BOSTON – Those of us who hail from Massachusetts are proud of our special patriotic holiday, formally celebrated only in our state and Maine (which was part of us until 1820), though Wisconsin and Florida pay it some honor as well. Patriots’ Day commemorates the rebels at Lexington and Concord who fired the shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775.
For tragic reasons, the holiday commanded the nation’s attention on April 15, 2013. Two homemade bombs exploded 12 seconds apart at 2:49 p.m., killing three people and injuring hundreds of others.
This city will never forget the dead and severely injured. But it will also remember the heroism of its citizens, including the first responders and medical professionals who saved countless lives. A sense of solidarity arising from the love of a place and its people gave birth to the slogan, “Boston Strong.” The worst Patriots’ Day in history produced an outpouring of local patriotism.
This year’s celebration of Patriots’ Day comes when another impulse jostles with patriotism as the definition of dedication to country.
Nationalism, it’s true, runs deep in American history, as the brilliant and ideologically idiosyncratic writer Michael Lind often reminds us. It’s not just a Donald Trump or Steve Bannon import. It was, after all, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero to many progressives, whose forward-looking program was memorialized as the New Nationalism.
Yet nationalism rankles, partly because of its association with the evils of Nazism and Fascism, and partly because its claims are so sweeping. As George Orwell wrote, patriotism stems from “devotion to a particular place and to a particular way of life.” Nationalism, by contrast, “is inseparable from the desire for power.”
It’s worth noting that even patriotism makes some uncomfortable. They often see it in the same light as the word “chauvinism,” which is defined as “excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one’s own cause, group or gender.” It’s a mistake, however, to view patriotism as nothing but chauvinism in bright colors.
My own love of the United States is rooted in the profound debt I feel to this place and to my fellow citizens, and in a deep attachment to our habits, customs and what I see as our exceptional capacity, over time, to correct our flaws. But just as the special love I feel for my family does not prevent me from admiring other families and individuals, so my allegiance to the United States does not stop me from offering respect and affection for other peoples and places.
There is also a quality to American patriotism that is commonplace to note but absolutely central to our identity: Ours is not a loyalty to blood or soil. It is an embrace of a series of powerful propositions.
Last week, I spent time with the gifted young political theorist Yascha Mounk, who had just become an American citizen. He told an audience at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that while he did not discount our country’s problems, particularly the costs of a “racial hierarchy,” the United States was genuinely different because it rejected a “mono-ethnic and mono-cultural” definition of nationality. “In America,” he said, “there is an idea that you can have an accent and be American, you can have immigrated and be American.” It’s another reason I love this country.
Earlier this year, in a useful exchange published in the conservative magazine National Review on the relative merits of patriotism and nationalism, Mona Charen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center had it exactly right when she argued: “Patriotism is enough – it needs no improving or expanding.” She called nationalism “a demagogue’s patriotism” more likely to be converted “into something aggressive.”
And the columnist Jonah Goldberg caught something important when he wrote that “nationalism is ultimately the fire of tribalism, having too much of it tends to melt away important distinctions, from the rule of law to the right to dissent to the sovereignty of the individual.”
Lind (with whom I usually agree more than I do with Goldberg) would argue back that forms of liberal nationalism have been just as committed to these values. He would also remind us of the national commitments of Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln.
Fair enough. But if both nationalism and patriotism can get out of hand, nationalism strikes me as far more perilous. I love my country, as I love Boston, and love can be ruined by an overweening will to power. The patriot is more likely to be alive to this danger than the nationalist.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.