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Can Patriotism Be Critical?



In this chapter I develop a pragmatic defense of critical patriotism, one that recognizes the many personal and social benefits of patriotic sentiment yet which is also infused with a passion for justice. Though the argument is pragmatic given the ubiquity of patriotic sentiment, I argue that critical patriotism is able to reconcile a love of one’s country with an ardent determination to reform and improve it.
Critical Patriotism
Michael S. Merry
Patriotism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. .. .. . . .. .. . .. . . .. .. .. . . .. .. .. . . . .. .. . . .. .. .. . . .. .. . .. . . .. 3
The Perils of Patriotism ........................................................................... 5
American Patriotism: A Cautionary Tale ........................................................ 8
The Possibility of a Critical Patriotism ........................................................... 11
How to Promote Critical Patriotism . . . ........................................................... 13
References . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
In this chapter, the author develops a pragmatic defense of critical patriotism, one
that recognizes the many personal and social benets of patriotic sentiment yet
which is also infused with a passion for justice. Though the argument is pragmatic
given the ubiquity of patriotic sentiment, the author argues that critical patriotism
is able to reconcile a love of ones country with an ardent determination to reform
and improve it.
Patriotism · Loyal patriotism · Critical patriotism · Moral cosmopolitanism ·
American patriotism
Precisely at the point where you begin to develop a conscience you must nd yourself at war
with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an
educated person.
James Baldwin
M.S. Merry (*)
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
#Springer International Publishing AG 2018
M. Sardoč(ed.), Handbook of Patriotism,
Dont allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded.
Distrust any speaker who talks condently about we, or speaks in the name of us. Distrust
yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and
majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and
tyranny and tribalism.
Christopher Hitchens
Compare, if you will, two scenarios. On the morning of November 16, 2015, 2 days
after a terrorist plot had left more than 120 dead in various locations scattered
throughout Paris, the French Parliament opened to a special session. The entire
chamber, normally divided sharply along ideological lines, solemnly sang in unison
Le Marseillaise, the national anthem. Invoking the core principles of the French
Republic liberté, fraternité, ègalité socialist president Francois Hollande
declared that France was at war.By the time his speech had been penned, French
bombers were already ying over Syria, hitting strategic ISIS targets. It was a
familiar scene. Terrorist attacks in New York (2001), Madrid (2004), London
(2005), Paris and Nice (2015), and nally Brussels and Berlin in 2016: each
predictably led to a militarist response laced with patriotic rhetoric. Both security
measures and immigration quotas would be tightened. Surveillance requiring the
tapping of phones and access to email would be mandated. Certain neighborhoods
would be patrolled. These and many other procedures are easily pushed through the
typically sluggish decision-making machinery of government, and the reasons
offered could be easily specied: clear and present danger. European populists
eager to close borders and stop immigration now speak of a patriotic spring
(See, for example, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wildersspeech: https://www.
In the summer of 2016, coinciding with a tense period of time involving multiple
police shootings of black men, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick
began refusing to stand for the singing of the national anthem at the start of each
football game. When asked about his actions, he unapologetically offered, I will not
stand up to show pride in a ag for a country that oppresses black people [...] To me,
this is bigger than football and it would be selsh on my part to look the other way.
Kaepernick would be widely criticized by fans and the media alike, even receiving a
number of death threats. Meanwhile, the 49ers team management voiced no objec-
tions; President Obama, too, lent his tepid support. While Kaepernick did not label
his actions patriotic,sport legend, author, and social critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
vigorously defended Kaepernicks right to protest as a patriotism consistent with the
best strains of American liberalism. Perhaps most signicantly, a large number of
military veterans openly supported his actions, and within weeks, thousands of other
professional, college, and even high school athletes had begun kneeling in protest
across the country against the actions of their nations law enforcement.
Though in very different yet recognizable ways, I submit that both cases illustrate
ways of being patriotic. In the rst case, and through understandable fear of arbitrary
terror, patriotic emotions were exploited to again confer new powers on the state for
surveillance, police stop-and-search, and even for amending immigration law. In the
2 M.S. Merry
second case, a ritual that occurs thousands of times each day across the United States
was seized upon by an athlete with a conscience who took the opportunity to draw
attention to systemic injustices being disproportionately applied to black men by the
police and a criminal justice system. Although Kaepernick openly outed the
patriotic ritual, in my view, his actions are consistent with patriotic dissent. And
thus inspired by Kaepernick and a long line of dissenting patriots, in this chapter, I
will take up the question of whether patriotism can be critical, i.e., whether persons
can feel deep attachment to their country, even pride of some sort, while remaining
ercely critical. My answer is not only that patriotism can be critical but also that it
I will begin by dening patriotism, parsing what I believe to be a few of its core
elements. I follow this by acknowledging the many worries about patriotism and the
potential harms it can do. I then briey consider an alternative to patriotism moral
cosmopolitanism but argue that patriotism can be motivated by moral cosmopol-
itan concerns. I then use an illustration of what I call loyal patriotismand examine
and criticize its normativity in American public schools. I argue that loyal patriotism
as it currently operates in American schools more often than not produces (a) a
distorted understanding of ones country and its historical deeds, (b) a coerced
versus freely given emotional attachment to ones country, and (c) an unhealthy
attitude of national superiority. Finally, I develop a pragmatic defense of critical
patriotism, one that recognizes the many personal and social benets of patriotic
sentiment yet which is also infused with a passion for justice. Though my argument
is pragmatic given the ubiquity of patriotic sentiment, I argue that critical patriotism
is able to reconcile a love of ones country with an ardent determination to reform
and improve it.
