All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1970

Patriotism: To Be or Not To Be

Mrs. Headlee of Mission Viejo, California, is Instructor of Secondary English.

“THE FLAG IS DEAD!” exult mora­torium demonstrators, and teach­ers and school administrators shake their heads knowingly.

“We must blame American tra­ditions and morality,” conclude the educators, “for goading the youth into resistance. In an age of inter­national peace-seeking and social liberality, patriotism is obsolete.”

Oddly enough, the more the academicians denounce prayer and pledges of allegiance, the more they compound the problem of stu­dent violence. Like sage Socrates, who was excessively wise yet could not, in his wisdom, control Xanthippe, they fail to approach their own problems directly. They fail to realize that unrest among students has not been caused by unreasonable authoritarian de­mands for loyalty, but by the gradual removal, over the past two or three decades, of demands for loyalty from the curriculum.

The roots of the problem reach back to the time in American his­tory when the emancipation of women and urban mobility, among other things, caused the home to relinquish much of its control over the morals and ideals of young­sters. The unhappy recipients of this misplaced moral responsibil­ity were, of course, the schools. Zealously trying to be objective and academic in the spiritual as well as the factual realms of knowledge, many teachers demon­strated a haughty distaste for their roles as guardians of Ameri­can morals. They began to stress the basic irrationality of teaching respect for family, self, country, and God. From there they pro­ceeded to the assertion that the latter values are contrary to the principles of universal peace and interracial understanding — principles basic to the assumption that love of self and country must be replaced by an all-consuming love for one’s fellow men at large.

A typical expression of this edu­cational “humanism” can be found in the writings of Urban Whit­aker, a coordinator of education at San Francisco State College and a one-time trustee of the San Bruno Elementary School District. Whitaker speaks of the need to “seek to de-emphasize the nar­rower emotions of nationalism in favor of a more humanistic world view.” In discussing the “nar­rower emotions of nationalism” he continues,

Perhaps the leading example on the emotional side today is the pledge of allegiance. Allegiance to the United States of America — one country among more than 130 in the world — is not taught as a reasonable thing. Nor is it taught in a reasonable way. But it is taught in every class, every day, of every child’s public school training. We are indoctrinating our children to believe, emotionally rather than rationally, that it is good, right, and patriotic to place the interests of Americans, who are only six per cent of the world’s peoples and already fantastically better off in material welfare than all the others, above the interests of humankind in general. Such a proposition is… downright dangerous.1

Faith Essential to Stability

At this point we will ask Mr. Whitaker and his fellow adminis­trators exactly what is so danger­ously irrational about nationalistic self-interest, and, to whom is it dangerous? Nowhere has it been proven that patriotic devotion to the interests of one country gen­erates denial of “the interests of humankind in general.” To sug­gest that such a denial is inevit­able is as absurd as to suggest that the love of a man for a par­ticular woman is inimical to his ability to love his fellow man. And, romantic love is not more basic to human nature than religious love or patriotic love.

In fact, patriotism is much akin to religious faith. Like religious faith it can be logically discounted, yet is totally necessary to man’s sense of direction, integrity, and belief that he is a significant in­teger in a larger scheme of spirit­ual good. We can say that godli­ness and loyalty, and an apprehen­sion of right and wrong, are not only abstract, but also entirely rel­ative to the time and place in which one lives. We cannot say, however, that right and loyalty do not, therefore, exist as defin­able qualities — definable, that is, in terms of the nonabstract human organism. In other words, “right” can be defined as that which pre­serves the social stability of the organism, and “wrong” is that which destroys such stability. Any organism must develop those at­tributes needed to defend and pre­serve itself. The human organism, being gregarious, must, to pre­serve itself and its integrity, also preserve the society of which it is a part. In these terms, loyalty to society, and to one’s nation, are “right,” while immorality, treach­ery, and atheism are “wrong.”

