Patriotism and Country vs. State

By Donald Gutierrez

As the USA Patriot Act (enacted Oct. 26, 2001) ominously implied that the “true patriot” had best keep his mouth shut about his government’s actions no matter how evil, patriotism has become a word that would benefit from an iconoclastic embrace. One’s immediate definition of patriotism is likely to be love of and dedication to one’s country. This definition, though, is less one of instinct than of indoctrination encountered as part of one’s upbringing. The indoctrination shifts us into something ultimately darker or narrower when patriotism is further defined or implied to mean approval of the economic “interests” and political-military authority and actions of one’s country’s abroad. The problem emerging at this point is that the idea of country has subtly shifted into another societal concept, the formidable abstraction and reality called the state.

One can love one’s country in the form of, say, San Francisco’s cultural liberalism, New Mexico’s green chile and mountains, the Midwest’s festive sense of Hallowe’en, autumn in Vermont, the New York theatre or baseball world—or individuals, Thelonius Monk, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Kline, Eugene Debs, Dorothy Day, Susan Farrell, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, etc.

If, however, love of one’s country means for example accepting the Yahoo battle-cry “My Country, Right or Wrong!,” or Bush Sr. and Jr. threatening to declare war without congressional authorization or Bush Jr. permitting corporate-boardroom decisions that kill jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans or further poison our air and water, then I am not a patriot.

Put another way, one must differentiate “country” and “state” to get at a more satisfactory definition of patriotism, for to have to love both John Muir and Amnesty International USA on the one hand and Anthony Scalia and the current regressive tax system on the other is to ask of us a love that only a schizophrenic could provide.

To entertain a more resilient idea of patriotism, one might reverse conventional or unchallenged acceptances. This latter practice could mean viewing the 1950s House UnAmerican Activities Committee itself or the White House’s much more recent warrantless wiretapping or CEOs receiving seven-figure-salary bonuses for executing mergers that raise product costs for millions of Americans and throw many thousands out of work) as unpatriotic.

Further, were not Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich depriving the American people of immense amounts of public wealth by trying to pass a bill in 1997 to subsidize the tobacco industry with $50 billion? Is that not unpatriotic, even traitorous, behavior because it would have misused the American people’s wealth and threatened their health?

Or, today, is our Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner very possibly committing an act of vast treachery (backed by the White House) in bailing out Wall Street at the vast expense of the American people—and, if so, how do we define patriotism and America in terms of those two antithetical elements: former Goldman-Sachs CEO Paulson vs. the country? State-supported Wall Street vs. totally robbed Main Street?

Was Daniel Ellsberg a patriot in the best sense when he turned over to the the New York Times the Pentagon Papers, in which it was revealed that Lyndon B. Johnson had secret plans for extending the war into North Vietnam while telling the public that he was for peace and planned to end the war? Isn’t any American President or politician who draws the country into an unjust, illegal or unnecessary war unpatriotic, even traitorous? Are not activists like Father Roy Bourgeois and Kathy Kelly splendid American patriots in very vigorously condemning the brutal American methods of public control taught Latin American military and police officials at the (formerly named) School of the Americas?

Now if one wants to be a good citizen and a patriot to boot, how does s/he shape a viable sense of patriotism out of the above melange of diverse, polarized items? What is a patriotic response to an illustrious American painter like Mark Rothko on the one hand, and on the other to John Foster Dulles (roughly contemporaries), our ice-Cold-Warrior Secretary of State who during the 1950s brought the US perilously close to precipitating nuclear war against mainland China?

Deciding on these responses could be facilitated by viewing Rothko under the rubric of country and Dulles under that of state (“state” understood to mean country in its most abstracted, highly concentrated political-military coercive form). Rothko was a private individual, developing over the years his particular craft and genius as an artist towards the creation of majestic, non-figurative canvases of mystically luminescent and somnolent horizontal planes of color. His work did not glorify the Stars and Stripes or the Pentagon, and yet, suddenly seeing his big canvases as I walked one summer in 1990 into the American Wing of the Musee Pompidou in Paris, I felt a thrill of patriotism.

One could, if not love, perhaps at least accept what Dulles or Henry Kissinger or Condoleezza Rice stands for, that is, the state, if one felt that their conduct as American statesmen protected or nourished the culture that makes or preserves a Rothko or a Billie Holliday or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Habeas Corpus or the poor, the young and the elderly of our country. People like Dulles or Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld would instantly declaim that their foreign policies were dedicated to protecting basic American freedom and values and (especially) “National Security.”

When high state officials like Dulles, Kissinger and Rumsfeld say that they are acting in the National Interest or defending the Free World, the American Way of Life, etc., by, respectively, threatening China with nuclear bombing, massively bombing Cambodia or devastating oil-rich Iraq, they are, again, urging the claim that the interest of the state is that of the country; they are protecting the country from the Chinese or the Viet Cong or Saddam Hussein. But this asserted coinciding of the interests of country and state is very disputable. A great deal of the hostility displayed by the American state and mass media towards international Communism, whether the Soviet Union, Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba, was excessive and provocative. The Cold War was also an enormous windfall for special sectors of American society whose concerns were not really those of the country, that is, the great majority of Americans unconnected with the state in any way except income tax and their draftable children. It should be news of undying interest to the country financing them that the American defense industry and its investors profitted enormously from the Cold War—and of course do so in the American state’s current wars.

The Cold War also benefited the state by keeping the general public tractable and wage-earners deprived of at least a third to two-fifths of their rightful working income while intimidating the country for decades with dark warnings of black-booted Commissars ruling L.A. and NYC or nuking Disneyland. Now it's the Taliban and al-Qaeda that are relentlessly coming after us, a Bush-pushed paranoia that apparently President Obama is also endorsing to justify his injudicious Afghanistan War. It is hardly unpatriotic to condemn the powerful individuals and institutions which wasted huge amounts of America’s material wealth and emotional energy by first engendering the Cold War in the late 1940s under Truman and then inflating it to seem much worse than in fact it was. Perhaps the Dulleses, Nixons, Kissingers, Reagans, Bushes, McCains (among others) have been the betrayers—not only of the state, but of the country.

Patriotism is in itself a controversial and variable concept. Integral to nationalism, it becomes more and more dangerous in a world that must surmount its jingoistic nationalism in order to form a comity of nations anchored in subordinating each nation to an authoritative internationalist polity and rule of law. Turning nation against nation and thus patriot against patriot is simply too risky in a world of spreading nuclear-arms capacity, increasing poverty and class differentiation, rising religious fanaticism and possibly uncontrollable population growth, and, recently, the global financial meltdown. Patriotism can embody a fulfilling sense of community if the essential values of state and country sizably and ultimately coincide. That they seldom really do should alert the country to the likelihood that the state could be up to something dubious at best and pernicious and even catastrophic at worst when it starts fanning the fires of patriotism and war. Whether, moreover, President Obama will be able to bring state and country into harmony is surely part of that Hope that fired his campaign and a multitude of supporters, but with Wall Streeters like Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin and hawks like Gen. Jim Jones and the Clintons close to Obama’s ear, one is concerned that, once again, state might make short shrift of any bonding with country.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. His most recent book is The Holiness of the Real: the Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2009

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