Taken from its Latin root amor patria, at its most basic, patriotism describes the idea
that ones nation though not necessarily ones country is an object of affection,
pride, and even loyalty. (Tribes and other minority groups usually feel attached to
nations (e.g., Tibet, Catalonia, Nez Perce) or national identities, rather than to the
countries in which their nations may be situated.) But the roots of patriotism go
deeper than this; indeed, patriotisms stem from an involuntary associational mem-
bership similar to that of ones family or culture. Each is involuntary because we
generally do not choose these memberships; rather we are born and socialized into
them. And while some of us may come to repudiate this membership, or the ideas
and customs into which we were socialized, in a majority of cases, these member-
ships imperceptibly shape our identities and attachments to others with whom we
share important histories, languages, and cultures. Hence, perhaps at its most basic,
our attachments arise from that which is familiar. Yet out of this familiarity arises a
profound sense of belonging that importantly contributes to our ourishing.
Yet these descriptive observations can segue into a normative stance, for when
identication leads to a special regard that we have for some more than others,
Critical Patriotism 3
partiality describes this orientation. Consider how partiality works in the family.
Though not in every case, much of the time family life produces a morally justiable
kind of partiality necessary for fostering intimate bonds appropriate to certain kinds of
relationships in the private sphere. From these bonds of intimacy and love develop
other bonds and virtues that, as Aristotle believed, may serve as the foundation for the
cultivation of civic virtue. Civic virtue describes dispositions and actions that promote
the good of the community. The cultivation of civic virtue ought to incline persons to
care for others who share the same civic space, and it arguably is the operating
principle behind any welfare state. But civic virtue also corresponds to our shared
identities, and the more we identify with someone else, the more we might expect to
see what Samuel Schefer (1997:196198) has called presumptively decisive
reasons for actionowing to the quality of the relationship one has with the other.
Families are of course not the only relationships in which this occurs: in terms of
importance, for many people, friendships and romantic relationships often replace
those of their family in terms of importance. Participants in these bonds of affection
demonstrate concern for one another in ways that are special. When there is an
absence of affection or loyalty or when the participants in the special relationship fail
in some way, the intensity of the disappointment, frustration, and even moral outrage
is felt most intensely, given that the bonds of intimacy and trust in some way have
been violated. Yet while friendships may dissolve and individuals may grow apart,
family members do not cease being family members even when there is estrange-
ment or acrimony. Certain identities constitute who we are, and family membership
for most of us is one of the most rudimentary. Thus even when family relations may
be marked by estrangement and even acrimony, family members ordinarily under-
stand that this membership incurs certain responsibilities, e.g., to care for one
another in times of need.
Analogously, empirically speaking, the patriot also feels partiality for her nation
for many of the same reasons, i.e., given how persons have come to see themselves
in relation to their nation and fellow citizens. Moreover, whether tested by natural
calamities or other kinds of threats, compatriots often feel morally obligated to one
another owing to a circumscribed identity that importantly identies one as Finnish,
Dominican, or South Korean. Though there is doubtless something morally arbitrary
about partiality given the tendency to show favoritism to some and not others,
relationships dened by partiality will usually be those with socially salient con-
nections,i.e., those with whom we share a common bloodline, language, culture,
religion, or citizenship, though not necessarily in that order (cf. Mason 1997). This
sense of connectedness and the concomitant attachment one may have to her fellow
citizens is one that most of us feel at one time or another.
But of course the analogy concerning partiality between family members and
partiality among compatriots quickly breaks down. Surely one reason for this is that
while loyalty generally is taken to be a virtue, left to itself in most domains, it can
quickly go off the rails. Indeed, outside of the family, most of us would nd it strange
to say that one ought to be loyal to some person or object simply because it is hers,
no matter what. This smacks of the kind of loyalty that would cut against morality,
not support it. The abused spouse, the bullys loyal companion, the corporate vice-
4 M.S. Merry
president, and the political party member: each of these assumes a kind of loyalty
that we associate not with virtue but with vice (cf. Keller 2007).
