HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 27, 2008
From Liberty Street

Country and Nation

John Turner


The presidential campaign has forced me to sharpen insights I've had rumbling around in my brain for quite a few years about the nature of patriotism. When a person says he's patriotic, what does he have in mind as the object of his loyalty?

The most common answers are the nation and the country, and generally these are accepted as being the same thing. But, of course, that's not right. They are not at all the same thing and in fact, they are usually hostile to one another. What's good for the nation is frequently not good for the country, and the nation is often not benefitted by actions that increase the country's health.

I'm aware that many might read this and charge that I'm engaged in fanciful definition. But I don't think so. If you listen carefully to what people say, you'll discover that when they speak of the nation they have something different in mind than when they talk about the country.

Recently, I've been helped to think all this through by reading John Lukacs's book from 2005, Democracy and Populism. Mr. Lukacs is interested in rehabilitating the concept of patriotism by contrasting it with nationalism. In doing so, I think he's getting at basically the same thing I've tried to approach by placing nation and country on different sides of a  divide.

Lukacs quotes Hitler from Mein Kampf, where the German leader wrote, "I was a nationalist; but I was not a patriot."

Patriotism in Lukacs's view is defensive and preservative. It arises from a person's love of the familiar, from the things that have made life worthwhile, from deep personal associations. Nationalism, by contrast, is aggressive. It seeks to enlarge power and to shape the people into a homogeneous whole, which is not diluted by any alien elements. It has no interest in individual pursuits.

The nation is an apparatus of power, and in its moral perspective anything that enhances power is to be supported and anything that dilutes or diminishes power is to be smashed.

In the current U.S. political configuration, the Republican Party is the servant of the nation, whereas the Democratic Party is the servant of the country.

And where do the people stand in all this. It depends on who the people, as a whole, are. Are they a collection of individuals, each of them seeking his personal vision of a good life? Or, are they a unified force, each one a unit in a larger conglomeration? Might a person care about something that has nothing to do with the nation? Or is that thought a shocking abomination?

We can see the differences clearly in Senator McCain's attacks on Barack Obama. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, yesterday, McCain had this to say about Obama's concerns that the production of nuclear energy be safe:

You know the other night in the debate with Senator Obama, I said his eloquence is
admirable, but pay attention to his words-we talked about offshore drilling and he said
he would quote 'consider' offshore drilling. We talked about nuclear power. Well, it has
to be safe, environment, blah, blah, blah

For McCain, the issue of nuclear safety is just a "blah, blah, blah" thing because even if people are killed or sickened it wouldn't really affect the power of the nation. After all, we've got plenty of people. What do a few, more or less, matter? The nation, after all, demands sacrifice before it demands anything else. That is John McCain's world view.

If you go down through all the differences between McCain and Obama, you'll see that McCain is almost always promoting national power and Obama is arguing for the well-being of the people.

There are, of course, times when the interests of the nation and the country overlap. If a foreign power occupied a portion of our territory, both the nation and the country would wish to see it ejected. But the possibility of that sort of occurrence is becoming more rare in the world we are moving into.

Whether you are a nationalist or a patriot in the sense of John Lukacs ought to be the principal influence determining your vote. But the trouble is that you live in a society where journalism is incapable of raising such a distinction. Think of it: the most important factor in a presidential election can't be discussed publicly. And, then, we wonder why our political campaigns don't appear to be rational.

You could, of course, read John Lukacs. But how many of us do you suppose have done that?


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