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Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Since the early part of this decade, it's often been said that there was an upsurge in patriotism after 9/11. But what exactly does patriotism consist of?

Here's a stab at a two part definition. First, patriotism consists of the extent to which you favor the interests of the country over your own narrow self-interest. Thus, someone who lobbied his congressman for, say, a cut-rate timber lease with the implicit promise of a substantial campaign contribution would be showing a distinct lack of patriotism. (As would the Congressman if his vote were swayed by the potential contribution.) Likewise, anyone who feels that his ethnic cohorts should be favored at the expense of rest of the country is less than patriotic. (Such a person might be loyal to his co-ethnics, but he is not patriotic.) And, of course, anybody who favors the interests of a foreign country over those of the United States is an out and out traitor.

Secondly, patriotism consists of asking how much you would be willing to sacrifice for your country. By this definition those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice -- by enlisting -- show the highest degree of patriotism. (Of course, many enlist in order to have a job, or to get job training, or simply for the opportunity to legally shoot people; so this picture is a little fuzzy.) Those willing to pay their full share of taxes also show patriotism (though I've never heard of anyone so patriotic as to voluntarily pay more taxes than necessary.) Those agitating for war show no patriotism -- unless they themselves are willing to enlist. And those agitating for others to pay higher taxes while themselves evading them likewise show a great deal of hypocrisy, but very little patriotism.

Having said all that, I must admit I've never felt particularly swayed by patriotic sentiments myself. The sight of a piece of cloth with a stars and stripes motif moves me not at all. And I'd prefer not having to sit through the national anthem at every sporting event I attend; it always strikes me as a waste of time. To me, the idea of being loyal to a chunk of a continent containing a 300 million people seems silly.

I believe in loyalty to family and friends, not to colleges or corporations or countries.

I have found, in keeping with Samuel Johnson's famous dictum, that those who pay the most lip service to the concept of patriotism are invariably scoundrels who exhibit the least loyalty to family and friends. And these same people invariably have a very self-serving definition of patriotism, one which allows them to reap the largest benefit from government, while paying the smallest price. Whenever I hear someone going on about patriotism, I get the feeling that I'm about to be screwed over.

(An aside: I've also found that those teammates or, especially coaches, who express the most concern about how the team does are usually those who care the least about the individuals on the team. Coaches will always tell you there's no "I" in T-E-A-M, but in fact there is an M-E, that that "me" is usually the coach himself.)

Having said all that, I've always been grateful I was born in the United States, because this is the greatest country in the world by many measures, including standard of living, social mobility, and freedom of speech. Even other countries which have have relatively high standards of living often can't boast all three of those things to the extent that we can.

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