About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Are teaching American history and teaching patriotism the same thing?

The recent controversy about how American history should be taught in public schools (in Colorado and elsewhere) has me thinking a lot about patriotism, and what it would mean to teach it -- and why so many Americans seem to think that teaching a fuller version of our national history somehow diminishes it (and us). 

I assigned a thought provoking essay by George Kateb in my Just War Theory class this semester, "Is Patriotism a Mistake," and that's pushed me a bit too.  Kateb argues that patriotism, in its essence, is an attack on the Enlightenment.  One's country is an abstraction, not a principle; morally speaking, there is 'no there there.'  A moral principle is by definition universal, while patriotism decidedly is not.  Patriotism makes self-love and self-concern into an ideal - and the inevitable result, Kateb concludes, is self-preference.  And violence.

As an American history professor, I'm having difficulty figuring out how one 'teaches patriotism,' and indeed whether one should consciously seek to do so at all.  

If we assume that patriotism is defined as love of country -- as opposed to nationalism or jingoism, which includes an assertion that our country is somehow 'better' or 'superior' to others -- then I fail to see how teaching an American history drained of conflict, ambiguity, and wrongful deeds encourages students to love their country, any more than loving our spouse requires us to willfully ignore their flaws and mistakes. 

I have been teaching and writing about the history of race, inequality, war and politics for two decades now, and my patriotism remains undiminished, though it is tempered and imperfect, like all love is; how is one to value and respect the lightest parts of us -- the 'better angels of our nature' -- without understanding the dark ones too? 

More to the point, how are we supposed to understand some of the trials and tribulations of other members of our American community in the present (patriotism requires us to love them too, yes?) without opening our eyes to ALL of our history?  If America is a country worth loving, we have nothing to fear from the truth. And if America is NOT a country worth loving, surely patriotism is indeed a mistake.  It is something to be valued as long as valuing it remains consistent with justice; when these two paths diverge, the principled person must plant their seeds in deeper soil.  The task for all of us, of course, is to make our collective enterprise worthy of love. To me, that's patriotism. A relationship is a process, not a golden idol requiring genuflection.


Gerard Koot said...

I do not love a country. A country is an abstraction. I might love the place where I was born, live or visit but that love is of a particular place and time and is associated with remembered and experienced landscapes and physical environments as well as people in those places. Patriotism to me is an abstraction and an imagined tribal community, which we call nationalism. And nationalism is indeed an attack on the Enlightenment and a rejection of the religion of humanity. Patriotism and nationalism is all about defining oneself by claiming not to be the other. It is an unfortunate evolutionary inheritance.

Brian said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful piece and in particular enjoyed your distinction between patriotism and nationalism (it is of course a fine line and all too often the two blur in unhealthy ways). I began thinking deeply about these issues myself on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. At the time I saw how patriotism could be used for good (unifying a grieving country in the aftermath of 9/11) and for bad (the lack of questioning most Americans had about Iraq’s so-called “weapons of mass destruction.”)
Who can forget an ultra-patriotic US Congress voting to change the name of French Fries to “Freedom Fries” to punish the French government for questioning the Bush administration’s bogus rationale for invading Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. I remember being in South Boston for the 2003 St. Patrick’s Day parade and seeing a lone woman in the parade carrying a peace sign and a “No To Invading Iraq” sign on a small float. I was turned off by the way the doubtless patriotic crowd booed and even threw beer cans at her for not unquestioningly supporting her government’s invasion of another country.
At that time, anyone who questioned the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction was defined as “unpatriotic” by many Americans. In other words, in that unhealthy climate, if one did not toe the US government’s official line on an aspect of foreign policy, you were a bad American. It was not as bad as Red Scare and McCarthyism, but the unquestioning patriotism at the time bothered me tremendously. In my own country, blind patriotism led us to support the invasion of a foreign land that had no weapons of mass destruction and commence a war that ultimately led to the death of 190,000 Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9/11. Those who did not support it were “liberals,” “unpatriotic,” “Muslim apologists,” “peace freaks,” etc.
For me a real patriot is someone who questions those who tell him what a patriot should do or be. It is also someone who questions his government and its policies, ESPECIALLY WAR.
This is precisely one of the reasons I am so drawn to America as a truly exceptional country. It is full of examples of brave men and women standing up to question the government of the day on issues ranging from tea taxes and slavery to the use of drones to kill people in our name.
I firmly believe in American exceptionalism and teaching our students to be proud of our nation’s accomplishments, from creating a democratic government that became a beacon for aspiring people across the globe to defeating Nazisim to inventing the internet. America is a truly unique country and we should be proud of its accomplishments. But we should be vigilant about having our patriotism exploited as it was during the Iraq war of 2003-2011. There are many examples in history of patriotism, even 21st century American patriotism, bringing out the dark side in a people.

Brian said...

I must say I also agree with Gerard at the same time. Narrow parochial patriotism is the anti-thesis of enlightened globalism. Nations are of course narrowly defined "imagined communities" that are often arbitrarily constructed (have you ever seen a map of the gerrymandered country of Uzbekistan that the Soviets artificially created in 1923? But still good Uzbek patriots are willing to blindly fight neighboring Tajikistan to the death for the right to control their “historic patrimony.”)
Patriots all too often focus their patriotism against “Others.” The fact that patriots are willing to die for their artificial constructs described as “Fatherlands,” “Motherlands,” “Homeland,” Patrie, etc. in Balkan style wars has been the bane of the world since subjects of various empires became citizens. All too often patriotic allegories of the “blood of our ancestors being in the soil of our people” are reenacted in such calamities as World War I.
In a perfect world, narrow national borders created by parochial patriotism would be erased and people would cease to fight and die for things like control of the “holy lands of our ancestors,” resources, and most importantly….pride.

Mark Santow said...

Thanks Gerard and Brian. I of course agree with both of you. I've actually been thinking about this question quite a bit in a completely different context: Israel. While I was raised in a very secular household, and I consider myself today to be somewhere on the agnostic-atheist spectrum, I do identify myself (and my kids) as Jewish. For leftist American Jews in particular, Israel has always posed major moral problems. Not just in terms of its actions, but in terms of its very existence. I can't tell you how many relatives and friends I have alienated over the years, by agreeing with the UN's 1975 declaration that "Zionism is racism." In the wake of Israel's recent actions in Gaza, a number of my fellow leftist Jews have finally confronted a kind of reckoning: that liberal Zionism is a contradiction in terms. One is either committed to the Enlightenment project (which ostensibly protects freedom of conscience and workshop), or one is not. The idea of a Jewish state is fundamentally an illiberal concept, which threatens to undermine the social values and political commitments that would otherwise protect rights of freedom and worship. I bring this up, because if Zionism is racism, its not unreasonable to conclude -- with Kateb, and with Gerard -- that patriotism isn't just an abstraction. It is a pernicious abstraction, even if it can be used to move groups of people in just ways sometimes. A double-edged sword, like the nation-state itself, I suppose.

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