Second, intimacy is rarely an emotion used to describe the relationship between
compatriots. The partiality most parents display toward their own children, and vice
versa, is not motivated by loyalty but rather by unconditional love, even if or when
family members may not particularly like one another. Indeed principled reasons can
be given for showing preferential treatment to members of ones own family and
young children in particular given how uniquely positioned we are to them, given
how duty born of love compels us, and given that the young and elderly arguably are
best cared for by family who know them well and want what is best for them. That is
far from obvious as it concerns ones compatriots. Third, citizens viewed by their
governments in the way that parents view their young children helpless, defense-
less, and incompetent to think and choose for themselves implies a moral hierarchy
that would threaten to undermine the basic principle of equal respect for (adult)
persons. The basic point is that although there are some similarities between the
partialities demonstrated within the private sphere and the public sphere, the dangers
that attend loyalties in the public sphere far outweigh their benets. To see how, we
need to appreciate what the perils of patriotism are.
The Perils of Patriotism
Perhaps only religion is able to rival patriotism in its efcacy to kindle the emotions
with respect to membership/nonmembership. Perhaps, too, only religion can rival
patriotism in its ability to stoke and nourish the allegiance of millions with a view to
achieving a set of loyalist aims. Yet, as John Kleinig (2014: 5) has observed,
Patriotic and religious loyalties, for all their soul-stirring qualities, are frequently
jingoistic, exclusionary, and even terroristic.And to the extent that persons uncrit-
ically identify with a nation, its ideals, history, institutions, and leaders, the patriot
has a cultivated disposition to act, to defend, to attack, and even to deem outsiders as
having inherently less value. It is these darker attributes of patriotism that we ought
to nd alarming. Strike up a particular anthem, invoke a folksy or vacuous epigram
(support the troops), or wave the colors of onesag in any size or fabric and the
crass tools of patriotism have the ability to render otherwise thinking individuals
blindly loyal and obedient, willing to slavishly support and defend policies and
actions that would just as quickly be condemned as odious had they been enacted by
a foreign government. Little wonder that Samuel Johnson famously regarded patri-
otism as the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1932:9292) certainly was too well aware of the
perils of patriotism:
The nation possesses in its organs of government, in the panoply and ritual of the state, in the
impressive display of its ghting services, and, very frequently, in the splendors of a royal
house, the symbols of unity and greatness, which inspire awe and reverence in the citizen.
Furthermore the love and pious attachment of a man to his countryside, to familiar scenes,
Critical Patriotism 5
sights, and experiences, around which the memories of youth have cast a halo of sanctity, all
this ows into the sentiment of patriotism; for a simple imagination transmutes the universal
benecences of nature into symbols of the peculiar blessings which a benevolent nation
bestows upon its citizens. Thus the sentiment achieves a potency in the modern soul, so
unqualied, that the nation is given carte blanche to use the power, compounded of the
devotion of individuals, for any purpose it desires.
In the twenty-rst century, many others have followed Niebuhrs prescient lead.
Christopher Hitchens (2001: 138), for instance, opines that the worst crimes are still
committed in the name of the old traditional rubbish: of loyalty to nation or orderor
leadership or tribe or faith.Paul Gomberg (2000: 92) cogently argues that the
popularization of national identity has made it possible for capitalist governments
to mobilise their populations for the most brutal wars of imperialist conquest and
mobilise them unthinkingly as their patriotic duty.More recently, Pulitzer prize
winning journalist Chris Hedges (2010: 26) writes that the uniformity of opinion,
molded by the media is reinforced through the skillfully orchestrated mass emotions
of nationalism and patriotism, which paint all dissidents as softor unpatriotic.
The patrioticcitizen,he continues, plagued by fear of job losses and possible
terrorist attacks, unfailingly supports widespread surveillance and the militarized
Taking matters further, George Kateb complains that a defense of patriotism,
given its disposition to disregard reason and morality, is nothing less than an attack
on the Enlightenment.That might be bad enough, but Kateb continues:
[Patriotism] is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or
feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend. Patriotism, then, is a
readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a gment of the imagination..[there is a]
necessary connection between patriotism and militarized death [..] it is group narcissism
without any self-restraint except for a frequently unreliable prudence, and carried to death-
dealing lengths. Patriotism is one of the more radical forms of group-thinking, or group
identity and afliation. Being armed is what makes it radical [..] it is a jealous and exclusive
loyalty. (Kateb 2000: 90710)
For critics such as Hitchens, Gomberg, Hedges, and Kateb, all patriotism is a
menace, issuing from the same insidiously undifferentiated thread. I think this
portrayal of patriotism is much too facile an assessment. Indeed I believe it is not
only possible to differentiate various articulations of patriotism; in my view, it is also
imperative that we not relinquish patriotism to conservative forces.
