Rolling Stone essay, which never actual uses the word. It's about flags. It's good.
Does America’s penchant for flag displays and the pledges of allegiance leave you with a great tingly feeling or a bad taste in your mouth? Or is it all a little bit more complicated than that? Alternatively, which other American writers had viewpoints on the subject that are worth repeating? Let us know in the comments below.
Adam D’Arpino is a Brooklyn-based culture, entertainment and comedy wordsmith. He’s written for MTV, CollegeHumor, Nerve and more. He also came up with this Seinfeld movie poster thing that the Internet got pretty excited about last year. You can follow him on Twitter: @AdamDArpino
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