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Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Natural History of Patriotism

[As the country was going mad in 2002 – looking for someone or something to blame, to hurt, to mutilate as “we” felt we had been mutilated – I was trying to understand some of the forces that were motivating and directing this movement.  The following essay was first published in the OnLineJournal in October, 2002 which accounts for the several ‘out of date’ references.]

Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism…. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate (sic).  Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot.  It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.   Emma Goldman

The noblest motive is the public good  Virgil

Note: Patriotism, the word and its understanding, has been and is being used to influence complex behaviors: to motive self-sacrifice, to stifle dissent and to define the conditions of debate. Patriotism has been one of the best of human emotions and for that very reason is sought as a tool for the worst of purposes.

To properly understand what humans do today it is vital to understand that whatever we do has an origin in our origin. The relationships between evolutionary beginnings and present manifestation are complex and nonlinear. All of our human design today takes place in an environment so unlike the world in which and to which we evolved that much of what we do is "biological behavior looking for a means of effective expression." This leads, in varying degrees, to a constant state of maladaptation and disorder. Our increasing population, separation from the natural world and technological subtlety and power exacerbate our disconnection from biological expression (there is a world of argument here, but for other times and places).

Arbitrary cultural conditions have taken the place of landscape, climate and ecology as our forming and guiding principles.  Life on this planet has always been organized by those aspects of the planetary surface that integrate all of the forces of the universe in this place. We must understand human culture in this context, not assume that we and our ways are independent of those forces.

If we examine patriotism from this perspective, there are three directions from which to approach an understanding: (1) present uses and designs, (2) the recent period of written history or (3) ‘eternal’ natural history as it flows out of the evolution of the species. It is the last that I find ultimately sensible.  The first two seem to me inherently misleading, beginning as they do either at the final result or halfway there.

Patriotism might be thought of as ‘love of country’ ("love and loyal or zealous support of one's country," Webster's New World College Dictionary), but not so many years ago in human life there were no countries. We could talk of love of village or, earlier, love of family group. Did the patriotism of today form as a new human ability when the collections of people and the space occupied became large? Or did basic human sensations and behaviors, evolved to function in the family groups of our origin, become applied to the larger collection, but receiving a new name for feelings that were, in fact, the same as those that occur in any display of loyalty and selflessness? Certainly inherent in the concept of patriotism is selflessness -- giving up of personal interest for the benefit of some larger entity than self.

I believe that the feelings that we call patriotism originally derived from the close and personal affections and associations that the person had with the people in the community and with the land that sustained them. A person with such strong associations is the natural patriot, knowing and acting with powerful intuitions of selflessness and sacrifice for the protection of community and region. Such feelings can be easily seen as useful evolutionary products sustaining communities that display them in appropriate proportions.

If we jump to the present, how do we explain such original patriotism resolving into the form that we see functioning now? In the above case everyone was affected by group feeling:, commoner, leader, shaman, etc., all felt and acted out similar feelings: selflessness, sacrifice, group good; the living struggled for the unborn future in ways that were generally understood as necessary.

Today we are still the same creature with the same capacities for feelings and intuitions, but community has changed; region is no longer the intimately known “homeland.” Both community and place have become abstract. We say ‘love of country:’ how does that relate to love of known people and lived-in place? What is the process that substitutes the abstract experience, that there are millions of unknown people and vast unseen unappreciated places, for the intimate experience of community and place?

The immediate experience of one's fellows and home-place automatically (biologically) attaches feelings of belonging and protection.  What is it that creates these feelings in the form that is called patriotism when there is no immediacy of experience? What is the form of experience that serves this function? Clearly our knowledge of such attachment has become secondary, coming from other than primary sources – human abstractions intervene as intermediaries in this experience.  We are taught in school and by the designs of other institutions. We are taught to believe things that benefit others and not ourselves.

This accounts for the two major competing views of patriotism: (1) as a natural appropriate and even expected attachment to one's place and people, and (2) as an irrational exuberance for arbitrary and even false qualities associated with one's place.  These two views can combine into an expected (required) exuberance for what are essentially unsupported qualities of one's place and people – one’s country.

The design of the present world virtually requires that the natural human attachment to place be subverted by increasingly complex human needs. By substituting artifactual experience for primary experience the quality of patriotism (and other human behaviors) becomes determined by human manufactured and ultimately arbitrary experience. When “patriotism” is taught as a secondary experience, the ‘teacher’ is not commonly going to teach beliefs that benefit the student to the dis-benefit the teacher.