Still, we might ask: given the many abuses carried out under the banner of
patriotism, why encourage it at all? And in any case, why cultivate civic virtues
whose expression more often than not arbitrarily stops at the border of ones own
country? Why not, for instance, opt for a cosmopolitanvirtue, the cultivation of
which might manage to sidestep patriotisms many pitfalls? Framed as an educa-
tional corrective to ethnocentrism and prejudice more generally, the goal of a
cosmopolitan education, then, might be to show why it is dangerous to assume
that one is correct merely because a set of beliefs and values is familiar or shared by
his compatriots. Indeed, a cosmopolitan moral education might fruitfully turn its
6 M.S. Merry
attention to the cultivation of moral dispositions as well as our moral responsibilities
to others not on the basis of common citizenship but rather on the basis of our
common humanity. Persons would therefore be seen as moral ends-in-themselves,
thus possessing equal value, irrespective of their history, language, religion, or
political identity. Cosmopolitan moral education might go beyond ordinary moral
education not, as Merry and De Ruyter (2011) argue, by denying the importance of
partiality or bordersbut by showing that moral responsibility renders them contin-
gent and oftentimes irrelevant.
Attractive as this alternative is, it has been noted that one of the difculties is that
cosmopolitanismoften fails to inspire attachments needed for commitment and
action (Cafaro 2010; Miller 1995; Cottingham 1986). As I argued above, our
loyalties and affections derive rst and foremost from affections and attachments
closer to home, viz., from communities that provide a unifying focus to the moral
life(Walzer 1988: 126). Consequently politics, Martha Nussbaum (1997: 13)
opines, like childcare, will operate more effectively (and certainly, in most cases,
with greater sensitivity) if there are favored spheres or attachments.Even Kateb
(2000: 912913), whose vehement criticisms of patriotism we noted earlier, con-
cedes that patriotism may on occasion be tactically useful for a high, moral cause
[..] if patriotism is ever good, it is only instrumentally good, never good in itself.
I think these intuitions about our circumscribed attachments are basically correct.
Yet in no way does this diminish the signicance of moral cosmopolitanism. For
instance, moral cosmopolitanism can remind us that civic virtue is too restricted in its
meaning and application; indeed, patriotism can be motivated by normative cosmo-
politan concerns. But there also are legitimate pragmatic reasons for harnessing and
steering patriotic sentiment toward more critical and moral ends than simply wishing
in vain for its demise. Before I develop those arguments, however, consider two
different ways of thinking about patriotism. The binary is somewhat regrettable, but
the basic distinction, I think, is important.
As the French parliament example at the beginning of the essay illustrates, loyal
patriotism (LP) is undoubtedly the dominant expression of patriotism. While loyal
patriotism arguably has some innocuous expressions notably the World Cup or the
Olympic Games it is virtually synonymous with nationalism, i.e., the uncritical
belief that ones nation is exceptional, even superior, to other nations. Countries
around the world promiscuously encourage it undoubtedly some more than others
and in my view, it is the rightful target of the critics of patriotism. (To give but one
recent and striking example: with the blessing of Prime Minister Modi Bharatiya of
the Janata Party, the Indian Supreme Court has now ordered that the national anthem
be played before all cinema lms, and all attending must stand and honor the anthem.
to-play-national-anthem-before-lms.) LP closes ranks; it appeals to the basest
instincts. It unies the majority around its concerns at the expense of more vulner-
able citizens and foreigners, and it succeeds in shutting down discourses that do not
move in lockstep with the powers that be. (As I use it here, majorityneed not refer
to a numerical majority; it may describe a dominant group or even a powerful
minority, whose political inuence is disproportionate to the minority.)LP
Critical Patriotism 7
functions like a bad reex; it defends both a false construction of what a national
identity is, but moreover does so no matter what.
Conversely, what I shall call critical patriotism (CP) takes something that is
morally neutral our involuntary attachments that shape our identities and inuence
what we have reason to care about and invests its energies in improving upon the
present state of affairs. Here amor patria is galvanized by a deep passion to root out
injustice. Accordingly it repudiates the moral complacency that derives from the
sense that ones country has succeeded in living up to its ideals. Rather CP shows
itself capable of moral outrage when the nations best ideals are betrayed, when they
are used to oppress fellow citizens, but also when they are used to justify hatred and
aggression against other nations. (I put aside the relevant question concerning
whether or not all nations possess ideals worth pursuing.) As such, CP is ercely
patriotic and cosmopolitan at the same time. Before I elucidate the features of CP, I
will rst illustrate the problems one often encounters in LP by examining a specic
American Patriotism: A Cautionary Tale
In hundreds of thousands of state or public schools across the United States, each
morning children are expected (though not required) to stand, face the American
ag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, essentially an oath of loyalty to the Nation.
All schools y American ags on their school grounds, and most classrooms also
have ags and pictures of American presidents on the walls. In addition to these, all
public schools are expected to have competitive sports programs, crucial for foster-
ing school spirit,where ags also hang and where national anthems are sung.
