Patriotism, Nationalism, and Cultural Renewal in our Time

Recently, in a lamentable amount of time lost while scrolling my Facebook feed, I ran across a post from a person whom I have been avoiding for a while. The reason being that this person’s politics make me angry (perhaps you can relate). Now, I try not to get involved in political debate on social media. It’s pointless and most often bad for all concerned. But this person’s comment was inspired by an idea that unsettled me more than usual.

The point of his comment was this. Why is a Christian media organization promoting a priest’s lecture on patriotism? They should be ashamed of themselves, he implied, because there is no real difference between patriotism and nationalism. And that got me thinking. (And a little mad, but I went and hugged a baby, so that went away quickly).

Is patriotism the same as nationalism? No. It’s really not. But I now get the feeling that too many people think it is, without even realizing it. Patriotism is definitely not in vogue. Hasn’t been for ages, in fact. But to specifically equate it with nationalism (of the alt-right, proto-fascist variety): this is something new, I think.

The lack of patriotism in America, I would argue, is part of the systemic cultural disease afflicting nearly everyone, no matter what their political views. It may also be contributing to something that some even consider to be a coming cold civil war. Watch, in particular, the first two minutes of this video to see what I’m talking about (the whole video is a bit too incendiary for my tastes).

In fact, the lack of patriotism is part of what has led to a rise in political involvement of an almost religious fervor. Everyone is a fundamentalist, these days, it seems. Before you all start hooting about how I’m in league with the alt-right, I’ll try to explain what I mean, exactly. To back up my point, I’m going to quote someone who has been labeled a fascist himself by the New York Times: the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

(All of these quotes are my own translation of an essay in his collection titled A Book of Hopes and Consolations. Yes, I know. Very fascist of him. Also, the paintings I’m using are Pavel Ryzhenko’s, because I think they exhibit a very good vision of Russian historical patriotism).

What is Patriotism Not?

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Ilyin himself begins with a paean (with a bit too much 19th century oomph for my tastes) to the true patriot. But I’m going with an apophatic approach (sorry, I’m a seminarian). Here’s what Ilyin says patriotism is not:

True Patriotism is in no way self-delusion. The true patriot avoids all illusions about his own country. On the contrary, he is called to realistically look at things, to assess them and then act according to that assessment. He looks at things realistically, sees them as they are. The patriot sees both the strong and weak aspects of his people. He also sees the triumphs and mistakes of other nations.

In other words, the true patriot is a student of history. But not merely a student of his own nation’s history, but a student of other nations’ histories as well. Not to find how bad they are and how great his own nation is. But to see clearly what the strengths and weaknesses of both are. Ilyin clarifies that a love of country is especially not blind:

Love cannot be blind. On the contrary, it must make the eye of the lover clear and piercing. There is no need to naively idealize one’s beloved people. After all, the patriot doesn’t need that! A true service to his people is found not in a demagogic glorification of the nation, nor in lies and nationalistic arrogance. The opposite is true. Love for country is a sober, objective assessment, especially a clear analysis of the nation’s mistakesand shortcomings.

The use of the word “demagogue” here is interesting, considering the obvious demagoguery of many people holding on to power in this country. (And in Russia, and in Ukraine, etc. etc.)

The Demagogue

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The patriot is not a demagogue. Nor is the demagogue a patriot. This is vastly important to understand. There is no room, according to Ilyin (and I agree) for any sort of national arrogance in patriotism. That is the realm of the demagogue.

There is a line of demarcation between national demagoguery and national prophecy. The demagogue is a poisoner of wells. The prophet is a mentor. National arrogance begins at the moment when the people have become stuck in the level of primitive self-consciousness, where their vices, ideologies, and instructors are not capable of illumining it. This primitive self-consciousness is seen when a person is chained by his own self-perception and can see nothing else.

His personal wants or needs take up all his attention and love. His “I” becomes a living and only center of his desires, his will, his efforts, and his joys. He has no doubt in his own reality… A psychologist might call it a kind of autism or even autoeroticism, while the philosopher calls it solipsism.

The national arrogance of the demagogue comes from being drunk with oneself. Once it appears, it feeds on two otherwise healthy sources–the instinct of self-preservation and the instinct of vanity.

The prophet-patriot

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Ilyin argues that a true patriot seeks to become a prophet of his country’s future. Moreover, this sort of a prophet is like an Old Testament prophet. He doesn’t merely tell the future. He instructs his own countrymen in the proper spirit of patriotism.

If I love my people, I must know in detail their historical development, the uniqueness of their national character. I must learn the territorial, political, economic problems besetting my country. To study the structure of its spiritual “act.”  In short, all its national virtues and vices, its accomplishments and its backwardness, everything that is proper to it and that it lacks. I must know all this thoroughly and assess it fairly.

I must hide nothing, nor must I aggrandize anything. The positives are good–they must grow and flourish. The negatives are evil–they must be overcome by a new education of my countrymen. Having come to know my people, I will not hide anything from them. I will justify the good, so that the people will know what is necessary to preserve. I will not remain silent about the evil.

More than that, I will uncover it, I will describe it and indicate it. After examining its reasons and sources, I will call my people to wake up, to begin self-purification, to start on the path of overcoming the evil.

