Patriotism

The political right has been extremely successful at coopting the major symbols of what it means to be American to their own cause. The flag, the national anthem, the US military and indeed the concept of patriotism itself are all heavily used as symbology in advertising and rhetoric by the Republicans and the far right. The constant drumbeat is that those on the right are the real Americans, and those on the left are not. Taking this phenomenon under the general rubric of patriotism it is worth considering the origins and true meaning of this concept.

When we speak of loving our country, the word country can have one of two distinct meanings and it is important to distinguish between them. In Ancient Greek this distinction is illustrated by two word roots that we encounter in modern English, both of which loosely translate as country: patris and ethnos. Though the distinction has been largely lost in English these words carried very different connotations. Ethnos referred to the country in the sense of nation, as distinguished from other nations, including the idea of racial heritage, or ethnicity. Patris, on the other hand, referred to the country as a socio-political institution. So in reference to the USA the ethnos would refer to the country as distinct from, say, Canada our Mexico, whereas patria would describe the country as a socio-political system; our patria is a representative democracy with a written constitution and a certain defined system of government. This distinction, which might at first seem nitpicking, becomes of vital importance when considering government. In this context, loyalty to the ethnos would refer to support for the particular government in power, whereas loyalty to the patris would refer to support for our particular form of government. In other words it is the difference between government as a concept, and the particular government that we have right now. Between the presidency as an institution and the specific president now in office.

The Greek word patriot did not describe someone who supported their ethnos, who might be pro Greece and anti Sparta, but rather someone who interested themselves in the patria, or the affairs of their country in the sense of how the community was organized and run. Such a person might be pro democracy and anti autocracy, for instance. In the sense we use the word (the ethnos sense), the opposite of a Patriot is a traitor. In the Greek sense (the patria sense) the opposite of a patriot was someone who only cares about their own concerns and gave no thought to public affairs. The word for the opposite of a patriot was derived from the word for self, which is id. The opposite of a patriot was an idiot.

This is not a joke or a word trick I made up, it is is true. The word idiot was later adopted by the Romans and its meaning changed to something more approaching an ignorant person, and further changed in English to someone of low mental ability, but this change in meaning is a clear indication of how the Greeks and Romans regarded those who did not participate in public affairs. This is significant today because the Greeks and the Romans were the only major societies we know about that seriously experimented with democracy prior to the founding of the USA. We might do well to return to this understanding of patriotism (and idiocy). Different forms of government make different demands on their citizens. Autocracies offer the perceived advantage that the citizens are relieved of responsibility for the situation they find themselves in. There is nothing you can do about it anyway, so you may as well just get on with your life and not worry about it. Democracies on the other hand are demanding. You are expected to play your part, even if that part is just caring a vote. Government is complicated and messy. You have to decide between competing benefits and harms, and when things do not turn out the way you thought or hoped they would, you have to take (collective) responsibility for the results.

When the country was young and memories of past oppression still fresh, the general population appreciated the opportunity to have a say in their own affairs, but over time memories faded and the people lost interest. This left a power vacuum which special interests were only to happy to fill, and over time our form of government has been stolen from us.

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