While not explicitly political in nature, the forms school spirit takes are strikingly
patriotic in expression and coincide well with LP. Pep rallies, school newspapers,
banners, and advertising of various kinds all promote intense loyalties to onesown
school in much the same way that patriotism generally promotes loyal attachment to
ones nation. American schools also promote patriotism through various kinds of
media: Weekly Readers, Internet sites that usually provide a pro-American point of
view, and in many schools corporate media with a decidedly pro-American bias such
as CNN cable television news.
Further, American public schools and the history and social studies textbooks that
they use aid in the cultivation of an uncritical, and hence problematically loyal,
patriotic disposition (Raphael 2004; Nash et al. 2000; Fullinwider 1996; Loewen
1995). However, the patriotism in these books is not always easy to detect. In order
to encourage readers to identify with the United States, the patriotic tendency often is
as subtle as the use of pronouns such as weor us(Raphael 2004). More obvious
problems, however, entail a moralizing history, one that commends an array of
national heroes,”“achievements,and victories.Those (e.g., Galston 1991)
who would defend this patriotic kind of mythmaking argue that children need to
be inspired by its nations past, its ideals, and the examples offered up by its leaders.
Accordingly, except in the worst instances, the nations leaders should be described
8 M.S. Merry
as possessing nobler qualities of human character. (On this point there are clear
parallels to PlatosRepublic, where character aws or serious moral failing exist
these should be downplayed or edited out in order to minimize the deleterious effect
on young minds.)
Many reasons can be given to explain why the teaching of history has often been
used to cultivate patriotism. One reason is surely because historians themselves
cannot escape the cultural frame through which much of their own experience and
education has taken place. That is, even where historians aim to distance themselves
from explicit nationalist or patriotic agendas, the lens through which they lter their
knowledge is already constructed by narratives that irrevocably color their point of
view. But many historians make no attempt whatsoever to distance themselves from
an agenda; to the contrary, their telling of history consciously aims to advance a
particular point of view. It is well known, for instance, that different histories were
written for schools in the American North than those written in the American South
in the century following Reconstruction. Hence, revisionist histories of the American
Civil War would inevitably reect the interests of different constituencies.
Northern histories sketched abolitionism as a widely shared sentiment (though it
was not) and extolled the rise of industry. For their part, Southern historians sketched
a glorious narrative of resistance to northern aggressionof which southern whites
could be proud, invoking statesrightsas a smoke screen for a way of life
inextricable from the dehumanization and oppression of black people. A mythology
of gallant war heroes quickly supplanted the shame of an ignominious defeat and a
ruined economy; Confederate memorials by the hundreds proliferated throughout
the South and remain unto this day. Both Northern and Southern historical perspec-
tives in their own way were complicit in the same institutional racism. W.E.B. Du
Bois would come to characterize this type of historical writing as lies agreed upon.
While the ofcial creed of the United States is the magnanimous e pluribus unum,
a unity born out of diversity, its recorded history too often has offered us the
perspective of a powerful few. What too often continues to dominate the narrative,
then, is a hegemonic record of white Protestant European superiority, christened by
the state, its public schools, and the textbooks they use. Accordingly, historians should
be held to account for their shameless distortions and their conscious or unconscious
selective truth telling. Where public education is concerned, textbook authors have
been notoriously slow to correct this record, and this can partly be explained by the
role that private textbook companies play in managing content. In the United States,
for instance, history textbooks come courtesy of for-prot companies; and precisely
because they are for-prot, these companies are keen to placate the majority constit-
uencies often beginning in Texas that adopt and purchase their products
(Delfattore 1999). Textbooks have played no small role in perpetuating half-truths
and misrepresentations that clearly favor an American good guyapproach to
domestic, but especially foreign, policy. Here is James Loewen (1995: 210211):
High school American history textbooks do not, of course, adopt or even hint at the
American colossus view. Unfortunately, they also omit the realpolitik approach. Instead,
they take a strikingly different tack. They see [American] policies as part of a morality play
Critical Patriotism 9
in which the United States typically acts on behalf of human rights, democracy, and the
American way. When American have done wrong, according to this view, it has been
because others misunderstood us, or perhaps because we misunderstood the situation. But
always our motives were good. This approach might be called the international good guy
To be sure, American history textbooks have more content than ever before, and
more previously marginalized stories are certainly being told: of indigenous
peoples, of women, of religious minorities, but also of gross injustices sanctioned by
the American government. Even so, these errors are routinely depicted as anomalous
rather than consistent with the logic of a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy.
