Patriotism: A Negative Assessment

Patriotism is often seen to be an outstanding virtue, and sometimes it even converges with religious faith on the assumption that one’s nation enjoys special status in the eyes of God. Patriotism also links up with warfare on a reciprocal basis, since substantial increases in one tend to produce equivalent increases in the other. That is to say, the more warfare plays a role in a nation’s foreign policy, the more patriotic the public becomes. On the other hand, the more patriotic the public becomes, the easier it is for government to engage in warfare as long as it’s on the winning side and seems even remotely justified.

This connection between warfare and patriotism may be seen throughout our nation’s history, which has involved military combat at one level or another since the late eighteenth century. After World War II, the U.S. has been pitted in the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. as well as having participated in three major wars that necessitated overt combat — in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. We have also mounted substantial invasions in Panama, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and we have conducted smaller operations across the globe from Grenada to Beirut and beyond. Altogether, these numerous military confrontations have given the American public more home-front experience with warfare than for the rest of the advanced industrial nations combined since 1945.

Of course many US troops have returned from military conflict disillusioned with the unavoidable excesses of warfare, but many others have been converted by the experience into an intense patriotism that lets them serve as cheerleaders supportive of future wars, whoever the enemy (or enemies) might consist of. Meanwhile, the biased media coverage needed to drum up support for each of these wars has left a residue of patriotic enthusiasm that could easily be revitalized in support of the next conflict. Anybody who dares to question this intellectual juggernaut risks social ostracism, especially in rural communities and across the so-called red-state region.

And thus the growing sense that patriotism can be taken too far, whatever its benefits on a moderate scale. Tabulated here are some of the more assertive judgments opposed to patriotism over the past three centuries.

Never was a patriot yet, but was a fool.

– John Dryden

A patriot is a fool in ev’ry age.

– Alexander Pope.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

– Samuel Johnson

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.

– Ambrose Bierce

Patriotism is as fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, blind as a stone, and irrational as a headless hen.

– Ambrose Bierce

That pernicious sentiment, “Our country, right or wrong.”

– James Russell Lowell

“My country right or wrong” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother drunk or sober.”

– G. K. Chesterton

Patriotism which has the quality of intoxication is a danger not only to its native land but to the world, and “My country never wrong” is an even more dangerous maxim than “My country, right or wrong.”

– Bertrand Russell

Patrioism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.

– George Bernard Shaw

Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.

– George Bernard Shaw

You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.

– George Bernard Shaw

Patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy.

– George Bernard Shaw

Patriotism is an ephemeral motive that scarcely ever outlasts the particular threat to society that aroused it.

– Denis Diderot

To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.

– George Santayana

The Athenian democracy suffered much from that narrowness of patriotism which is the ruin of all nations.

– H.G. Wells

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. . . . Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.

– Erich Fromm

One of the great attractions of patriotism–it fulfills our worst wishes. In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat, Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous.

– Aldous Huxley

Many studies have discovered a close link between prejudice and “patriotism” . . . Extreme bigots are almost always super-patriots.

– Gordon Allport

It seems like the less a statesman amounts to, the more he loves the flag.

– Elbert Hubband

Patriotism varies, from a noble devotion to a moral lunacy.

– William Inge

Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts, as a last resource, pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and glad to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Patriotism is the passion of fools and the most foolish of passions.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Patriotism corrupts history.

– Goethe

Into the cultural and technological system of the modern world, the patriotic spirit fits like dust in the eyes and sand in the bearings. Its net contribution to the outcome is obscuration, distrust, and retardation at every point where it touches the fortunes of modern mankind.

– Thorstein Veblen

The standardization of mass-production carries with it a tendency to standardize a mass-mind, producing a willing conformity, not merely to common ways of living, but to common ways of thinking and common valuations. The worst defect of patriotism is its tendency to foster and impose this common mind, and so to stifle the innumerable germs of liberty.

– J.A. Hobson

2. Patriotism and War:

At the bottom of all patriotism is war: that is why I am no patriot.

– Jules Renard

No other factor in history, not even religion, has produced so many wars as has the clash of national egotisms sanctified by the name of patriotism.

– Preserved Smith

Naturally the common people don’t want war . . . Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders . . . All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.

– Hermann Goering.

That worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor . . . This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism–how passionately I hate them!

– Albert Einstein

3. Patriotism and Religion:

Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.

– Guy de Maupassant

God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.

– Luis Buñuel

To be patriotic, hate all nations but you own; to be religious, all sects but your own; to be moral, all pretenses but your own.

– Lionel Strachey

When a dog barks at the moon, then it is religion; but when he barks at strangers, it is patriotism!

– David Starr Jordan

4. The American Syndrome:

If you have a weak candidate and a weak platform, wrap yourself up in the American flag and talk about the Constitution.

– Matt Quay

How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be “American” before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, & having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries? It is really too easy a disguise for our shortcomings to dress them up as a form of patriotism.

– Edith Wharton

The 100 percent American is 99 percent an idiot.

– George Bernard Shaw

Treason is in the air around us everywhere. It goes by the name of patriotism.

– Thomas Corwin

5. Three relatively positive assessments of patriotism:

A patriot is somebody who protects his country from his government. Or better yet: who has the guts to protect his country from its government.

– Piotyr Dirk

Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.

– George Washington

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

– Thomas Jefferson

* Sources for these quotes include Jon Winokur’s Portable Curmudgeon, Rudolf Flesch’s The New Book of Unusual Quotations, Laurence Peter’s Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, Leonard Frayns’ Quotationary, Robert Andrews’ The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, George Seldes’ The Great Quotations, H.L. Mencken’s A New Dictionary of Quotations, Evan Esar’s Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and Bertrand Russell, Dictionary of the Mind, Matter and Morals.

Edward Jayne is a retired English professor with experience as a '60s activist. He can be contacted at: edward.jayne@wmich.edu. Visit his website at: www.edwardjayne.com. Copyright © 2008 by Edward Jayne Read other articles by Edward, or visit Edward's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on September 1st, 2007 at 10:29am #

    The interesting thing is how many of those quotes are from Europeans. Two world wars, and particularly the second, largely discredited nationalism and patriotism in Europe, turning it towards other avenues, such as sport, in particular, soccer. Soccer hooligans and doped cyclists may not be much fun, but they kill far fewer people than warring armies!

  2. James B. Storer said on September 2nd, 2007 at 10:08am #

    If we must publicly display smug narrow mindedness by holding hands and reciting “I pledge allegiance to the flag…,” at least allow us to replace the word “flag” with “Constitution.”

  3. Daniel said on September 2nd, 2007 at 10:41pm #

    Patriotism and Religion: the opiates of the people. And George plays both to the hilt and the sheeple dance!

  4. Dogma said on June 11th, 2009 at 12:53pm #

    Great post. However I do believe “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” is by Oscar Wilde.