As an American freelance student of British history, I find it intriguing how the true meaning of patriotism has often been lost in the muck and mire of personal interpretation. Throughout history, the natural emotions that attach people to their native land have been twisted by advocates of various points of view to forward their own agendas. In the process, two extremes have sprung up, each equally dangerous if left unchecked: national jingoism and national defeatism.
The source of the first ideology was the self-righteous, high-handed extreme conservatives who gained precedence during the Victorian Period in Britain and America. Their belief in the natural superiority of their countries led them to believe they were ordained to forward their culture through conquest, both materially and psychologically, even if it was at the expense of other persons or groups. Their ideology could be succinctly summed up by the famous toast, “My country: right or wrong!”
The Imperialist project in Britain and “Manifest Destiny” in America were drenched in this way of thinking, and history books from that period often contain a nose-in-the-air snobbery towards other nations (including each other, since the mother country and her rebellious child seemed to have an equal sense of their own superiority!) that make most people today recoil. It’s hard to believe that such outrageous biases were ever taught to school children as a matter of course.
This unhealthy form of nationalism spurred on both Brits and Americans to commit acts of injustice and cruelty in the name of “patriotism” while expanding their burgeoning empires. The British misused the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Ireland; the Americans misused the Native Tribes that were sprawled across a massive continent. Assuredly, they also brought civilizing benefits to indigenous cultures, but the stain of their past sins continues to haunt us today. Fortunately, this haughty attitude that caused so much pain has almost completely passed out of style, but another equally bad distortion rose up to replace it.
Enter onto the world stage the self-destructive, guilt-ridden extreme liberals, who stepped into the vacuum created by post-imperial disillusionment and recession. They became self-proclaimed crusaders, determined to rid themselves of blame for past crimes by throwing out the baby with the bathwater and becoming social activists against all that has gone before. Their case in a nutshell could be phrased thusly: “My country: always wrong!”
Revisionist history books became en vogue, myth-busting generational preconceptions about secular saints and defining events that had been glorified during the Victorian Era. Some of these works were very well-written and long overdue to balance the score. But others teetered on the brink of character assassination. It also became fashionable to point fingers at anyone who expressed pride in or admiration for their national heritage, accusing them of being “romantic” and “insular”.
More extreme variants of this group have burned flags and desecrated national monuments, made gestures of solidarity with enemy nations (such as occurred in America during the Vietnam War), or sowed of the seeds of disunity on the home-front, such as in Britain during the rise of Celtic Nationalism. They blinded themselves to all that was good through bitterness for past and present imperfections, and in the process sought to lure everyone else down the same path.
Don’t let either patriotic heresy draw you in; avoid them equally, as two sides of the same counterfeit coin. Remember who you are and hold fast to it; neither faction can take away what you do not give them. After all, true patriotism is so much deeper than either alternate option, and too precious to cast away. It is a healthy, genuine love of one’s country and its institutions. It is not marred by a pride of race, nor is it dissimilated by a self-gratifying grinding against the past that cannot be altered. It is an acceptance of both the good and bad, lamenting what should be lamented, celebrating what should be celebrated, and having the wisdom to know which is which.
This quest to balance our passions and perceptions should be coupled by a determination to change our respective countries for the better, learning when to stand strong and when to be flexible. For example, Britain has learned, changed and grown through her empire experience which now has a direct descendent in The Commonwealth. This community of independent nations, many of which share a common heritage and head-of-state, is worthy of pride and admiration as visible proof of a willingness to ease up on heavy-handed policies of the past and bend without breaking.
America, in the same way, has made major strides in overcoming her own prejudices in an increasingly multicultural landscape and turning this “continental empire” into a union of mutual cooperation and affection for the benefit of all. Considering a bloody civil war between north and south, slavery, segregation, the dissolution of native cultures, and continued immigration influxes, unity and equality have always been difficult to grasp. And yet we have never stopped striving for it.
In our present time, there are all sorts of injustices that still need to be overcome, for Brits and Americans and everyone else. Pompousness and bitterness has never solved anything, but turn us in upon ourselves and against each other. Love is the only way to penetrate the evils of our world. So we must love our native lands and transform them a little at a time through prayer and good works. To quote a German immigrant to America, who put it simply and very well: “My country: if she be right, God keep her there; if she be wrong, God bring her to the right!”