Psychological Moorings

If we still doubt that national allegiance is rational, we can turn to psychology for reassurance. Erich Fromm, noted psychologist and philosopher, in his book, Man for Himself, suggests not only that man needs faith, but also that he cannot live without it. “Devotion to an aim [such as success or pres­tige], an idea, or a power tran­scending man such as God,” as­serts Fromm, “is an expression of [man’s] need for completeness in the process of living.” That is, the healthy, mentally stable person is the person who loves himself enough to want to preserve him­self, and, in preserving himself, relates to his immediate environ­ment with love, responsibility, and loyalty. Because that person can know and love himself, he can also know what is good for him. Be­cause that person can know and love himself, he can also know what is good and moral for others. Because he needs to be loyal to himself in order to gain a sense of identity, he also needs to be loyal to others in order to develop that sense of identity. In other words, patriotism gives each individual the pride of self-identification which is vitally necessary if his mind is to be healthy and produc­tive.

Of course, a certain sense of identity can also be gained through the development of uni­versal understanding. There is no reason to doubt that the liberal ideal of world unity and universal love is reasonable. Man must link himself to his fellows with interest and compassion, knowing that life is essentially not a drama of the hunter and the hunted, but a com­plex of interpersonal relationships. Even so, world unity cannot come by discounting national unity. Na­tional unity is the first step toward world unity, just as a child’s first step toward love of others is love of his mother. The child’s ability to love grows out­ward from himself, its spiral in­cluding more and more people and objects that he encounters in his environment. If this spiraling growth is arrested or interrupted, he becomes prone to crippling doubt and mental disruption.

Many American youths who, doubting the integrity of the United States, stage violent dem­onstrations, are suffering from a disruption in the growth of their ability to love. Un-American and atheistic societal elements have persuaded them that they can and must eliminate the milestones of loyalty to God and country which lead to universal love. Missing these milestones, they suddenly feel as if they have no country, or that their country has done them some grave injustice. Brazenly rocketing toward the desirable ideal of world unity, yet out of the path which goes toward that objective, they are, essentially, lost in space.

Sudden Changes and Breakdowns

The fact that so many youths are irretrievably lost, and the fact that patriotism is at such a low ebb in this country, is indicative of the sickness that besets civili­zation when it changes too rapidly, or embraces change for the sake of change. Our civilized mentors, our teachers, tend to feel that nationalistic observances are “cul­tural lags” which harken back to a primitive, inferior way of living. Yet, the realization that the new lack of nationalism has not im­proved our ways of living should suggest to them that they have tried to overthrow a life-style that really enhances, rather than re­tards, our collective well-being.

Certainly the need has not passed for formal observances, however much like primitive tribal ceremonies, to discipline the youth to fight bravely and proudly. Loy­alty is as much a discipline as it is a subjective bond. The instilling of a belief in national unity as a possible and positive good is a necessary exercise for the chan­neling of youthful inquiry into fruitful fields of endeavor. Through such discipline, the loyal­ties of young people will become increasingly complex, spiraling outward from neighborhood to state, state to nation, nation to the world, and becoming true, sol­idly-based, and mature bonds of unification.

Yet, even if patriotic discipline were unnecessary to develop world loyalty, patriotism would be the only cause championed by a par­ticular group of people which could successfully transcend the barriers of race, religion, and po­litical party in this country. For these barriers are immediate and, it is widely asserted, peculiar to this nation, and can only be pre­vented from becoming extreme by the presence of another cause which is also peculiar to the nation and ultimately responsive to the needs of the people. Love of men in general cannot meet local needs or tear down local barriers, be­cause loyalty and love are, at best, abstractly and vaguely understood when conceived of in general terms, or on a large scale. In order to become meaningful and to in­spire positive action, motivation, and interest, abstract emotions must be particularized. They must be directed toward a symbol or body, that is, a person, a flag, or a coat of arms.

Indeed, human nature has al­ways found it necessary to par­ticularize and symbolize its high­est ideals with idols, monuments, medals, and other material objects — objects which man can fashion and improve with his intellect and his artistry to rival all other ob­jects in his environment. Perhaps this need to translate the abstract into the concrete accounts for man’s inability to face death with confidence. For even a man who believes in a heavenly afterlife can be afraid of dying. Why? Because life in a realm of uni­versal beneficence and beauty is not totally attractive to the human spirit. Man, with his competitive nature, is only attracted where his realm can be thought to be better than another’s, or where he can work to make it better. The per­son who does not feel that his sur­roundings can be improved through his own efforts is root­less indeed, and probably suffers from frustration and suicidal im­pulses.