Whenever humans serve as intermediaries they color events by both their level of understanding and their perceptions of their own needs. We have so come to expect that humans will mediate all experience that we have lost the last of the sense of connection and trust in primary experience. That which is essentially informing of our very basis is wholly ignored. Left with only human mediated experience we are completely adrift, pushed by the currents and winds of our increasing numbers, technological products, mental and emotional adjustments and maladjustments, all squeezed through the narrow nozzle of immediate need to act.

Patriotism seen in this way is not love of or attachment to family group or country, but is a pattern of expected behaviors that differ for different orders of people based in their place in society. This "patriotism" uses the biological foundations of love and attachment, but is only weakly based in them. Today, expectation of others, group process and pressure and ultimately the dangers of group disaffection underlie most attitudes, patriotism among them. The invocation of patriotism is now always a tool of the elite; ‘us against them’, ‘for me or against me’, ‘my way or the highway’ are its forms.

The co-option of patriotism by a political, economic elite is class based. The patriotism of the lower classes is expected to be different from that of the middle and the upper classes; is taught and reinforced in different ways. It is patriotic for the poor boy to do as he is told, to work at a job, go into battle, to be maimed or die for his country. It is patriotic for the upper class businessman to modify production to make war material, if such production can be made to pay a profit, i.e., the upper classes are not asked to take lower wages, live more frugally or send their children in harm's way for the good of their country. Some do, but most do not.

Patriotism has become a collection of specific beliefs associative with times, places and social classes. This “practical patriotism” has become, not love of country, but shortsighted acceptance of the pronouncements of titled leaders (titles like president, senator, general, CEO, etc.).  Communism was bad!  Saying so was patriotic. Asking why communism was bad and questioning the often poorly formed answers was unpatriotic. Saddam Hussein was good in 1986; saying so was patriotic. Saddam Hussein was bad in 1991; saying so was patriotic.  Pointing out that he was the same in 1986 as in 1991 was unpatriotic. Avoiding a military draft for the lower and most middle classes was unpatriotic. Avoiding the military draft for the upper classes was clever and accepted as appropriate -- not unpatriotic. The simple ‘love of country’ that would result in a demand for truth or for explanation of consequences would be called unpatriotic, especially if the results were inconvenient for elites.

It is patriotic to support the views of the elite and unpatriotic to question those views.  Like any behavior or concept that has lost its original defining conditions, it's meaning is only what we agree to call it. What was patriotism yesterday is treason today and vice versa. What we call patriotism in another person, we may call treason for ourselves.  Who has made selfless acts of love of country: Scott Ritter or Dick Cheney?  Sen. McDermott or Sen. Daschle?  George Monbiot or Ari Fleischer?  David Berrigan or J. Edgar Hoover?  How do we decide?

Let us understand that there was once love of people and place naturally arrived at in the process of living. We still have those slots to be filled in our human design, but in today's world the normal mechanisms that attain true and natural patriotism have been destroyed by our numbers, complexities and disturbed relations, though we are still motivated by such feelings -- today, manipulated would be better term. So, we must stand back and gather perspective before we dedicate our action to any cause, rejecting patriotism in all its present guises, no matter how unnatural this is for such a passionate animal. In so doing there is some chance of true patriotism, real love of people and place selflessly expressed. And perhaps there will be a struggle for the unborn future worth feeling a pride of patriotism, formed from the depths of human spirit, fighting for all of life and a whole world for it to live in.

Addendum (2008):

The narrowness of the human ability to identify with others and to care about place will always be a danger. We will not overcome that danger by rejecting its natural human origins the way that we have attempted to reject our biological nature because our animalness is inconvenient.  We will either learn to see all of life and all of this planet as our community and place or we are ultimately doomed.

Patriotism has come to mean that certain classes of people are not to question information from their betters and not to act in their own interest, while those ‘betters’ act with as clear a perception as possible in their own interest.  In fact, if the greatest number were to recognize, as a group, and act in their own larger interest much of the power, influence and wealth currently associated with the elite would be used equitably for the many, and much of the social program stipulated by that elite would be seen as disadvantageous to the many.  It is only the state of confusion, in which patriotism plays a part, about what is in their best interest that prevents the many from having the clear power to control their own world. Elites do communicate, organize and act collectively. The many, simply because they are many, do this far less well.

Commonly called patriotism, the positive feelings of longing and the negative feelings of disintegration are very strong in many people, so strong that otherwise honest good people join racist organizations, support genocidal wars and act to suppress their neighbors in response to those feelings.

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