Emma Goldman, the 19th-early 20th century Russian-born writer, philosopher, and political activist, was certainly no stranger to controversy.
She always dared to challenge even the most deeply engrained assumptions, and she never shied away from issues that were foundational or deemed immune from criticism.
Her lecture topics and written works spanned from her views on religion to homosexuality to capitalism to war, and everything in between.
She was called many names as a result of her no-holds-barred attitude, ranging from ‘radical alien’ to ‘rebel woman.’
Particularly controversial and polemical were her thoughts on the oft-touted concept of patriotism: the idea that we should be indefatigably loyal to the place of our birth, often to the point of ignoring or even justifying the atrocities and moral abominations committed.
“Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate.
Those who have 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.”
The very idea of patriotism is farcical and dangerous, in Goldman’s view.
It creates a false reality that says we are here, they are there; and because they are there, they are different, and they therefore fall into the “them” category, and anyone who is not with us is against us.
“…from early infancy, the mind of the child is poisoned with blood-curdling stories about the Germans, the French, the Italians, Russians, etc.
When the child has reached manhood, he is thoroughly saturated with the belief that he is chosen by the Lord himself to defend his country against the attack or invasion of any foreigner.
It is for that purpose that we are clamoring for a greater army and navy, more battleships and ammunition…”
Although it is undeniable that all countries have values and norms which make them unique, we all belong to the same species, and we all share a common responsibility during the short time in which we inhabit this planet, and this responsibility is increasingly dire due to ever-growing environmental concerns.
The very idea of patriotism can create a divisive us vs. them mindset, which is the exact opposite of what humanity needs to survive.
To be fair, patriotism can be quite benign and positive, if it is not allowed to spill over into fanatical extremism. Genuine love for the country in which you are born and raised is not the problem.
The late historian and political dissident Howard Zinn suggested a different look at the concept of patriotism:
“If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
The problem is that patriotism is often used as bait by political leaders and party pundits who are attempting to further their agendas.
People who don’t support war are called unpatriotic.
People who dare to challenge foundational principles of society are called unpatriotic.
People who speak out against government tyranny are called unpatriotic.
Labeling someone who you disagree with “unpatriotic” is much like calling someone Communist; it is just a quick, meaningless, and baseless dismissal.
“Patriotism! It is used to define so many diversities, to justify so many wrongs, to compass so many ends, that its life is killed out; it becomes a dead word in the vocabulary–a blank counter, to be moved to any part of the game; and that flag which, streaming from the mast-head of our ship of state, striped with martyr-blood, and glistening with the stars of lofty promise, should always indicate our worldwide mission, and the glorious destinies that we carry forward, is bandied about in every selfish skirmish, and held up as the symbol of every political privateer”. – E.H. Chapin
To call someone unpatriotic is to retreat to a safe-haven; a vain attempt to shield your own actions and the actions of your country from criticism.
But, the notion that criticism of one’s own country amounts to hatred of one’s own country is nonsensical and even harmful. As H.L. Mencken once wrote:
“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic.
He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched.
He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
The point at which one is willing to be dishonest about one’s country is the point at which patriotism becomes profoundly dangerous as an ideal, and a “menace to liberty.”
In order to go on as a species, we must broaden our perspective, beyond the limited scope of loyalty to one’s birthplace, says Goldman.
“Thinking men and women the world over are beginning to realize that patriotism is too narrow and limited a conception to meet the necessities of our time.
The centralization of power has brought into being an international feeling of solidarity among the oppressed nations of the world; a solidarity which represents a greater harmony of interests between the workingman of America and his brothers abroad than between the American miner and his exploiting compatriot; a solidarity which fears not foreign invasion, because it is bringing all the workers to the point when they will say to their masters, ‘Go and do you own killing. We have done it long enough for you.”
To move beyond this nationalistic patriotism is to move beyond narrow self-interest and to a focus on the interests of the world at large. The narrow self-interested aspect of patriotism is what makes it such a “menace.”
We are all kin. We all have an impact on the world we inhabit. We share common responsibilities.
But we can’t take advantage of our collective abilities to make a positive impact if the endless war, corruption, greed, and idolatry doesn’t come to an abrupt stop.
“When we have undermined the patriotic lie, we shall have cleared the path for that great structure wherein all nationalities shall be united into a universal brotherhood – a truly free society.”
This may appear to be a naïve, Utopian vision of our future, but seeing as how interconnected the world is becoming through rapid technological advances, and seeings as how, again, we share the common responsibility of preserving the planet which has birthed us, a move toward this more broadened image of humanity is not only desirable, but necessary.
“When we can’t dream any longer we die.”