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Patriotism—the love of place, countrymen, and local traditions—lasted for millennia, until replaced by nationalism, which we believe is a natural outgrowth of tribal life, instead of an invention of Western Europe.
I sat through elementary school not knowing that to guarantee new generations of virtuous and patriotic citizens, the French Revolution established the first comprehensive system of national education. For the first time, education became a primary interest of the state; the schooling of young children served the political and economic ends of the nation and more importantly instilled the love of country. I absorbed the lessons in civic virtues imparted to me and to my fellow students. We heard tales about great patriots and learned such inspiring lessons as “Our country! May she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong;” and “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
At times, the main point of school seemed to be about learning the glorious past of America. I was taught an updated version of what a New England teachers’ group proposed as guidelines for American history textbooks, in 1898: extol the virtues of the noble Indian; dwell on the brilliant intellect, the undaunted courage, and the magnificent faith of Columbus, the hardship of the Pilgrims, the simplicity of the Quakers; show how the Revolution was due solely to the brutal tyranny of the British, and how Washington and Franklin had in supreme degree all the virtues and not a single fault; characterize the Constitution as the greatest product of the human mind; dwell on the enormities of the British after the Treaty of Paris, in 1783, that ratified America’s independence, and the glorious victories of the War of 1812; show how the South went all wrong.[i]
I was not taught, and my teachers probably did not know, that patriotism and nationalism are not identical; not once in all my schooling did I hear George Orwell’s admonition that “nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.”[ii]
The American Civil War, known in the South as the War Between the States and also as the War of Northern Aggression, pitted a democratic Nation-State against an aristocratic society. The anthems of the South and the North reveal the fundamental differences between patriotism and nationalism. Confederate soldiers strummed their banjos and sang the easy-going tune, “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten; Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land. In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’; Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.” The Southerners in their reveries to escape the wretchedness of war dreamed of black-eyed peas and grits, recalled the love of the land and local customs, and desired to return to an indolent life supported by slavery. Northerners sang, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” God elected Northerners to “die to make men free,” and with “His truth is marching on,” a person had no choice but to hop aboard the train of history or to be run over, as the driving motor pulse of the tune informs the emotions.
Patriotism—the love of place, countrymen, and local traditions—lasted for millennia, until replaced by nationalism, which first appeared in seventeenth-century England. Nationalism is so prevalent in Modernity that we believe it is a natural outgrowth of tribal life, instead of an invention of Western Europe that was exported to the rest of the world. According to historian Hans Kohn, nationalism has three essential aspects: “Under Puritan influence the three main ideas of Hebrew nationalism were revived: the chosen people, the Covenant, and the Messianic expectancy. The English nation regarded itself as the new Israel.”[iii] Before World War I, for many Englishmen, the difference between God and the British Empire was blurred: “The patriotic songs and the church hymns seemed equally holy.”[iv] Even the smallest of Nation-States claims an historic destiny. With a name worthy of a Marx Brothers movie, like Freedonia in Duck Soup, Greater Serbia would evoke laughter, if it were not for the Serbian ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanians.
The Chosen People
The founding of America was based on the Puritans’ belief that they were the new chosen people of God. For a time, the Puritans believed God had selected England as the country in which the Reformation would reach its consummation. They expected that the Established Church of England would someday be broken up and reorganized into independent, covenanted congregations.
