I’m not convinced that patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels, but I am convinced that nationalism is. Many people confuse the two terms; they are not synonymous. “Patriotism” refers to a love for one’s land; its focus is local, its concern the actual community of real persons who live and work in a particular space. True patriotism extends from the individual to his family first, then outward to friends, associates, and the wider community. Involvement in the wider community, in the civitas, involves being a good “citizen.” The old public square as a meeting place for members of the local community exemplifies true patriotism at its best; members of this community would fight to the death to defend their family and their land from enemies.
Nationalism, on the other hand, focuses on the nation-state as an abstract entity. The nation easily approaches being an object of worship, as it was in Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, and in Maoist China. Sometimes this worship was combined with traditional religions; witness the support of many German Christian Churches for Hitler (except the Confessing Church) or the close ties between the Shinto religion and Imperial Japan. A close connection to the military is assumed, and nationalists love military parades, pomp and circumstance. The philosopher Martin Heidegger was such a nationalist, and this led to his joining the Nazi party for a time. Nationalists love wars and empire, and spreading the “values of the nation-state” to other countries.
Americans are just as guilty of nationalism. Ironically, one of the most nationalistic parts of the United States is the American South. The South tried to rebel against a modern nation-state in the name of patriotism, to defend their land (yes, I realize there were other causes of the War Between the States, so no red herrings, please), especially after Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. The nation-state subjugated the South and forced it to live under military government to reconstruct it in the image of the industrial North. The South should oppose nationalism and wars of conquest. Yet Southerners condemned Georgia Senator Sam Nunn for voting against the first Gulf War, and voters turned him out of office. Southerners were among the most supportive voices in favor of the unjust Iraq War. Southern churches are filled with American flags, as if a flag of any nation state belongs in a sanctuary devoted to God. The idea of patriotism as loving the land, as based in real communities, needs to be revived not just in the South, but in all the states. Let’s not confuse a Nazi or Soviet-like devotion to the nation-state with true patriotism.