Patriotism is defined as “love of and devotion to one’s country or nation.”
It suggests robust support for that country. At times of crisis, it seems appropriate to be passionately supportive. But there are times when this devotion is overextended, appearing purely self-centred and too focused.
Americans are unusually patriotic, known for their overwhelming pride and commitment to an “American” way of life. At times, this patriotic fervour spills over into an overzealous self-confidence that can be intolerable. While Americans have been disparaged for this trait, others such as the French and British are equally guilty.
Canadians, on the other hand, are often criticized for a self-effacing approach to national loyalty. When I first arrived in Canada, I was shocked at the lack of national enthusiasm. There are many different factors shaping national identity and commitment and over time, both the American and the Canadian versions have been admired and censured.
When I was growing up, American schools instructed their students with a sense of patriotic zeal and American superiority. Some version of “My country right or wrong” was embedded in our daily pedagogy. According to historians, in 1816, Stephen Decatur was the first to proclaim: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
As a youngster, I fully absorbed this proposition. My parents approved. They were immigrants and America had welcomed, educated and sustained them. They were grateful and proud.
Yet, that notion of right or wrong, we owed unconditional loyalty to a country was severely challenged, if not overturned, for many of us in the 1960s during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Shocked by major political assassinations, doubt and skepticism entered our collective consciousness.
But the sentiment expressed by Decatur is not necessarily reprehensible. In proclaiming, “May she always be in the right,” he acknowledges that “she” may sometimes be wrong. Further consideration should lead us to reconsider that phrase and its attendant commitment.
Recently, I re-examined my outlook after reading a Lee Child book (yes, I read mystery books voraciously). The lead character, Jack Reacher, speaks of a healthy skepticism and utters the following statement: “Exactly patriotic. My country, right or wrong. Which means nothing, unless you admit your country is wrong sometimes. Loving a country that was right all the time would be common sense, not patriotism.”
My responsibility as a citizen of both the United States and Canada is to pay taxes and vote. I am also a patriot, of both countries. I see the flaws, but I am committed to pursuing improvement and enabling the potential in both nations. I grieve for my America struggling with its recent election results. But no matter my personal dismay and apprehension, I remain a dedicated American.
But like many Jews, I have another national identification. I am a Zionist. My dedication to Israel is based on a simple calculation: Israel is the national homeland of Jews. But can we be patriots of a country we don’t live in, pay taxes to or exercise the right to vote in?
Many assume that while we support Israel externally, we cannot publicly criticize it. I beg to differ. In complicated ways, Israel is my country, right or wrong. I will defend Israel’s right to exist. I will spend time there. I will try to recognize, appreciate and distinguish all that I can about this marvelous country. But I acknowledge that its government and people make mistakes, sometimes very large ones. And while I am patriotic, I cannot always agree. Zionism demands of me engagement, not unexamined, unqualified or eternally positive attitudes.
Patriotism is complex, demanding commitment and support. But it also obligates its citizenry to openly discuss and discern between good and poorly conceived, right and wrong.