Recently a number of intellectual bloggers have been debating the concept of patriotism (see here, here, here, and here.) The conflict over such a mundane and seemingly uncontroversial term highlights the fact that we Americans have conflicted feelings about the word “patriot.”
To question someone’s patriotism is considered an insult, while to praise their patriotism is a compliment (except when it isn’t). Yet strangely, the only people who refer to themselves, completely without irony or qualification, as “patriots” are old veterans, paleo-cons, and pro athletes in New England.
Of course, people who do not fit into those three categories sometimes self-identify with that label. But when they do it is inevitably accompanied by an asterisk, denoting–whether expressed or implied–that the use of the word comes with a qualifier:
*Sure, I love my country but I that doesn’t mean I support ________. (George Bush, the war, etc.)
*That doesn’t mean I think America is better than other countries.
*Of course I would never, ever serve (nor let my child enlist) in the military.
*But I’m nothing like those Bible-thumping, flag-fetishizing, NASCAR-loving, types of “patriots.”
The need to invoke such conditionals raises the question of whether the person truly identifies with the term. A Japanese reporter once inquired of filmmaker Michael Moore, “You do not seem to like the U.S., do you?” Moore’s response sums up the sentiment behind the patriot’s asterisk: “I like America to some extent.”