C. S. Lewis, formerly professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University, once noted how words change their meaning through time. Thus, he said, the word gentleman originally referred to someone who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When, therefore, you called someone a “gentleman,” you were merely giving information about a person, not paying him a compliment. A liar could also be gentleman. Likewise, if you said a person was not a “gentleman,” you intended no insult.
Then people decided to sentimentalize the term and make it refer to behavior. Writes Lewis:
Today the same thing could be said, I suppose, about the word patriotism. Today patriotism means little more than a sentimental attachment to one’s country of origin. Note, for example, the pabulum in Rachel Coughran’s definition:
To this we might add parades, flag-waving, speech-making, and fireworks. When a “patriot” speaks you hear phrases like “the greatest nation in the world” and “land of liberty.” For most people, patriotism is like cheering for “my” team at a football game. It is “America—love it or leave it.” The implication is that people must abjectly follow their politicians. It is the blind leading the blind, as in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting, Parable of the Blind Year.
None of these things, in my opinion, constitutes true patriotism. Let me suggest what patriotism really is, or at least what it meant originally. The true American patriot is the one who:
Perhaps all this could be reduced to one kernel virtue. Historically speaking, the true patriot is one who strives to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. That means, among other things, that a patriot is someone who knows what the Constitution says!
True patriotism is understanding the concept of freedom, and both living it and teaching it to others. It is not blind support of a politician—any politician! As Richard Falk once said, “Confusing patriotism with unconditional support for government policy does core damage to the meaning of citizenship.” Why, then, label “unpatriotic” those who make an honest effort to call Americans back to the Constitution? Criticize their ideas if you like, but not their loyalty!
That would be true patriotism.
March 11, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon, will be released this year.