- Politics and Social Issues
What Does it Mean to Love Your Country?
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Patriotism or Tribalism?
When Americans say that they love their country, what exactly do they mean? The answer is not as simple as it seems, and it largely depends on what people mean by the term "country." The most basic definition of our country would be the physical land area formally controlled by the government of the United States. But while I am sure that many Americans harbor a certain attachment to the physical space within our nation's borders, I would assume that their love for country encompasses more than the land itself.
So when people of the United States say that they love their country, are they referring to the American people? If so, I would argue that this is a rather abstract and watered-down definition of love. Most Americans, after all, believe that a significant percentage of other Americans are misguided, self-centered, immoral, and/or downright un-American. And it is often the people who claim to possess the strongest feelings of patriotism who describe many of their fellow Americans in the harshest terms. So from what I can tell, many Americans either fail to understand the concept of love or their love is limited to the "real" Americans who share their "authentic" love for country. Or maybe Americans who love their country are noble enough creatures to love the many fellow countrymen who they cannot stand. As with family members who drive them crazy, they manage to love unconditionally the people living in our extended family of a country. You can't, after all, pick your family members or your countrymen, but you love them just the same.
Or maybe an American's love for country is even more abstract than an attachment to the land or a general feeling of love for the American people. The United States, after all, is supposed to be a nation founded on noble principles: freedom, equality before the law, human rights, representative government, etc. So if people are truly patriotic, they will often find themselves frustrated with the many Americans who fail to cherish or live up to these principles. And instead of blindly obeying American leaders or being nice to fellow Americans regardless of their behavior, true patriots will sometimes find themselves openly defying the state or confronting their countrymen. "My country, right or wrong" is a phrase that should never come out of a true American's mouth.
For if Americans merely love the physical land and the people that happen to be located within our nation's borders, then we are no different than all of the humans who for thousands of years have felt an instinctive attachment to their particular tribe and territory. And we are not attached to our tribe because it is superior to any of the others. Like our families, we love our tribe because we happened to be born into it. And we feel the strongest attachment to our tribe when another tribe threatens us. As was made very clear on September 12, 2001, patriotism is always the most intense when there is some outsider to fight.
I have always found it strange that we humans value other people or plots of land on the basis of the arbitrary borders in which they happen to be located. Does it make any sense, after all, for me to care more about a person living in Massachusetts, Alaska, or Florida than a person living in Egypt, Thailand, or Paraguay? Does an American's life have more value than a person in Afghanistan? On a purely abstract level, I'm sure that most Americans, like most people around the world, would answer that all human lives have equal value. But when we state that we love our country, this implies that we value those within our borders, whether they deserve it or not, more highly than outsiders. As Americans, we like to tell ourselves that our way of life is superior too much of what is found in other places, and in some ways, it probably is. But I suspect that in many cases, Americans are as motivated by tribal instincts as anyone else, and we are more concerned with protecting our particular interests than in promoting the values that our nation supposedly represents.
So in the end, the statement "I love my country" is as vague as many of the other terms and catch phrases so often heard in American political discussions: freedom, civil rights, justice, equal opportunity, etc. We Americans often interpret these terms very differently, and they are much easier to define in the abstract than to put into practice. It's much easier to say "I love my country" than it is to demonstrate this love to a complex, diverse, deeply divided nation of over 300 million people. And it may be even more difficult to transcend our instinctive tribal natures and express a genuine love for our nation's most noble principles and for the entire human race.
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