I voted on Tuesday, and felt good. It’s a satisfying thing to do, isn’t it? There’s a small emotional high afterwards; a hopefulness, especially with primaries. A pleasant feeling about democratic processes.

My lesson plans for the two courses I’m teaching intersected with that pleasant feeling in interesting ways. I hadn’t figured the primaries into my syllabi, but in a nice bit of synchronicity, one course was responding to Ernest Renan’s “What Is a Nation?”, and the other course was responding to our Declaration of Independence and the documents Jefferson drew from in composing it.

But nobody in either course raised the question — despite that Super Bowl defeat — of what “patriot” might mean, and I’m curious about that silence. It’s a gendered term, of course, and so carries certain difficulties, but its semi-synonyms — “nationalist,” perhaps, for one — are even more troublesome to some.

Certainly, the students I teach can’t not be patriots, in the service they’ve volunteered to their country: one reason it doesn’t come up in discussion is that it’s beyond argument for them.

But I bet, readers, that some of you might not want to be labeled as patriots. So I’m curious: how has our sense of what it means to be a nation, or to be a patriot, or to declare allegiance to Renan’s patrie — how has that changed from 1776 to 1882 to today? On November 4, will you think of yourself as a patriot — and if so, or if not — why?


10 thoughts on “Patriots

  • February 10, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I tend to view the term as being historic–and, to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it until this very moment, Prof. Edwards. I think of some kind of struggle between a home country and an invading force (and I’m not being funny here–I know it sounds like a football joke). Until 9/11, I don’t think I’ve ever had to think about being in a country that was invaded. Maybe I should say “experienced being in a country that had been invaded,” or at least, attacked. So, I tend to view the term as being caught up in a defense against someone else, and when I go to vote, I’m not thinking about voting for or against an invader–instead, I’m choosing from a handful of different perspectives.

    I’m glad that you’ve jostled my thinking about this. Go see what desert democrat has been saying about sexism in the presidential race–it’s also thought-provoking.

  • February 11, 2008 at 12:57 am

    I’m glad that Joanna posted this.

    This is what I wrote last night but did not post because I wanted to review it later:

    I do not consider myself to be a patriot, and it’s because I think that particular definition carries the connotation of loyalty without reason. Historically, from 1776 to 1882, people had a reason to pledge to a new country because most people who emigrated to this country had nothing else or were persecuted due to religious rifts.

    When 9-11 happened, I was ready to sign up and fight myself. I felt such a fierce sense to defend my children that I would have done anything to keep them safe. Many of my emotions were wrapped up in what happened 9-11, but ultimately, my thinking was geared towards what was best for my children, and nothing more: a panic reflex, really.

    It had nothing to do with the government. It was not borne out of a patriotic sense of duty.

  • February 13, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    To me, being a patriot would mean having an intense sense of fraternity, duty and belonging to my fellow citizens. Unfortunately I do not hold these feelings at the moment. But apparently our telecom companies may.

  • February 14, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    George Orwell wrote something about how intellectuals and the “chattering classes” are hostile to traditional notions of patriotism. Your students might gain from reading it. Sorry I cannot supply a citation just off, but it should not be hard.

  • February 14, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    I recently had the opportunity to lend support to one of the Army’s training institutions (CGSC). Even in the context of being surrounded by current and former military officers, I found it odd when I heard someone introduced as, among other things, “a great American”. It had the same feeling, for me, of someone being introduced as a patriot. I’m left pondering whether I know what’s meant by either of these monikers.

  • February 18, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    I was in NYC yesterday and saw a family of 5 walking around, all dressed in matching T-shirts that had the outline of Kosovo with the legend, “Now I have a nation too.”

    Kosovo has its own long history of war and invasion, and in some ways might be considered one of the first sites of the East/West conflict that some people see as culminating in the events of 9/11, with the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje. Renan refers to two things that construct a nation: a shared history, to include a sense of shared struggles and troubles, and the desire to live together or sense of common feeling that Kirill refers to. (Hi Kirill! Good to hear from you!)

    Both Ernest Renan and Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, are careful to distinguish the concept of nation from the concept of state, and I wonder if some of the suspicions some folks have expressed about patriotism are related to its associations with states and government. Anderson suggests that the definition of a nation lies in its characteristics as an imagined limited sovereign community, and the nation-as-state is an extension of that sovereignty.

    Patriotism, as some read it, celebrate the ultimate extension of that sovereignty in the idea that one’s government is always right. That’s a sentiment I have some problems with, and others do as well, as Janny Scott points out in a NYT article on “The Changing Faces of Patriotism”: today, as in Dr. Johnson’s time, patriotism is often “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I like the point that Scott makes about our 18th-century rebel colonists, and how their version of patriotism consisted both of an affection for a nation and an acknowledgement of its problems; a sense of protecting citizens against the abuses of the state. In that sense, it seems to me, the USA-PATRIOT act and the legislation Kirill refers to are deeply antipatriotic.

    Hence, via Janny Scott, the ambiguity Chris refers to: are “great Americans” those who demonstrate loyalty to the state no matter what the circumstance or cost — or those who dedicate the highest commitment to “upholding the ideals that the country represents” (Scott) and protecting citizens against any encroachment upon those ideals, either from without or within, no matter what the cost? Either view constructs itself in relation to a state, though, rather than to Renan’s sense of a common history and will to live in concert with one another.

  • February 22, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Even though I have been branded an outcast by the government, and do not have certain liberties that most Americans take for granted I am happy to say that I am still a patriot. I think there are very many wrong-minded and ill-intentioned folks in the government they have not taken away my sense of community or my civic pride. I can find fault but not a better place to live. So I anxiously await when my parole expires and I can work to regain my right to vote because I really love being part of the process. When discourse is stifled and foolhardy politicians run rampant I may shudder but I believe that we as a nation learn from these experiences.

  • February 22, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    I kinda had you in the back of my mind when I was writing that, bro. That’s got to be kind of a sucky feeling — waiting so long for liberties, but having some that are still denied to you after all that. I’m glad to know it hasn’t made a cynic of you; that you’ve still got that sense of community and civic pride.

  • February 23, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    ” I can find fault but not a better place to live.”

    Dave, I don’t think I’ve read a better sentence that articulated how I feel about being a US citizen. Thanks for writing it.

  • February 24, 2008 at 11:55 pm


    What a wonderful post. As a person married to a postcolonial scholar (and who backs up your cites–she’s buried in Appadurai right now), I feel this deep contradiction between the notion of loyalty to the country as an idea and loyalty to country as is. The contrast between Chas and Dave could not be clearer. I line up my idea of America with the segments of the “nation” that I currently believe. Hopefully, the strengths of our citizens and future-full citizens like Dave (hello!) will help save us from ourselves.

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