I was recently reminded of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot, its reflection on post-9/11 America, and the presidency of George W. Bush. I had already been ruminating on the meaning of patriotism vs. nationalism—how they are often conflated but are actually quite different, at least in my mind—but in thinking about and re-listening to Green Day’s album, I was reminded of my personal interpretation of my favorite song on the album: “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
While Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong has stated that the song is about the death of his father, and the lyrics do bear this out, the overall feeling of it, the music video, and so much of the song’s life after its release has turned the melancholic tune and its title refrain into a song about the world into which it was released: the post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina, and post War on Terror era. To me, the title lyric is a reference to the world we were all thrust into that Tuesday morning in 2001. It is the Long September we have yet to escape from almost two decades later. That morning, America suffered a shock to its system, one only matched by equally catastrophic events like a major earthquake or other disaster. However, while so much of our culture was draped in the patriotic trappings of a country marching off to a nebulous war on a concept—flag waving, “support the troops” bumper stickers, and what-have-you—in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it wasn’t patriotism that was on display. It was nationalism.
In my view nationalism is about loyalty to a nation or tribe via an ideology. It is a view that is many times cast as an unquestioned loyalty, or one that you cannot and should not question openly. It is tribalist thinking in its purest form, and a triumph of loyalty over reason, and possibly even self-interest. Author Steven Pinker, in a recent interview in the New York Times, said: “One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them.”
Patriotism, to me, though, is loyalty, or perhaps more so belief, in an idea or ideal over a person (or people) or place. You believe in an idea and not the people who espouse it, and this causes you to sometimes openly question the people who lead the nation and hold them accountable for not living up to the ideals that country is supposed to embody. The danger in Patriotism, though, is that it can easily fall into Nationalism by that ideal becoming an all-encompassing ideology and being taken up by an ideologue. Patriotism should be about an idea and not a person.
Right now, in the Long September that we are still trapped within, our American ideal has been absorbed by ideologues and now, more than ever, we need more Patriots and fewer Nationalists.
I know that my definitions here, especially for patriotism, are very reductive, simplified, and some, if not many, will even say I am wrong about them. However, within the context of this post they are the definitions I am going with.
In fiction, this distinction was crystallized in my mind by the comic book event series Civil War, which was the basis for the Captain America film of that same subtitle. While the comic and film have some key differences (the comic is focused on American politics and issues of privacy and freedom, while the film is about global politics and the extension of military power via superpowered individuals), the broad strokes, however, are similar enough that either will illustrate my point. In both, the basic conflict arises from the government wanting to somehow control superheroes because they can constitute a hazard to public health and stable politics, and the core conflict is that of Iron Man vs. Captain America. The shock to many readers/viewers was that the literal embodiment of the patriotism, loyalty, and honor goes against his own government/military command, the most unpatriotic and disloyal act a solider can do.
However, this was not shocking to me when I read it. In my mind, Captain America has always embodied that best of America, our higher ideals that we as a country and people strive for. Freedom, justice, so on. And the so-called Superhero Registration Act (or Sokovia Accords in the film), went against much of that, so of course Steve Rogers resisted because he is a Patriot. Tony Stark, on the other hand, was a nationalist. He was loyal to those in power at the time. He was loyal to those who bought and sold his products. He was loyal to what served his best interest, though he rationalizes this by believing that he is only trying to protect everyone. I will say that one thing the film (or rather, the MCU films) does better than the comics is in setting up Tony’s motivations. After the events of Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Age of Ultron, Tony is psychologically scarred and has an innate need to protect everyone, which led him to create Ultron as a means of providing a global defense system. By the time of Civil War, he has taken on the weight of the world and does what he thinks is right: keep the Avengers in check from accidently killing civilians in their policing actions. If it also protects his company by giving legitimacy to his actions as Iron Man, then all the better. But whereas Tony is loyal to his nation or tribe (Stark Industries), Steve Rogers is loyal to an ideal.
Or put another way…
N.B.—I should note that the comic Civil War storyline is a bit of a mess, as this article from Slate points out quite well. Also check out this piece that the Slate article links to on the history of Captain America’s politics. And for a great analysis of Tony and Cap’s competing philosophies in the film, check out this video from Wisecrack.
A great long form exploration of Patriotism and Nationalism is in the ‘90s science fiction series Babylon 5, especially in the transformations of the characters of Londo Mollari and Ambassador G’Kar. (Also relevant is the story arc of Captain Sheridan and his motivations for leading a rebellion against the President of the Earth Alliance.) I can’t adequately go into the depths of these characters here, but how they develop over the course of the show, especially the interactions between Londo and G’Kar, is a true joy. Initially both Londo and G’Kar were stock characters providing some comedic relief, but their motivation and characterization deepen as the story matures and you see how they both, at times, embody the two sides of Patriotism and Nationalism that I try to describe here.
However, one of the best summations of how Babylon 5 views humanity, our potential, and the double-edged sword of Patriotism and Nationalism, is the repeated statement of what makes humanity both dangerous and truly singular: “humans form communities.” It is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. It is a weakness because sometimes those communities we form cause us to go to war against each other (nationalism), but when we can expand our communities to go outside of our national, ethnic, or tribal boundaries and instead form our communities around shared ideals, we truly become strong (patriotism). This is Babylon 5’s Interstellar Alliance, or Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The ideal utopia that is the mirror of what our real Earth should aspire to in uniting all the various “tribes” of humanity. It is the larger community we need to form. As Ambassador Delenn explains on the show: “I came to the conclusion that of all the races we had encountered, humans were the most dangerous. Because humans form communities. And from that diversity comes a strength that no single race can withstand. That is your strength. And it is that which makes you dangerous.”
Of course, Delenn is also stating here that in uniting fractious tribes together around a shared ideal, humanity can also build a truly unstoppable alliance that can overwhelm any opposition. Not only dangerous in that it can withstand any assault, but also dangerous in that if the ideals that feed the Patriotism fall into jingoism, it can turn that force for good into a force for conquest.
But I want to be careful here of the possible reduction of a two-sided argument. That nationalism is bad and patriotism is good. While on the whole that might be the case, each have potential upsides and downsides. Our modern culture has a tendency, especially in last few hundred years, to reduce all our narratives to simple good vs. evil oppositions. It is easy storytelling, but too often feeds that kind of thinking that drives nationalist rhetoric and reduces the Other to two-dimensional enemies. It is a lazy narrative crutch, though it has the advantage of a built-in point of view. However, it really isn’t helpful in navigating our real world as few things are ever that simple…except for Nazis. Those guys are assholes.
So, on the whole I believe Patriotism to be better than Nationalism. It puts the idea and the ideal above any one person or institution—be it a president or preacher, a government or church. However, we can sometimes also be turned blind by the pursuit of an ideal that we become slaves to an unattainable and unsustainable campaign for it. Patriotism can slide into jingoism and become just as destructive as the most cultish form of nationalism. This is why the only -isms that I truly follow are realism and humanism, and both tinged with pessimism and existentialism. We all die, institutions crumble, but an idea can be a powerful unifying force for generations long after the people and places that birthed them are dust. And maybe, just maybe, these ideals can be a way out of the Long September that our extreme nationalism birthed.
TL;DR: we need to form an expanded community of our best “American” ideals centered out a diverse and robust multiculturalism because that is the ideal that represents America at its best.