There is a narrative that arises more often than I think is warranted about how America is great and wonderful and amazing and god-given and free. It arises when there are disagreements, or debates, or, as now, elections. I have no inclination towards nationalism personally, so this narrative always drives home for me that there is a deep difference between nationalism and patriotism.
Of course there are great things about America, but it seems very one-dimensional to claim those are it’s defining features. I find it a more than a little haughty and condescending to talk about America as the greatest nation on Earth—not in the least because it cheapens the experience of people who are here and yet are not free. And not in the least because it sets up an us-versus-them attitude that I think is inappropriate in a world where global cooperation is required to deal with the challenges, liberties, and horrors we, as humans, have visited on ourselves and our planet. And not in the least because to say we are great is to undermine the deepest freedom we have, which is to change our laws and beliefs and behaviors and become different.
Now there are some, when they see things they don’t like, like regulation of business, limitation of hate speech, freedom from discrimination for LGBTQ individuals, or freedom to speak out against a war, who will label those things unamerican. They will, in their unselfcritical way, talk about how questioning any aspect of the United States amounts to treason, but then they will happily rewrite their definitions of what is “American” to exclude those things they do not like.
And thus the difference between nationalism and patriotism. To be a nationalist is to set yourself up as indistinguishable from your country, and to set yourself against everyone else. You can talk fervently and self-righteously about building walls, defending borders, defending the American way of life, and defeating our enemies. This last is most significant, because in the deepest tradition of McCarthyism, our enemies and our critics can be one and the same.
Yet patriotism also includes love of country, and willingness to strive and work and sometimes die for its ideals. It also includes a desire to protect freedoms and rights and our model of government and life. But it is also about being better; patriotism looks inward and seeks to improve while nationalism looks outward and seeks to defend. For the nationalist, criticism is anathema, but for the patriot it is essential.
I, personally, think the ardent and public nationalists are foolish. I think their nationalism is shallow and meaningless and little more than theater. I think their anger is showmanship, and their behavior is studied and self-interested alone. I think their claim to love the freedoms of the United States is a thinly veiled bluff to justify the limitations they would like to place on others. And I think their claims of liberty and justice are for themselves only, not for all.
So I criticize them, freely and deeply, and I doubt the rightness of American causes and I suggest that we could be better, or even that we are sometimes horrible. I look at many of the things that seem quintessentially American, and I find them lacking.
But one thing I do not find lacking, and that is my freedom to do all of those things I just mentioned, loudly, and fearlessly. I can and will criticize my country, it’s behavior, it’s leaders, and it’s policies—and although that is not nationalist, I believe it is deeply patriotic. In fact, I believe it is the single most American thing I can do.