And all too many people in this country do suffer from frustration and despair, having been deprived of the knowledge that patriotism is rational, logical, and psycholog­ically necessary. But if satisfac­tion of basic human needs is not desirable enough to engage the dissatisfied American, there is much more to be gained from pa­triotism. National loyalty is, in a sense, an invaluable “social secur­ity” system, which, in return for active interest and allegiance, pro­vides positive benefits to the in­vestor. That is, a nation, with the support of its people, can furnish the benefits of public education and of equal protection of the law. Such advantages cannot be pro­vided unless they are based upon the common interest, and belief in the common good, of the people. Without the confident support of the people, public education be­comes private indoctrination, and the protection of the law becomes autocratic control.

Emotional Rewards

But patriotism’s good points are not all couched in direct benefits and mental gratuities. The real advantage of national observances lies in their emotional rewards. Of course, the detractors, the Urban Whitakers, insist that it is the subjective, emotional quality of allegiance that is its weakness. A brief study of the history of civ­ilization, however, might suggest to them that the most enduring aspects of civilized life have been, in essence, subjective. The legal and political records of Ancient Greece are historically interesting, but hardly memorable. Yet we do recall the poetic triumphs of the Greek poets, including Sophocles’ ode to mankind:

Many are the wonders of the world,

And none so wonderful as Man.

Over the waters wan

His storm-vext bark he steers,

While the fierce billows break

Round his path, and o’er his head:

So soaring far past hope,

The wise inventiveness of man

Finds diverse issues, good and ill:

If from their course he wrests

The firm foundations of the state,

Laws, and the justice he is sworn to keep,

High in the city, citiless I deem him,

Dealing with baseness: overbold,

May he my hearth avoid,

Nor let my thoughts with his, who does such deeds, agree!2

Like poetic sentiment, patriot­ism is feeling— feeling that is both controlled and directed. It is a complex love of men, landscapes, ideals, and ways of living that does not limit the mind, but directs it toward making faith a reality. In other words, the patriot loves his way of life enough that, wherever faults exist in it, he has reason to want to correct those faults.

When nationalism, thus, becomes a sentiment that expands the in­tellect and ennobles the soul, it also contributes to the cultural progress of civilization. Many of the world’s greatest acts of hero­ism and works of skill have been accomplished for nationalistic rea­sons. The Greek Classical Age and the Elizabethan Age were two of the most patriotic periods in his­tory. These ages, during which there was tremendous concern with idealism, honor, and what was “right,” were also the most vibrant, the most creative, and the most culturally productive ages in the history of mankind. Shake­speare, the greatest poetic genius of the English language, and the bright star of the Elizabethan Age, spoke of his nation in rev­erent terms:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home,

For Christian service and true chivalry,

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out….3

Thus, historically, when men like Shakespeare have partaken of na­tional pride, they have also be­lieved in their own worth as human beings and have been able to put that belief to good use artistically, intellectually, and sci­entifically.

Ultimately, it must be concluded that only those who do not wish a nation to prosper culturally, or to defend its integrity against an enemy, will not wish the people of that nation to be patriotic. Love of country and love of liberty are inseparable aspects of the same basic human approach to civilized life. Mature love is an extension of self that must be freely given, and cannot be adequately devel­oped in an atmosphere of repres­sion. Those who would take away a man’s freedom are well aware that they must first take away that man’s belief in the integrity and worth of those in his cultural and social complex who protect him from oppression.

We would hope that our public educators will not continue to ad­vocate overthrow of American lib­erty by suppressing patriotic and moral attitudes in the schools. The study of Shakespearean literature would more surely benefit students than the consideration of the doc­trine of universal love. Shake­speare pondered the “to be or not to be” question, and decided that the struggle to save his country from ruin was more desirable than a quiet death. If educators were to approach patriotism as Shake­speare did, they would know that “to be,” or, to live, means to be free, and to learn to love one’s country freely.



1 Urban Whitaker, “War/Peace: The Magic Formula,” California Elementary Administrator, 31, May-June, 1968, p. 21.

2 From the Antigone by Sophocles, translated by Charles Robinson, Jr., An Anthology of Greek Drama, 1962, p. 112.

3 William Shakespeare, Richard the Second, II, i, 40-59.