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When a patriot becomes a demagogue…

But it’s not enough for the patriot to know about his own country. He must study others as well to widen his worldview. The patriot-prophet knows that it’s not only possible, but necessary to get “inside the skin” of another person, another culture. More than that, he has to be able to laugh at himself and his country.

If the spirit of national arrogance infects a patriot, the results are terrifying:

Then the arrogance turns into real hubris. If the people and its prophets don’t have enough of a sense of moderate and cleansing self-deprecating humor, then they’ll swagger right over a cliff.

That’s the moment when you start to hear teachings about the historical exceptionalism of a nation and its mission in the world. And in comparison with this nation, all others are merely a series of obstacles to be plowed over.

To be honest, I’m hearing this sort of rhetoric in a lot of places. Not only in Putin’s Russia. I’m hearing it here. It’s being proclaimed over loudspeakers in Ukraine. The Balkans are seething with it, as is Western Europe. Not too many will disagree with me about that. But Ilyin didn’t see a better political system or a more tolerant world order as the solution to this.

No. The solution is in the self-assessment and self-purification of the individual patriot. And this process is a process specifically of cultural renewal, not political utopianism.Until we become real patriots-prophets, all of us, I think we can expect the same cycle of national arrogance to continue everywhere. That’s not patriotism. That’s nationalism. And no, it’s not the same thing.

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7 comments:

  1. Good topic. Both terms Patriotism and Nationalism are loaded, and many people assign different meanings to each of them.
    For example, I am an American and I am an American patriot. I am an immigrant and I oppose isolationism, but I support American exceptionalism, can I be called an American nationalist? I was born in Ukraine and I love the country, but I left it and my interests are more aligned with the American ones. Can I say I am a Ukrainian patriot? Or a Ukrainian nationalist? I am ethnically Jewish and I support creation of the state of Israel as a place for Jews to be safe, but I might not always agree with its policies, so can I be called an Israeli patriot or a nationalist? Ukraine was long time under Russia’s control and now any movements away from this control is often labeled “nationalistic”. Now if I am supportive of Ukraine’s move away from Russia’s control, am I a nationalist? And this is just if you consider me as an example.

    It is intersting that you chose to make this study using quotes from Ivan Ilyin. He is in fact quite a Russian nationalist – he just did not seem to separate nationalism and patriotism as contradictory, but used them as synonyms.

    I think before and serious discussion on the topic, there should be some agreement on the term definition.

    1. Igor, thank you for the thoughtful reply! I’m glad someone other than me is willing to talk sensibly and thoughtfully about these things 🙂 One thing I’d clarify, and that’s that Ilyin was both a patriot and a nationalist. But he didn’t equate the two at all. The essay I quotes makes that very clear, especially if you read the whole thing. I’m going to be posting more of Ilyin on this topic here on the blog, especially as it concerns culture creation specifically, so stay tuned.

  2. The virtue that underlies & motivates YOUR patriot is common to Americans whose loyalty has been popularly denied for decades: Ellsberg, Snowden, Manning, Kiriakou, Stockwell, & Snepp. A whistleblower puts himself in terrible jeopardy, because he can no longer keep silent. The term “patriot” has been the property of the establishment & its citizenry here for decades.

  3. If you should ever run across an eight-part PBS series called “Eyes on the Prize,” take a look at it. It is a history of the Civil Rights Movement that contains a lot of news footage from back in those days, as well as interviews with people involved with events at the time. One section has to do with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and the fierce reaction among local whites to nine (!) Negro students enrolling there in 1957. I was in sixth grade at the time.

    If you had asked those very upset people whether or not they were patriots, I’m sure that everyone would have said that they were. Socially conservative Americans tended to be that way. When I first saw those angry people in the video I wondered, “How many of those people go to church on Sunday?” Arkansas was a Bible Belt state back then. “My country, right or wrong” sort of covered things for many but there were big differences of opinion in how America should treat its own people. President Eisenhower and many other white people felt that change would take time, that you couldn’t changed the hearts of people quickly, consequently Negroes would have to be patient.

    Now it seems that so many strident voices belong to those that are devoted to a cause, rather than to the country. If the country becomes like they want, they will be patriotic, I guess. Maybe patriotism is so far from being cool that there is an aversion to it among many that favor tribal affiliations related to sodomy and its various corollaries, infanticide options, redistribution of wealth, incarnated envy and entitlement, gender variety and so on.

    How do we persuade people to engage in self-assessment? If someone is in favor of things that others think are bad by their very nature, while that someone doesn’t have a problem with them – then what?

    1. In this case, I think you can only lead by example. It used to be that people were inspired by the life of Christians to try to change their own lives. Read the anonymous letter to Diognetus from the second century.

      1. Last night I realized that I should have included additional items in my “tribal affiliations” list, such as greed, conspicuous consumption, racism, etc. Clearly, those with failure to believe and do the right thing aren’t only on the left, nor are partisans on the left and partisans on the right without their own divisions. Housing in California is an interesting issue. There are liberals in the Bay Area that are concerned about the high cost of housing but they will do nothing that interferes with their ambiance. Meanwhile, there are others that are quite willing to impose high-density housing in areas where there isn’t any, such as regular areas of tract housing. Of course, their ambiance won’t be disturbed.

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