And notwithstanding more accurate content, textbook companies, anxious to mini-
mize risk, make very few changes that may raise the ire of conservative parents and
local school boards. David Tyack (2003: 60) explains:
It has been easier to add those ubiquitous sidebars to the master narrative than to rethink it,
easier to incorporate new content into a safe and protable formula than to create new
accounts. American history textbooks are enormous 888 pages, on average in part
because publishers seek to neutralize or anticipate criticisms by adding topics. The result
is often not comprehensive coverage but a bloated book devoid of style or coherence.
Thus when conservative censors expend vast amounts of energy attempting to
prevent depictions of the United States or its leaders in anything but a positive
light, or similarly when they support the belief that American invasions and occu-
pations should be understood to mean whatever the Pentagon or the State Depart-
ment say they mean, public schools and the history textbooks they use fail in their
responsibility to educate young people. (Stanley Milgram (1974) warned us about
the dangers of societies where deference to authority is the norm. A substantial
proportion of people,he wrote, do what they are told to do, irrespective of the
content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that
the command comes from a legitimate authority.) Instead, they continue to offer a
distorted understanding of ones country and its historical deeds; moreover, the
methods they often use such as the common rituals I described earlier are
more likely to emotionally coerce, rather than intelligently inform, young people.
(This state-controlled, conscious aim to promote unquestioning loyalty to ones own
country John Stuart Mill (1978: 105) would have described as a mere contrivance
for molding people to be exactly like one another, [as a] despotism of the mind.)
The result is not only that the status quo is entrenched but also that an unhealthy
attitude of national superiority prevails.
All of this is extremely worrying. And still, the LP approach depicted in the
foregoing paragraphs can be mitigated, I believe, by at least two things. First,
teachers and students of history are not merely passive dupes in this process.
Many are both aware and skeptical about these one-sided representations. Because
there are no studies on this topic, I cannot argue with any condence that this is a
majority of teachers, but there are reasons to believe that it is a critical minority, not
only among those who have read history more widely but also teachers and pupils
10 M.S. Merry
whose experiences do not match the dominant narrative. Second, since the dramatic
cultural and political shifts of the 1960s, textbook depictions of American atrocities
(e.g., Japanese American internment camps, Jim Crow segregation, the displacement
and genocide of Native American tribes, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, etc.) have
become both more accurate and more prominently featured in school textbooks.
Here, too, one may be cautiously optimistic. Of course, many of the critical exam-
inations now appearing in these texts are restricted to the past, but this is not an
insignicant development.
Either way, it will neither do to simply resign ourselves to the status quo nor to say
that things are better than they were a generation or two ago. For the fact is that the
American public schools complicity in promoting LP is, as I have demonstrated,
morally indefensible given that it conicts with the legitimate aims of education. I
havent the space here to examine each of those aims here, but with respect to
patriotism, sufce it to say that these aims ought to include the acquisition of
epistemological competences necessary to honestly assess historical truth. Not
only does LP work decidedly against the acquisition of these epistemological
competences, which must include the knowledge and skills necessary for research
and debate but also courage to dissent from popular opinion; it also violates a childs
interest in being well educated.
Yet notwithstanding all of the problems we can associate with patriotic sentiment,
to denounce patriotism simpliciter as incapable of producing anything good is not
only counterproductive; I believe it is also false. In the following section, I argue that
rather than surrendering patriotism to rogues and conservative forces or hoping that
it will slowly diminish over time, it is possible that we press patriotism toward more
justice-serving ends.
The Possibility of a Critical Patriotism
Let me offer a number of pragmatic reasons why I think that a more critical variant of
patriotism is defensible. As I argued earlier in this essay, amor patria not only will
capture afnities we have for others of similar background or aid in the ourishing of
individual lives; it also can facilitate the cultivation of civic virtue. However, the
problem we have seen with civic virtue is its tendency to focus exclusively on
compatriots and oftentimes a narrower subset of fellow citizens, for example, one
excluding Muslim immigrants.
Now as I suggested earlier, history can be put to use for different purposes. First,
however, it is important that a truthful account be given. A truthful account will not
escape bias inasmuch as the sifting of details and retelling of the history cannot avoid
selection and interpretation. However, if the study of history has a singular aim, it is
to recount the events of the past as truthfully and accurately as one can. This is
important because one of the core aims of education, as David Archard (1999: 166)
reminds us, is surely truth, its regulative ideals those of critical reason.Thus, as a
matter of principle, education ought to correct the tendency of resorting to half-
truths, distortions, and unnecessary bias by aiming for truth.
Critical Patriotism 11
Second, we will want to learn from history both the immediate causes and effects
pertinent to the account rendered but also the effects of those views on our own time
and place insofar as these connections can reliably be discerned. In other words, we
should learn to view our own contemporary historical reality more critically by
comparing it to the beliefs and behaviors of the past. For example, what are the
historical reasons that might explain the continued incarceration of black men in the
United States at rates disproportionate to their white counterparts? Or this: what are
the historical reasons that might explain the distrust toward state authorities among
the Sioux tribes at the Standing Rock Reservation in late 2016? I would suggest that
the evidence would have us confront the deeply rooted convictions of white Protes-
tant supremacy that lie at the heart of the European conquest of the Americas. In any
event, education can make a crucial difference as it concerns not only what is taught
but also how it is taught.
