Big patriotism is poisoning America
President Trump has draped himself in patriotism while leveling his nearly week-long attack on pro athletes who kneel on the field during the national anthem to protest police brutality and its disproportionate effect on minorities in America. "Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag," Trump tweeted in a representative comment on the subject Saturday, so "we MUST honor and respect it!"
Though I suggest Trump and his supporters on this issue are missing the protesters' point — and, in some cases, doing so willfully — I have no doubt that, for Trump's part, patriotism is indeed at stake. The trouble is the sort of patriotism that informs their ire, for patriotism is not of a single kind.
Consider the invaluable depiction of what we might call "small patriotism" in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: "Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people," Tolkien wrote in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. They are hospitable, nosy, and contentedly devoted to their home, the Shire.
This love of home is not born of naïveté but clear-eyed commitment to community. "I should like to save the Shire, if I could," the hobbit Frodo muses as he prepares to embark on his quest, "though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them." Yet at the thought of departing, Frodo adds, "I don't feel like that now. … I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well — desperate."
Frodo does not love the Shire because it is the best country in Middle-earth. It does not boast the striking scenery and deep knowledge of the elven kingdoms, or the security and wealth of the dwarves, or the cosmopolitanism and architecture of the cities of men. The Shire does not have to be the best, for it is already home and already good in its own way.
If the patriotism Tolkien depicts is small, the patriotism most prevalent in America today is a poisonous variety we might call "big patriotism," or, less charitably, nationalism. Its contrast with more modest variants is vast.
Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.
Small patriotism loves one's neighborhood for one's home, and one's city because it holds the neighborhood, and one's state, region, and country as the city's host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.
Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. "Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it," C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism "produces a good attitude towards foreigners," he noted, for "[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?" Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.
Big patriotism is always a matter of comparison. It is, as Lewis put it, "a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others." Big patriotism is incapable of appreciating our home's good qualities except at the expense of other places. Foreign lands and people must be put down if we are to be held up. Big patriotism is the impulse that makes Americans uniquely willing to declare our nation the best in the world. It is the foundation of jingoistic American exceptionalism and a constant siren song to empire — for why shouldn't the world be ruled by the best?
Small patriotism is humble and open to constructive critique. Just as we would welcome an exterminator telling us our house has termites, so in small patriotism we can give a hearing to those who see some problem with our home. Big patriotism cannot hear a word against country, however gentle or wise. The best, by definition, cannot be wrong.
Small patriotism recognizes that there are many things more important than patriotism. It is a servant, not a master. It does not ask to be valued above more significant loyalties, like those to God or family or concrete community. Big patriotism demands pre-eminence. It fixates on symbols, ceremonies, and correct language, undermining honest debate. It polices allegiance to the state, sacralizing things that are very much mundane. Big patriotism is incessantly self-serious and therefore always on the brink of offense.
It is impossible, I suspect, for anyone raised in America to be entirely immune to big patriotism. From daily childhood recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance onward, it's in the water. And few Americans, Trump's supporters in the NFL brouhaha included, traffic exclusively in one category or the other. We are most of us on a spectrum, somewhere between big and small patriotism, swayed this way or that by a holiday season or a turn of the news cycle or the last book we read.
But however natural it can feel, big patriotism is poisonous, and it leads to the type of shallow outrage we now see over these athletes' attempt to respectfully call attention to a grave concern. Small patriotism might not be convinced by the protest Colin Kaepernick began, but its response would not indulge in petty pique about ritual when an issue of justice has been raised.