By 1620 the Puritans, however, were prosecuted in England and routed out of Europe. Just when their cause seemed hopeless, the hand of God stretched forth and led the most select of His saints out of Egypt to the New Jerusalem to build a “City upon a Hill” for all humanity to see. In route to New England, in 1630, John Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arbella and delivered a sermon on the Puritans’ historic destiny: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”[v]
The New England Puritans saw themselves as having been given a mission by God to show the world how the Reformation was to be completed. In his classic work, The New England Mind, Perry Miller emphasizes that the towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut “were not designed to become mere abodes of prosperity and contentment, to give men land and crops, peace and security. They were to demonstrate to England and Europe what yet remained to be achieved, and their appointed task was as clear to the eye of reason studying the pages of history, as to the eye of faith perusing the pages of revelation.”[vi]
The Puritans entered into covenants first with God, then with each other in the Church, and lastly in society to form a political state. Before disembarking at Plymouth, in 1620, the Puritans drew up the Mayflower Compact: “We… do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue of hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience….”[vii]
The Puritans knew their government had been brought into existence by an act of the people; furthermore, they believed the people created the one kind of government outlined by God. “New England political theory made the state almost a kind of second incarnation, a Messiah fathered by God and born of the people,” Miller writes.[viii] Once again, and perhaps for the last time, God had entered into history to create a new political order by acting through the people. The goal of the new political order was to prepare citizens for the Final Judgment. Miller points out that the Puritans believed that when mortals “combine their several regenerate wills into one all-inclusive will, the state becomes the savior, the child of God and man, leading men to righteousness and preparing them for the final reckoning.”[ix]
As religious inspiration waned in America, the belief remained that Americans are the chosen people with a special destiny in history. America was a new continent, a new beginning for humanity, a beacon to light the way for the rest of the world. John Adams, in 1765, expressed this national Messianism in his diary: “America was designed by Providence for the theater on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.”[x] George Washington in his First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789, proclaimed, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token providential agency.” Thomas Jefferson in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, said, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land. God led his people to establish a new social order that will light the way for all nations and gave them the mission to spread democracy and freedom. On the back of the U.S. one dollar bill is the Great Seal of the United States. Below the unfinished pyramid is Novus ordo seclorum—New Order of the Ages—and above the pyramid is Annuit cœptis—God favors our undertakings.
Later, the Puritans’ belief that God’s covenant with the new chosen people aimed at their salvation from sin was forgotten; however, the idea remained that the government was formed by a social compact between individuals. When no longer seen as a continuation of the will of God, Americans understood their government was founded on the self-evident truths of nature; the social compact between individuals was believed to be instituted not to carry out God’s salvation plan for humanity, but to secure men’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What then held the nation together was an idea — liberty under law; the people themselves had formed the new Covenant—the Constitution. The United States Constitution has lasted longer than any other written constitution on earth because without the Covenant there would be no American nation.
Every school child in the United States learns that Americans are the chosen people, who established a City on the Hill, a beacon to light the way for Old Europe. In junior high school, my civics teacher taught that Americans in the nineteenth century sought to fulfill a Manifest Destiny, the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the name of God. He showed the class a reproduction of the painting American Progress (1872) by John Gast. (See illustration at top of this essay.) The students were impressed by the settlers moving west under the guidance of Columbia, the personification of American Liberty. As the goddess travels toward the “darkened” west, she is bringing the “light,” depicted on the right (eastern) side of the painting. She holds the book of knowledge and is stringing telegraph wire that will enable communication across the vast nation.
Americans, in the main, believe the myth that the founding of their country was on the whole peaceful; they ignore that the new American order greatly weakened, if not destroyed, Native American cultures. Disease and at times genocidal policies reduced a population of Native Americans estimated at ten million in 1620 to 240,000 in the early twentieth century.[xi]
Already in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and social philosopher, saw the rapid decline of the Native American population, with many tribes no longer in existence: “All the Indian tribes who once inhabited the territory of New England—the Narragansetts, the Mohicans, the Pequots—now live only in men’s memories; the Lenapes, who received William Penn a hundred and fifty years ago on the Delaware, have now vanished. I met the last of the Iroquois; they were begging.”[xii]
