What Is Patriotism?


I'm reading David Livermore's excellent book, Cultural Intelligence, where he encourages the reader to develop his or her "CQ" (culture quotient) "to engage our multicultural world". You may have heard me refer to Livermore before, and you certainly will again. My wife and I are developing and co-teaching a brand new high school course called Global Studies, and David Livermore is an invaluable resource. I relate to Livermore in so many ways. He has obviously spent a good amount of time overseas and is passionate about understanding other cultures. He rightly points out that part of the journey to cultural intelligence is understanding one's own culture better. And as we get to know ourselves better, collectively speaking, we'll be less likely to project our own cultural values on others. (Enter Socrates' "Know thyself" on a collective level.) I also relate to Livermore's experience of at times feeling great pride in his American nationality, and at other times great shame and embarrassment.

Wisdom, of course, lies in avoiding both extremes (again!). The truth is, "there are aspects of American culture we should embrace...aspects we should protest and redeem...and many aspects that are simply different from how other cultures live, neither expressly good nor expressly bad."

So what does it mean to be patriotic? Does it mean to trumpet your country's greatness and pretend all the flaws are not there? Is it possible to be patriotic and admit at the same time that your country has a lot to learn, and even a lot to be ashamed of?

With all the talk of making America great again vs. keeping America great, so many Americans are preoccupied with the question: Is America indeed the greatest country in the world? -- as if they're afraid of losing their place in some cosmic hall of fame or being knocked off some enviable pedestal by another contender. I'm reminded of the incredibly poignant opening scene of the HBO series "The Newsroom" (sensitive ears beware), where news anchor Will McAvoy lists lots of areas where America is NOT the greatest country in the world: 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, etc. A big collective ouch -- not to mention the shock factor of this respected news anchor actually speaking his own mind.

But what if we just set aside the whole question of whether the US is the greatest -- whatever that means -- and asked instead what would make her greater? What if we spent less time on rhetoric and more time on substance? On righting wrongs that we're already aware of? On being open to be shown our blind spots and then doing something about them?

Seems to me that might be the most patriotic thing we could possibly do.