Third, students of their nations history need to become aware of the ways in
which historical knowledge is gathered, edited, and presented to a reading public.
Facts about events that happened are important, but students can come to understand
that the account of history that they read is both incomplete and subject to revision.
Indeed the history one reads too often tells us more about the authors writing it and
their biases than the history its authors endeavor to describe. Hence, we should
want to know not only the facts but also whose story these facts relate and,
conversely, whose they do not. This requires that students cultivate the epistemo-
logical competences necessary for examining the available evidence and testimony,
but also guarding against bias.
Fourth, it is possible for amor patria to be consistent with both moral and
intellectual humility; loving ones nation need not entail feelings of superiority.
For the critical patriot, as a matter of principle, the love of country can and must
be wedded to a passion for justice. Frederick Douglass knew this when he wrote: he
is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.A former slave
who would eventually rise to even counsel an ambivalent President Lincoln, in 1852,
Douglass did not inch from bitterly rebuking the United States and the hypocrisies
of its patriotic traditions:
What to the American slave, is your 4
of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more
than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant
victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your
national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your
denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious
parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy
a thin veil to cover up the crimson which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a
nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the
United States, at this very hour. (For the entire speech, see http://teachingamericanhistory.
The moral outrage of a critical patriot couldnt be any clearer. (Boxill (2009) argues
that Douglass loved his country, even when it had denied him citizenship and indeed
12 M.S. Merry
even when it had denied him his humanity.) Some 70 years later, at the peak of the
Civil Rights Movement, fellow critical patriot James Baldwin (1955: 9) was to echo
the sentiment, albeit in a different register: I love America more than any other
country in the world,he wrote, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to
criticize her perpetually.As both Baldwins and Douglassremarks suggest, the fact
that having special attachments to ones nation, or for ones fellow compatriots, need
not spoil ones capacity to think critically about those attachments. Indeed, the
testimony of both men suggests that amor patria can serve as a powerful motivator
to chastise, but also to reform, in particular for those whose lives are more vulner-
able: the worker, the immigrant, the stigmatized, the homeless, and the unemployed.
Thus whereas LP purveys complacent acceptance of the status quo, CP demands
that we seek the correction of injustice, particularly in the country with which we
identify. As both Douglass and Baldwin show, our efforts to correct injustice arise
from the fact that the injustice of a country with which we identify causes us
particular pain, even greater pain caused by injustices done by countries with
which we do not identify. And, as I have suggested, a principled approach to
studying history holds out the possibility that young people can be educated to
think more critically about what it means to love their country, just as they can learn
how to think critically in a more general sense.
Ultimately, however, the case for CP is a pragmatic one because, as the previous
section concerning American schools suggests, we are unlikely to see a thinning of
patriotic sentiment any time soon. Nor, incidentally, are we likely to see it diminish
in most other countries. For better or for worse, amor patria is here to stay. As we
have already seen, with or without schools that promote patriotism, attachments to
our homelands run deep; even long after immigrating to another country for work or
to escape war, disease, and famine, most persons feel intense afnities for their
countries of origin. These afnities carry both meaning and signicance, contribut-
ing to individual ourishing. They also can provide the civic virtue necessary for
solidarity with our compatriots.
How to Promote Critical Patriotism
As the example of American schools suggest, our education systems are often a part
of the problem rather than the solution. Of course schools are not the only state
institution complicit in the patriotic enterprise, but they are uniquely responsible in
many ways for instilling uncritical dispositions patriotic loyalties in young
people. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that the LP promoted in
schools is largely responsible for its uncritical acceptance in other public arenas,
such as sporting events, holiday celebrations, and parades. Hence, the most logical
place to endeavor a different approach would be to attempt the cultivation of CP in
the school. And while there will be different ways to get at this, I submit that the
subject matter best suited to an education conducive to CP is history.
Consider a departure from the standard historical approach, where the pursuit of
truth is taken seriously and the critical patriot does not shy away from unattering
Critical Patriotism 13
portrayals of a nations leaders. This is what some have called a warts and all
history, one that chronicles the nations myriad wayward moments and uninchingly
gazes upon its ignoble past. Published in multiple editions over many years and long
used by a number of high school teachers and college instructors as supplementary
material, Howard ZinnsA Peoples History of the United States (Zinn 2004)is
illustrative of such a historical approach. Beginning with the earliest European
conquests in the New World, Zinn systematically examines American history from
the underside. Thus rather than chronicling the sanitized history of Columbus, as has
been the custom, Zinn draws upon the writings of contemporary Bartolome de las
Casas so that we might learn of the genocidal devastation visited upon the native
Arawak peoples by the Italian explorerand his fellow Spaniards and moreover
from the point of view of the victims. In subsequent chapters, he examines various
historical episodes from the perspectives of women, of factory workers, and of recent
immigrants made to feel unwelcome in their new country.
