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Can You Really Love Your Country?

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Why do people get upset with Barack Obama for not wearing a flag pin on his lapel or with Michelle Obama for suggesting she’s not been proud of her country until now? Why is failing to “support the troops” regarded as a sin?

Because it’s a secular blasphemy to do or say anything that suggests you don’t love your country. But why should you love your country? Most people would say our country has done so much for us that we should show our gratitude.

But what has “our country” done for us? An even better question is: what is “our country”?

A country is not one concrete thing. It’s many things, and frankly, not all of them are lovable. One’s country is one’s home and perhaps birthplace. Nothing wrong having a fondness for those things.

A country is also its people. But can anyone love all the American people? I can think of quite a few that I don’t love.

The country, moreover, is its history and culture. One certainly can love some things about America’s history and culture. The philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence is worthy of affection. The abolitionist movement should be admired. Any genuine struggle for liberty and against tyranny should command our respect.

But there’s a lot about American history and culture that any decent person should hold in contempt: slavery, Jim Crow, the oppression of Indians, racism in general, the demeaning of women, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conscription, mercantilist privilege (which stifles economic opportunity and harms the poor most of all), and lots more.

The government is also part of the country — and in that regard there’s much to dislike, as the list above shows. The U.S. government’s record largely has been one of domination at home and abroad. But love of country being blind, most people won’t see it.

One can’t help thinking that those who loudly profess their love of the country — those, for example, who must display the American flag on everything from their lapel to their car — actually worship the nation and state as though they were mystical god-like entities. When they demand patriotism of others, they really are demanding nationalism. Nationalism is more than affection for one’s home or a felt bond with people who have a common history or set of ideals. It’s a source of identity — and therein lies the danger: it’s also the source of suspicion of the Other. American nationalism is an especially virulent strain, since the United States is considered by its “leaders” and citizens an exception among nations and unbound by the normal rules.

Nationalism is a secular religion — and a collectivist one at that. Idealizing “service to the country,” as both Obama and John McCain do, ill-suits a free society because it inevitably means service to, or defined by, the state. (If it simply meant doing good for one’s fellow human beings, the profit-seeking entrepreneur would be praised for his service.)

The antiwar dissident Randolph Bourne understood that the state comes into its own during war and the conduct of foreign policy generally. Unsurprisingly, it is war critics who most often are accused of not loving their country. In contrast, if you enlist to fight, you reap the highest praise. And if you die “for your country,” you have made the ultimate sacrifice, which the rest of us are obliged to honor.

Nonsense. Why is it noble to permit yourself to be ordered to invade other countries without question by any politician who happens to occupy the White House? Why is dying — and killing — in such a cause an occasion for honor? Why must any criticism of “our country’s” military operations be tempered by expressions of respect for the president and support for the troops?

For the nationalist, the answer is that the nation — and its worldly representative, the government — are to be worshipped and trusted. Radical criticism — that is, criticism that goes to the root — is blasphemy, perhaps to be tolerated, but just barely.

Insisting on the alleged virtue of loving one’s country mainly serves to give those in power a blank check. The alternative, though, is not to hate one’s country, for this would merely be the other side of the same fallacy. A country per se should be an object neither of love nor of hatred.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.