As Independence Day approaches, one hears the words “patriot” and “patriotism” bandied about more frequently than at other times during the year.
The words fall easily from speechifiers’ lips these days, but as far as I can tell, those who use the words often lack sincerity, a clear vision or appropriate context.
My dictionary defines a patriot as “a person who loves, supports and defends his country and its interests with devotion.”
Not bad. But common usage has diluted the meaning. Demagogues throw the term about as if it were a golden robe or armor that they can wrap themselves in to lend stature to whatever grandiose rhetoric they spout.
And, of course, the terms can be used accusingly, as in “You’re no patriot,” or “You’re not patriotic.”
The fact is that “patriot” and “patriotism” depend heavily on context and the person who people believe personifies the terms.
Patrick Henry, for instance, epitomized the word when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
The same goes for our servicemen, who volunteered to fight, and possibly to die for our country.
And you know the feeling when you get a lump in your throat as you sing the National Anthem.
But, “You’re not patriotic if you litter,” or “It’s patriotic to watch fireworks on the Fourth,” seems to trivialize the concept.
The fact is that patriotism turns out to be an extremely complicated philosophical concept, about which there is little agreement.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quotes Northeastern University philosopher Stephen Nathanson’s definition of patriotism as “(1) Special affection for one’s own country, (2) A sense of personal identification with the country, (3) Special concern for the well-being of the country, and (4) Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.”
Still, thinkers are at odds about the underlying issues. Novelist Leo Tolstoy, writing when the czars ruled Russia, thought patriotism was stupid and immoral. Machiavelli predictably contended that when the safety of one’s country is at stake, anything goes. Socrates felt that gratitude is the basis for one’s fidelity to country. Others cite duty, obligation and special concern for one’s fellow citizens.
As you can see, there appear to be as many concepts as there are people – and politicians – willing to use the terms.
But you and I know the genuine article when we hear it. It is like recognizing sincerity, or for that matter, insincerity. You just have to listen closely and consider the source.