What it is: Devotion and allegiance (sometimes unquestioning) to one's own country.

What it means: 'Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country', suggested US president John F Kennedy in 1961. This is what the US oath of citizenship asks new American citizens to do: 'I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.' Though the clauses about bearing arms and noncombatant service may, 'in some cases', be left out, the oath is still highly militant. ('Work of national importance under civilian direction' is what many conscientious objectors have been required to do in wartime.) In fact for most citizens, anywhere, a distinction ought to be recognised between the country one loves and the state system that runs it. It is the state, not 'the country', that calls on citizens to go to war - often using persuasive techniques and sentimental blackmail (and compulsory military conscription when thought necessary). A London advertising executive remembered how in July 1914 he had an unexpected visit from the army's chief recruiting officer: 'He swore me to secrecy, told me that war was imminent, and that the moment it broke out we should have to start advertising. That night I wrote an advertisement headed "Your King and Country Need You", with a coat of arms at the top.' The advertisement was, of course, for volunteer soldiers, shipped across the English Channel to be killed. When supplies of volunteers ran out, compulsory conscription was brought in. 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori': 'it is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one's country' - but that's sales talk too, for the benefit of people still alive. Patriotism can be useful to those in command, and they know it. 'Of course the people don't want war. But it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy or a dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.' Those are the words of Hitler's henchman Hermann Goering, at his trial in 1946.

Think about it:
(1) One of the trappings of patriotism is the flag - usually the state flag. (But not always - for example, on some occasions the Scots or Welsh or English are more likely to wave their own 'national' flags than the UK's Union Jack.) Since 1892, Americans have made a Pledge to their Flag: 'I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all'. The words 'under God' were added by president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1954, who said that 'in this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war'. The note of militant patriotism is very much there. So is the lofty rhetoric. And so is the dangerous linkage of patriotism with religion and militarism. When, after 2001, September 11 was declared as America's new annual 'Patriot Day', it was to emphasise the idea of armed defence, if not vengeance. So, can patriotism ever be quite innocent of hidden aggression? ('Land of hope and glory, mother of the free....Wider still and wider may thy bounds be set: God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet!' - but maybe the British wouldn't know these words quite so well if the tune they are sung to weren't so good.)  And can patriotism ever be free from hypocrisy? After 9/11 a new law was passed in America: the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism - they worked hard to get that acronym) which gave 'homeland security' forces new and arbitrary powers. But 'liberty and justice' never had been 'for all', as many US victims of discrimination point out.

(2) Novelist E M Forster wrote: 'I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' Why might he need guts? When might such a choice arise? Are there other choices when, as nurse Edith Cavell said the day before her execution in 1915, 'Patriotism is not enough - I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone'?

(3) William Lloyd Garrison, who died in 1879, was a journalist who campaigned vigorously against slavery in America. He also believed that war and violence were created by governments, and he promoted non-violent resistance to government decisions that would lead to conflict. This was his view: 'Our country is the world - our countrymen are all mankind'. Could allegiance to the human race replace the competitiveness and conflict of patriotism? It's a question that needs asking: the world is under threat from manmade disasters of many kinds.

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