Tocqueville witnessed the frightful sufferings that attended the forced westward migration of the Native Americans from east of the Mississippi. Standing on the left bank of the Mississippi at Memphis, he saw a large band of Choctaws arrive and endeavor to cross the river in hope of finding the asylum promised them by the United States government. He saw with his own eyes the miseries the Choctaws endured: “It was then the depths of winter, and that year the cold was exceptionally severe; the snow was hard upon the ground, and huge masses of ice drifted on the river. The Indians brought their families with them; there were among them the wounded, the sick, newborn babies, and the old men on the point of death. They had neither tents nor wagons, but only some provisions and weapons. I saw them embark to cross the great river, and the sight will never fade from my memory. Neither sob nor complaint rose from the silent assembly. Their afflictions were of long standing, and they felt them to be irremediable.”[xiii]
All the cowboy movies I saw as a boy led me to believe that Indian chiefs were bloodthirsty, cruel savages. Not only were the movies an insult to Native Americans, they masked the white man’s way. Later, I was shocked to discover that the common opinion that an Indian chief had great power, even the power over life, is false. No Native American chief could declare war and command braves to follow him into battle. If a chief elected to go on the warpath, each brave decided for himself whether to go to war or not. In the Apache Wars, all the braves voluntarily followed Geronimo in his revenge attacks against the Mexicans for killing his family.[xiv] Furthermore, the council of elders made no laws that were enforceable upon individuals. If the council decided to move camp, the decision was not compulsory; no one was forced to leave against his will, and a family or two might elect to stay in the old village.[xv]
But if the chief and the elders did not govern through force, then how did they govern? Their sole authority was their personal knowledge of tradition, life, craft, and warfare. Obedience to personal authority was voluntary; no person had political power over any other person. According to Chief Standing Bear, the ancestral Sioux had no system of lawful punishment—“no jailing, no whipping, no denying of food, no taking away of personal liberty.” A wrongdoer was simply ignored by the entire tribe, and such ostracism made Sioux society “particularly free from crime.”[xvi]
As a boy it made sense to me that an Indian chief was all-powerful, since the white “chiefs” govern through the threat of force and the exercise of power. We are taught that the modern state’s power of life and death over its citizens is “natural” to all social governance, but it is not.
The Nation-State, the New God, is the final authority for all political life. A citizen of the United States may belong to many social groups, say the National Rifle Association or the Boy Scouts of America. But the National Rifle Association does not confer to its members the right to bear arms, the Bill of Rights as interpreted by the Supreme Court does. The Boys Scouts of America does not have the liberty to determine if its membership should be exclusively male, the courts have that power.
Walter Lippmann, a reporter and political commentator, courageously brushed aside unexamined opinion and wrote, in 1929, “A State is absolute… when it claims the right to a monopoly of all the force within the community, to make war, to make peace, to conscript life, to tax, to establish and dis-establish property, to define crime, to punish disobedience, to control education, to supervise the family, to regulate personal habits, and to censor opinions.”[xvii] All Nation-States are totalitarian, although some are benign in times of peace. In the Western democracies, a Messianic destiny and the rhetoric of individual freedom camouflage the absolute power of the Nation-State.
No church, no city, no social group can approach the demands of the Nation-State. The citizen’s supreme loyalty is to the New God, and just like the God of old, the Nation-State is beyond religious or moral sanction for true believers.
National symbols, such as flags and anthems, were created to unify the people. In the early Nation-State, the arts, unlike those in Medieval Europe, no longer expressed what was universally human, no longer served to deepen spirituality and unify the community of Christians. Music was enlisted to arouse national passions. The “Marseillaise” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” unified the hearts and minds of nationalists and stirred their bodies to action. For a stirring rendition of the “Marseillaise” listen to Mireille Mathieu and for “The Stars and Stripes Forever” try the United States Marine Band. When I listened recently to the music of nationalism, even a jaded Romanian gypsy like me marched around my study, ready to kill for the glory of France or the United States. If you really want to be depressed and see the reality of the Nation-State, watch the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent World War II propaganda film The Most Beautiful; pay particular attention to the sound track, for Kurosawa skillfully used the United States Marines anthem, “Semper Fidelis.” And, if you do not believe that nationalistic music is easily transferred from one Nation-State to another, listen to the Nazi anthem “Horst Wessel Lied.” Listen in the original language, and you will see that there is no difference in the emotional appeal of the “Horst Wessel Lied,” “Semper Fidelis,” and “Marseillaise.”
The Nation-State imitated the Church in other ways. Holy days became national holidays that brought the people together, so they could act as one. Such spectacles as the Fourth of July and Bastille Day allowed each citizen to be a proud participant in a glorious historic past.
