Noam Chomsky on Patriotism


What in your view are the main reasons for patriotic feelings in the USA? Do you believe that such feelings can ever be justified? Do you think such feelings exist on a similar scale (in a similar manner) outside the USA, and do you think they can be justified in other countries?


The questions are serious and important, and merit reflection and analysis.

To begin with, we have to be more clear about what we mean by patriotic feelings. For a time when I was in high school, I cheered for the school athletic teams. That's a form of patriotism — group loyalty. It can take pernicious forms, but in itself it can be quite harmless, maybe even positive. At the national level, what "patriotism" means depends on how we view the society. Those with deep totalitarian commitments identify the state with the society, its people, and its culture. Therefore those who criticized the policies of the Kremlin under Stalin were condemned as "anti-Soviet" or "hating Russia". For their counterparts in the West, those who criticize the policies of the US government are "anti-American" and "hate America"; those are the standard terms used by intellectual opinion, including left-liberal segments, so deeply committed to their totalitarian instincts that they cannot even recognize them, let alone understand their disgraceful history, tracing to the origins of recorded history in interesting ways. For the totalitarian, "patriotism" means support for the state and its policies, perhaps with twitters of protest on grounds that they might fail or cost us too much. For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, "patriotism" means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That's a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It's one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do? But the kind of "patriotism" fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long.

With regard to the US, I think we find a mix. Every effort is made by power and doctrinal systems to stir up the more dangerous and destructive forms of "patriotism"; every effort is made by people committed to peace and justice to organize and encourage the beneficial kinds. It's a constant struggle. When people are frightened, the more dangerous kinds tend to emerge, and people huddle under the wings of power. Whatever the reasons may be, by comparative standards the US has been a very frightened country for a long time, on many dimensions. Quite commonly in history, such fears have been fanned by unscrupulous leaders, seeking to implement their own agendas. These are commonly harmful to the general population, which has to be disciplined in some manner: the classic device is to stimulate fear of awesome enemies concocted for the purpose, usually with some shreds of realism, required even for the most vulgar forms of propaganda. Germany was the pride of Western civilization 70 years ago, but most Germans were whipped to presumably genuine fear of the Czech dagger pointed at the heart of Germany (is that crazier than the Nicaraguan or Grenadan dagger pointed at the heart of the US, conjured up by the people now playing the same game today?), the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy aimed at destroying the Aryan race and the civilization that Germany had inherited from Greece, etc.

That's only the beginning. A lot is at stake.

Noam Chomsky

November 2002

Reprinted with permission from ZNet.

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