A last refuge?
A strange note has been recurring of late in discussions of public affairs. I mean the reappearance of something called patriotism. Commentators are embarrassed by the outburst, speaking of it in muffled tones as if the population were suffering from a mass-hallucination. A short while ago nearly everyone was affected by a distressing social affliction called Nostalgia. But Patriotism is considered worse, and is said to be spreading.
The infusion of patriotism is held to cast a veil before the eyes of the populace. Everyone suddenly begins to say and to see the same thing. Men and women who have been of differing tastes and convictions suddenly become of one mind, and that mind tends to be combative and bombastic. Whether they have the means or not (and sometimes whether or not they have the cause) the populace is determined to knock somebody down.
In such an excitable public mood, demagogues have traditionally found conditions ripe for their appeals. Subject, at best, to being moved by words and symbols, people are now ready to respond with approval to any hysteria the demagogue chooses to propose. Debate is exiled, dissent becomes an orphan, and even those mild tolerances and restraints which in ordinary times give civilization its charm are rendered suspect. "Patriotism," said the great Lord Bacon, "is the last refuge of scoundrels." And scoundrels seem to abound where the noxious gases are afloat.
Such is the cynic's view of patriotism: that there is truth in it I cannot deny. But the present symptoms are mild and are not, it seems to me, altogether displeasing. Indeed in small doses, and when not inhaled (as Adlai Stevenson once said of flattery), patriotism may be beneficial. One is glad to see people thinking about new issues, and about distant events, instead of always thinking about what is most immediate and narrow. One is glad to see some degree of faith expressed in elected officials and some indulgence shown toward their errors. We may recently have suffered from lack of uninhibited debate, but we have gained by having a public mood less agitated and parochial than usual.
I would go further, however, and suggest that there is a kind of patriotism which, even in large doses, is to be praised. This is a patriotism very differnt from an infatuation with symbols and shallow abstractions. It is based , rather, on a genuine love of the place where one has lived, the land that has nurtured and the native airs that have inspired. In older civilizations, patriotism was mostly of this sort. Men and women were inextricably rooted in the soil from which they drew their sustenance. Hearth and home were part of an environment that over the years had grown dear to them, and for the safe-keeping of which they would face any dangers.
For Americans it has always been difficult to achieve these deep sentiments. They moved about so much and were so inherently destructive of old ways and landmarks. But is it not possible to think that in this generation, with its emphasis upon conservation and ecology, its desire to get back to simpler life-styles, something like the old, sweet attachments may be reborn?
If men and women do once again have a feeling for place, they may be inspired by a patriotism that is benign.Such patriotism is rooted in things close to home , but its gaze is wide to see the far-off causes and the encompassing civilization on which all depends. It is not given to sudden passions nor is it easily manipulated, but is a steady force making the citizen aware of the first and last things of his life. It is the ingredient that gives humanity to strength and makes pride modest and devout. Patriotism becomes, then, the last refuge of the good citizen, while the scoundrels wave their flags and shout their slogans in vain.