Made in the image of the Nation-State, citizens obtain their rights not from God or nature but from their nation. Unlike medieval men and women, who thought of themselves as Christians, subjects of a king or lord, and members of a village community, Western men and women in the twentieth-first century, with few exceptions, think of themselves as citizens of a nation, as Englishmen, Americans, Germans, Belgians, Serbs, or some other invented group. They speak of my country and feel pride or shame in their country’s actions. Historian Boyd Shafer observes that for citizens of a Nation-State the nation’s language is their language; the nation’s leaders are their leaders; the nation’s possessions are their possessions; the nation’s enemies are their enemies; the nation’s victories and defeats are their victories and defeats; the nation’s fortunes are their fortunes; the nation’s way of life is their way of life.[xviii]
The citizen practices his faith by participating in the rituals and ceremonies of nationalism. He salutes his country’s flag, and like the Christian with the cross, never lets it be defiled. He sings—with head bared—his national anthem. From childhood, he takes oaths, swearing he will be a good and faithful citizen. He may make pilgrimages to his capital and its famed buildings—its Westminster Abbey, its Lincoln Memorial, its Red Square, its White House. Glorious patriots (saints and martyrs) are buried in national cemeteries or in impressive pantheons. The national heroes are honored and immortalized when their names are given to cities, streets, parks, libraries, theaters, and airports.[xix]
Several years after the Fall of Saigon, but before many people realized the American Empire was crumbling, I drove aimlessly around Europe, looking for God knows what. At one point, I was shocked to see the rolling French countryside around Verdun covered as far as my eye could see with over one hundred thousand little, whitewashed crosses bearing the simple inscription “Mort pour la patrie.” Nearby the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial occupies a small part of the battlefield of the final offensive of World War I that cost the Americans 117,000 killed and wounded, the French 70,000, and the Germans 100,000.
In 2007, the ninetieth anniversary of the entry of the United States into the Great War to end all wars went by without a celebration, or even national notice taken to commemorate those brave doughboys who died for their country and “to make the world safe for democracy.”
The war slogans faded from public memory as rapidly as the lyrics from George M. Cohen’s catchy, patriotic tune “Over There.” How many of the 2,000,000 doughboys marched off to war with fragments of Cohen’s jingle reverberating in their minds? “Hoist the flag and let her fly, Yankee Doodle do or die… Make your mother proud of you, and the old Red, White, and Blue… And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.”
For the 116,000 Yanks that died in Europe, it was over, over there. English poet Wilfred Owen begged his countrymen not to continue to tell the ancient lie from the Roman poet Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.) One week before the signing of the Armistice, Owen died in action crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. On Armistice Day, while church bells were ringing out in celebration, his mother received the telegram informing her of her son’s death in France. Perhaps, it was too much to hope that the first two lines from Owen’s “Anthem for a Doomed Youth” would never be forgotten: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
World War I, now, ancient history, forgotten—no one remembers, or cares—why 9.7 million soldiers died fighting a war that resolved nothing and led in twenty years to Europe’s second attempt at collective suicide.
To serve the nation, to cherish and to love it, is for many citizens, the greatest virtue; the greatest self-sacrifice is to give one’s life for one’s country. To achieve its Messianic end, the State demands that every citizen be willing to sacrifice himself. Not ours to reason why, but to do and die.[xx]
This essay first appeared here in November 2016.
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 Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, of course, knew that John Locke, the philosopher who supplied the theoretical foundations of both modern democracy and capitalism, held that government secured life, liberty, and property, not the pursuit of happiness.
[i] See Boyd C. Shafer, Faces of Nationalism: New Realities and Old Myths (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 205.
[ii] George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism,” http://orwell.ru/library/essays/nationalism/english/e_nat.
[iii] Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1965), p. 16.
[iv] Ronald Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015 ), pp. 35–36.
[v] John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, ed. Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 199. Our text is in modern English.
[vi] Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 470–471
[vii] In Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, p. 102. Our text is in modern English.
[viii] Miller, The New England Mind, p. 419.
[ix] Ibid. Italics added.
[x] John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), vol. I, p. 282.
[xi] See “Population History of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas” and “Historical Racial and Ethnic Demographics of the United States,” Wikipedia. In our text, the Native American population for 1620 is the mean of the estimates for 1492.
[xii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 321.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 324.
[xiv] Geronimo, Geronimo: My Life, told to S. M. Barrett (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005 ), Part II: The Mexicans.
[xv] Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1978 ), p. 129.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 261.
[xvii] Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 80.
[xviii] See Shafer, p. 246.
[xix] Ibid., p. 255.
The featured image is “Fate of the Rebel Flag” (c. 1861) by William Bauly and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.