June 5, 2020

Woke patriotism


It was a hot summer day at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. Rangers gave talks about abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the U.S. armory – one of the chain of events leading to the U.S. Civil War two years later. Volunteers enacted Union and Confederate recruitment. Our visitor, a Ukrainian historian, donned a Union uniform and “enlisted.” This, he remarked approvingly, was “patriotic education.”

“Patriotism,” derived from Latin “patria” – literally fatherland, itself derived from “pater,” father – is love of country. As the late Roger Scruton remarks, “in normal parlance a patriot esteems not only the institutions of a state but also, more especially, the people governed by those institutions, and the language, history and culture that is theirs.” Patriotism can also involve an attachment to a place, a territory, a landscape and its climate. (Scruton, “A Dictionary of Political Thought,” s.v. “Patriotism”) As a sentiment based on love, it is distinguishable from chauvinism, jingoism, and xenophobia.

When did patriotism arise? As an extension of the natural love for one’s family, it may be as old as humankind itself – though the precise nature of Fred Flintstone’s allegiance to Bedrock is lost in the mists of prehistory. It was certainly known to the ancients. Pericles famously extolled Athens, and Horace wrote “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (though a later poet, Wilfred Owen, bitterly disagreed). “Democratic patriotism,” a distinguished British historian tells us, was born simultaneously in Scotland and Switzerland in the 1290s (G.M. Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England, 1987, 177-78). Citizens of Italian city-states adored their patria. The jilted exile Dante Alighieri’s love-hate relationship with his native Florence is legend.

Was Prince Ihor a patriot of Kyivan Rus’? The “Slovo o Polku Ihoreve” would suggest so – though the late Edward Keenan maintained that it was the concoction of an 18th-century Czech philologist who wanted to give the newly minted “Russia” what France and Spain already had – a medieval (yet) national epic. Were the Ukrainian Kozaks patriots? If so, what was their patria – the Zaporozhian Sich (wherever it might be located at the moment), the Kozak Host of 1649, the Hetmanate, Sloboda Ukraine? Modern patriotism infused the American and French revolutions, which were both bound up with democracy and the nation-state. Central and East European patriotism owes much to the 19th century Romanticism that inspired the “Spring of Nations” in 1848. Poets like Taras Shevchenko aroused the “national awakening,” when the sleepy Slavs became “woke” patriots.

Today’s patriotism presents some difficult questions. Is it consistent with true history? American schools have reportedly switched from glorifying their historical past to exposing its dark side: genocide, slavery, racism, imperialism, oppression of women and so on. But even a balanced view of history might leave one less than enthusiastic about one’s country. Ukraine has not quite caught up with progressive American education. Its historians are still busy constructing counterweights to Soviet distortions. Thus, while Bohdan Khmelny­tsky, once revered for his Russian choice, is now regarded with ambivalence, the “bourgeois nationalists” Symon Petliura and Stepan Bandera have been rehabilitated. What happens when Ukrainian students confront a national history in black as well as white, with plenty of grey areas? Will awareness of peasant exploitation, Jewish pogroms, Nazi and communist collaboration, and ethnic cleansing of Poles extinguish their patriotism? Not necessarily. More likely it will simply mature: not the starry-eyed infatuation of the ingenue, but the wiser love born of sympathy and understanding.

In this season between Memorial Day and Independence Day, some of us may wonder whether one can be both a Ukrainian and an American patriot. Why not? Patriotism is not the same thing as loyalty or citizenship, which cannot really be divided (despite the slippery notion of “dual citizenship”). Love may not be divisible, but it can be hierarchical: one can love the land of one’s forebears as one loves a grandmother, and the land of one’s birth or citizenship as one loves one’s mother.

Some think of patriotism as “conservative.” But it is just as easily classified as “liberal,” given the origins of both the U.S. and Ukraine in liberal political thought. It can even be socialist. Most of the leaders of the Ukrainian People’s (sic) Republic of 1917-1921 were, after all, socialists of some sort. Joseph Stalin’s brand of Marxism-Leninism stressed Soviet patriotism. But genuine Marxism, which claims that “the workingmen have no country” (“Communist Manifesto,” 1848), cannot be reconciled with patriotism. Nor, ultimately, can globalism, understood as an ideology aspiring to a single world government.

Is patriotism consistent with Christianity? In phrases like “for God and country,” we associate the two. In western Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church supported the national movement, this was natural, as it is in the U.S. But it was not always and everywhere so: Italian patriotism, for example, could be vehemently anti-clerical. A conflict also arises when patriotism leads to hatred of other nations. Thus, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky condemned militant secular nationalism, contrasting it with Christian patriotism. It is inconsistent, after all, to advocate love of one’s own land and people without respecting others’ love of theirs.

If a Christian can be a patriot, can a pacifist? Doesn’t patriotism promote war? Certainly war provokes patriotism. Napoleon’s invasions were a catalyst for German, Italian, Spanish and Russian patriotism. These were defensive, but certainly not pacifist. A Trotskyite once challenged me to reconcile Christianity, which he assumed to be pacifist, with Ukrainian nationalism. Wouldn’t a true Christian have let the Bolsheviks (under his hero Trotsky) roll into Ukraine unopposed? This forced me to do some rethinking. I could not accept the pacifism of the Mennonites, for example, which compelled them to stand by as pogromists raped their wives and daughters during the Russian civil war. I ultimately found an answer in “just war” theory, which under certain conditions allows for defensive war. For a pacifist Ukraine would surely end up as it was for centuries: a colonized territory of subservient serfs. Consider Donbas.


Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.