By Jon CoumesSpecial to the Progressive
We Americans—that is, we citizens of these United States—we have a bad patriotism. A Spaniard named Miguel de Unamuno once wrote that patriotism is as bad as theology; in the same way that a man with one set of beliefs will deny that a man with a different set is a true believer, one patriot will deny another.
We do the same thing here. When a pro-war American meets an anti-war American and the conversation lasts long enough, one will accuse the other (or at least think to accuse the other) of being un-American, or, what’s worse, un-patriotic. It’s the natural extension of our conception—our common conception—of patriotism. It’s no accident that we have Patriot missiles, or a Patriot Act, or that The Patriot was not about the Constitutional Convention. Our patriotism is bellicose and oppositional, and it not only separates us from a critical world but divides us amongst ourselves.
That same Spaniard proposed that patriotismo should be based not on one’s conception of what la patria, the fatherland, ought to be, but rather based on the spirit of tolerance and free expression that allows men and women to come to a consensus without the rabid politics of hate and patriots.
Another Spaniard, this one named Antonio Machado, rejected patriots completely. Good Spaniards, he wrote, are those that openly criticize la patria in the hopes of improving it. Patriots, he said, deny its faults and tirelessly defend them on the world stage. In this we are Machado’s patriots as well—we by and large recognize self-criticism as weak and un-American. Because of this sentiment, our boys in Washington do whatever they can to ignore our failures and cruelties abroad, whether in Africa or Asia or Latin America, and why it’s in vogue to treat the Constitution like the Bible. It’s why we can’t get anyone to have an honest conversation about drones or why Guantánamo’s still open or how the NSA is spying on Americans more than it ever has against terrorists.
Machado and Unamuno wrote right before the turn of the century. There was at that time a popular concept of ‘the two Spains’, one monarchical, conservative, Catholic, militarist and the other republican, syndicalist, liberal, reformist, and secular. Both Spaniards wrote about their patriotisms during a period of political stagnation and polarization that terminated in the birth of the Second Spanish Republic, the first democracy in Spain in six decades. What followed were six years of intensifying political polarization, the radicalization of left and right, a failed coup d’état, civil war, and forty years of fascist dictatorship.
America today is divided: Red and Blue, Have and Have-Not, Immigrant-Now and Immigrant-Then; we are many ways partitioned. By no means can I or anyone make a direct comparison with republican Spain—our unions don’t belong to the Communist International, talk of secession is more joke than threat and the Boy Scouts don’t yet qualify as a paramilitary youth. But we might want to take a look around and see how many people buying assault rifles are calling themselves patriots while they do.