By Peter Klein • Monday July 4, 2011 8:52 PM PDT •
What is patriotism? Is it loyalty to a spot on a map, marked off from others spots by blue or yellow lines, the spot where one was born? But birth is a pure accident; surely one is in no way responsible for having been born on this spot or on that. Flaubert had poured a stream of corrosive irony on this idea of patriotism. Is it loyalty to a set of political jobholders, a king and his court, a president and his bureaucracy, a parliament, a congress, a Duce or Fuhrer, a camorra of commissars? I should say it depends entirely on what the jobholders are like and what they do. Certainly I had never seen any who commanded my loyalty; I should feel utterly degraded if ever once I thought they could. Does patriotism mean loyalty to a political system and its institutions, constitutional, autocratic, republican, or what-not? But if history has made anything unmistakably clear, it is that from the standpoint of the individual and his welfare, these are no more than names. The reality which in the end they are found to cover is the same for all alike. If a tree be known by its fruits, which I believe is regarded as good sound doctrine, then the peculiar merit of a system, if it has any, ought to be reflected in the qualities and conditions of the people who live under it; and looking over the peoples and systems of the world, I found no reason in the nature of things why a person should be loyal to one system rather than another. One could see at a glance that there is no saving grace in any system. Whatever merit or demerit may attach to any of them lies in the way it is administered.
So when people speak of loyalty to one’s country, one must ask them what they mean by that. What is one’s country? Mr. Jefferson said contemptuously that “merchants have no country; the mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.” But one may ask, why should I? This motive of patriotism seems to me perfectly sound, and if it should be sound for merchants, why not for others who are not merchants? If it holds good in respect of material gains, why not of spiritual gains, cultural gains, intellectual and aesthetic gains? As a general principle, I should put it that a man’s country is where the things he loves are most respected. Circumstances may have prevented his ever setting foot there, but it remains his country.