Patriot Acts, Composing, 06/04/2017

I’ve seen the term patriotism misused for such wretched, hypocritical, violent, utterly self-absorbed political stupidity that it’s easy to forget how important it once was.

How has the concept of patriotism been ruined for me? If I went into detail, we’d be here for days.* There’s George W Bush’s Patriot Act. Freedom fries. The dour and dorky monarchism of Stephen Harper’s War of 1812 propaganda. Danny Williams’ ignorant, oil-soaked nationalism. The ongoing trajectory of Trumpist white nationalism.

* Instead of just one day at a time.

There was a time, however, when patriotism was a form of liberation. That was Machiavelli’s time.

Nothing to see here, folks.
Throughout the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli discusses patriotism as the community spirit of a city’s populace. Patriotism is the fundamental social glue of a community. It feels strange to a democratic thinker of the 21st century.

Yet that’s how patriotism does work. He explores the nature of patriotism from a lot of different perspectives throughout the book. Here’s one that I think sets the concept in the most stark, visceral terms. It also helps understand how patriotism can be a force for good, and why it isn’t anymore.

Patriotism, says Machiavelli, is the spirit of devotion common throughout a community, that inspires the members to risk their lives and be prepared to die for their community.

Machiavelli lived his entire life in a long period of war, conquest, and strife in Europe. Italy’s proud principalities and republican cities were constantly under attack from the massive armies of three expanding European states. France, Spain, and Switzerland dwarfed Florence, Genoa, Milan, Torino, and all the others.

That’s the political context where Machiavelli explains the virtue of patriotism. A patriotic people, in this sense, will provide much better troops than the mercenary armies that Italian principalities often hired. Those mercenaries were usually overrun by the superior force of imperial armies.

The Italian cities that could defend themselves drew their armies from their populace, as Republican Rome did. Mercenaries fight to survive a battle and get their paycheck. Patriotic citizens with their backs to the wall are prepared to die to defend the freedom and glory of their country.

Today we have our gangster kleptocracies. Putin, Yanukovich, Manafort,
Kushner, Trump, and in my home country of Newfoundland, Williams.
Patriotism is the vigorous fire in your soul when you stride into battle prepared to die for your people. In the 1530s, it was a virtue. It was required to defend the existence of your city, its culture, its independence from growing empires and gangster kleptocracies like the Borgias and Medicis.

I’ve thought about Machiavelli’s concept of corruption, which he applies to cities, cultures, and countries. But then I contrast today’s perverse, oppressive conception of patriotism with the genuinely liberatory power of patriotism in Machiavelli’s day.

And I wonder, can a concept become corrupt?

Corruption has several meanings in Machiavelli’s thinking. One is the ordinary sense we give to the word today, of a political class defined by bribery, immoral acts, and hypocrisy. But there’s also the sense of decay, the malfunctions of aging, processes that normally give life flying into self-destructive whirlygigs and spirals.

As he uses the word corruption, the two meanings blur together. Not in a sense of confusion, but of being two aspects of the same phenomenon. Corruption is the mortality of a culture. As a society marches generation through generation, the devotion to public good fades away in its most prominent, powerful people and families.

As a people take their freedom for granted, they lose their feelings of brotherhood, see only self-interest where they used to see public good. The children of privilege, if given enough generations, become the arrogant resentment of greed. Gears shudder. Fanbelts fly. Oil drips and drips along the pavement.

Or perhaps, as I quoted John Dewey the other day, the solutions of today simply become the problems of tomorrow. The patriotism needed for survival of small cities against ravenous empires becomes poisonous and violent when expressed with cluster bombs, ICBMs, and sarin gas.

Or are even these ideas two aspects of the same process?

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