Peoples History undoubtedly encourages moral outrage at Americas numerous
hypocrisies and failings, yet Zinns book is not, as neoconservatives might allege,
proof of his absence of patriotism. Rather, as a critical patriot, Zinn is pained at the
US consistent failure to practice what it so often preaches to others. This does not
make Peoples History easy reading, and Zinns historical approach will not sit well
with everyone. (And of course, alternate historiesneed not be restricted to texts
such as Zinns. Ideally, teachers would have their students read the writings of
famous dissenters including Ida B. Wells, Thomas Paine, Hellen Keller, Eugene
Debs, the American Indian Movement, Roger Williams, Huey Newton, Ralph
Nader, and many others.) A critic might argue that his activisthistorical account
fails the objectivity test expected of a historian. But this charge is weak: all
information must be sifted, selected, and interpreted whether it is census data, oral
testimony, church records, correspondence, or previous historical writing. Indeed, as
we have seen, all historians like all researchers have biases, beginning with the
selection of the topic to be investigated, the methods chosen for the research, and the
interpretation and analysis of the data. To be biased is to be human; it is to have a
point of view.Though we may be aware of our biases or even endeavor to curb its
inuence, we cannot become unbiased.The merit of Zinns history, or any other
historical account, then, must be judged not by its being bias-freebut by its
accuracy, its attention to facts, in short, its ability to render a truthful account,
however selective given the limitedness of space a particular account may be.
But there is no point in denying that Zinns historical project is aiming for the exact
opposite of what the loyal patriot might expect to read. And what is it that the loyal
patriot might expect? Loewen (1995:3233) reminds us: The authors of history
textbooks have taken us on a trip of their own, away from the facts of history, into the
realm of myth. They and we have been duped by an outrageous concoction of lies,
half-truths, truths, and omissions.In sharp contrast, Zinn
s book offers a corrective to
the ctions and distortions of American history that has paid too little attention to the
patriotic signicance of dissent or to the folly of believing that any criticism directed
against the United States is to be un-American.Zinns CP also surpasses the civic
virtues we associate with ordinary patriotism, for in underscoring our common
14 M.S. Merry
humanity, it captures what is best about cosmopolitan morality. Indeed, Peoples
History illustrates the real moral hazard that is incurred when the lives of others
are seen as expendable because their deaths merely count as collateral damage.
Some may still feel it necessary to ask: is critical patriotism not a contradiction in
terms? My answer to this question has been to suggest that we might turn the question
around and ask: might amor patria permit a more truthful account of history, and
might that more truthful account also prove instrumental in fostering justice? Still, the
skeptics question is a fair one, viz., will such unsparing criticism not fail to inspire
condence in the noble ideals necessary for political solidarity and stability? Perhaps,
Eagleton (2010:148149) recommends that with all revolt and reform, a delicate
balance is needed:
Radicals [must] maintain a precarious balancing act here. On the one hand, they must be
brutally realistic about the depth and tenacity of human corruption to date. Otherwise there
can be nothing very insistent about the project of transforming our condition. Those who
sentimentally indulge humanity do it no favours. On the contrary, they act as a barrier to
change. On the other hand, this corruption cannot be such that transformation is out of the
question. Too sanguine a reading of history leads to the belief that no thoroughgoing change
is necessary, while too gloomy a view of it suggests that such change is impossible to come
I take Eagleton to be saying that while the reconciliation of a passion for reform on
my argument, a passion consistent with amor patria with the uninching criticism
of a nations crimes will be difcult, it is not impossible. And, in any case, it must be
attempted. The failure to do so leads to all of the problems of LP on the one hand or a
jaded disposition on the other.
As I have argued in this chapter, having special afnities for ones nation, or for
ones compatriots, need not spoil ones capacity to think critically about those
attachments, indeed to even channel them in ways that are justice-promoting. CP
recognizes that to criticize is not to hate ones country, but rather to exhibit a
passionate determination to reform and improve it. CP is therefore morally impartial
and universalist. Its norms do not favor or discriminate against people on account of
nationality or any other such identities. It is not a compromise between moral
universalism and patriotic loyalty but rather an implementation of moral universal-
ism. What makes it patriotic is that ones devotion to universal and impartial morality
is not exhibited in an unfocused way. Rather, just as we focus on our family and
friends, we also, because of inevitable attachments to a particular country because of
our special relationship to it, focus on that country with which we unavoidably
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... (see e.g. Archard, 1999;Callan, 2006;Enslin, 1994;Galston, 1991;Hand, 2011;Merry, 2018;Nussbaum, 1996;White, 1996). ...
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