One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions. Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality. They associated criticism with lack of patriotism. Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.
Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better. The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation. Nationalism, in a word.
George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…
Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism. The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.” The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations.” Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also ― since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”
Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix. To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…
The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…
The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.
Contrast the nationalist to the patriot. A patriot thrives on thought. She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion. True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:
“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder. As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state. Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.
The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism. Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell. “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one. Let’s not go down it.
A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, Astore has been a HuffPost blogger since 2009. His personal blog is Bracing Views.