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What Does it Mean to Love Your Country?


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Patriotism or Tribalism?

When Americans say that they love their country, what exactly do they mean? The answer is not as simple as it seems, and it largely depends on what people mean by the term "country." The most basic definition of our country would be the physical land area formally controlled by the government of the United States. But while I am sure that many Americans harbor a certain attachment to the physical space within our nation's borders, I would assume that their love for country encompasses more than the land itself.

So when people of the United States say that they love their country, are they referring to the American people? If so, I would argue that this is a rather abstract and watered-down definition of love. Most Americans, after all, believe that a significant percentage of other Americans are misguided, self-centered, immoral, and/or downright un-American. And it is often the people who claim to possess the strongest feelings of patriotism who describe many of their fellow Americans in the harshest terms. So from what I can tell, many Americans either fail to understand the concept of love or their love is limited to the "real" Americans who share their "authentic" love for country. Or maybe Americans who love their country are noble enough creatures to love the many fellow countrymen who they cannot stand. As with family members who drive them crazy, they manage to love unconditionally the people living in our extended family of a country. You can't, after all, pick your family members or your countrymen, but you love them just the same.

Or maybe an American's love for country is even more abstract than an attachment to the land or a general feeling of love for the American people. The United States, after all, is supposed to be a nation founded on noble principles: freedom, equality before the law, human rights, representative government, etc. So if people are truly patriotic, they will often find themselves frustrated with the many Americans who fail to cherish or live up to these principles. And instead of blindly obeying American leaders or being nice to fellow Americans regardless of their behavior, true patriots will sometimes find themselves openly defying the state or confronting their countrymen. "My country, right or wrong" is a phrase that should never come out of a true American's mouth.

For if Americans merely love the physical land and the people that happen to be located within our nation's borders, then we are no different than all of the humans who for thousands of years have felt an instinctive attachment to their particular tribe and territory. And we are not attached to our tribe because it is superior to any of the others. Like our families, we love our tribe because we happened to be born into it. And we feel the strongest attachment to our tribe when another tribe threatens us. As was made very clear on September 12, 2001, patriotism is always the most intense when there is some outsider to fight.

I have always found it strange that we humans value other people or plots of land on the basis of the arbitrary borders in which they happen to be located. Does it make any sense, after all, for me to care more about a person living in Massachusetts, Alaska, or Florida than a person living in Egypt, Thailand, or Paraguay? Does an American's life have more value than a person in Afghanistan? On a purely abstract level, I'm sure that most Americans, like most people around the world, would answer that all human lives have equal value. But when we state that we love our country, this implies that we value those within our borders, whether they deserve it or not, more highly than outsiders. As Americans, we like to tell ourselves that our way of life is superior too much of what is found in other places, and in some ways, it probably is. But I suspect that in many cases, Americans are as motivated by tribal instincts as anyone else, and we are more concerned with protecting our particular interests than in promoting the values that our nation supposedly represents.

So in the end, the statement "I love my country" is as vague as many of the other terms and catch phrases so often heard in American political discussions: freedom, civil rights, justice, equal opportunity, etc. We Americans often interpret these terms very differently, and they are much easier to define in the abstract than to put into practice. It's much easier to say "I love my country" than it is to demonstrate this love to a complex, diverse, deeply divided nation of over 300 million people. And it may be even more difficult to transcend our instinctive tribal natures and express a genuine love for our nation's most noble principles and for the entire human race.

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maverick47 on June 13, 2012:

All the cliches sound nice and warm and patriotic, but in truth, loving this country is like loving a zombie. This country is a zombie that is contolled by out of control legislators who are in turn controlled by corporate America through cash laden lobbyists. This is no longer your country to love or leave and those who dictate the policies that make America what it is don't care whether you love it or leave it. This country is a joke. It pretends to be different from dictatorships or communist regimes. This government even pretends to be humanitarian but this government is only what the banks and corporations tell it to be. Go ahead and love and see if you get loved back.

Paul Swendson (author) on June 12, 2012:

You have the skeleton for a very good hub here. And I also admire the ideals on which America was founded, even if individual Americans often fail to live up to them. But if nothing else, this nation was founded on noble principles, setting a high standard for future Americans to aspire to. And at times, those principles have inspired people to push our country closer to living up to its creed. So that is something that we can celebrate every Fourth of July.

GreyWolf62 on June 10, 2012:

There is something inexplicable about the piece of Earth where you are born. I consider myself a Patriot. I used to say that if you cut me, I’d bleed red, white and blue. I read the Declaration of Independence every 4th of July, have read the Constitutions dozens, if not hundreds of times, and know all the verses of the National Anthem, as well as how to play it on two instruments. I’ve driven across America three times, traveling three different routes, covering 42-states. I’ve lived in six states – north and south, both coasts. I’ve also lived in Mexico, traveled to Europe and the Caribbean, and worked foreign military sales for the U.S.Navy for five years which gave me access to military leaders from other countries. So, when I say I love America, I believe I am making an informed statement.

America is more than a country. It is an idea. Some of us did not choose this country. Our ancestors were brought here against our will, in chains and under horrendous conditions, and then endured generations of slavery, Willie Lynch, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the backlash and yet we still love our country. Some of us are descendents of the Natives that were practically annihilated during the Expansion and yet we still love our country. (I am both.)

Our Founder Fathers were visionaries at the time. (I’ll admit my bias.) They created a framework which, while not perfect, was robust enough to establish decency in democracy, though they themselves were indecent. They were fallible, but their ideals were sound. Even though many of them were slave owners, they knew that slavery was wrong and it pained their conscious, if you believe their writings. Other countries were not founded on ideals of liberty, so their Founding Fathers did not share that vision.

I love America so much that I feel it is my duty to point out her bad behavior and help her correct it, and not only am I not alone, but our system encourages and rewards that behavior. I’ve personally presented cases in Federal Court, Federal Tax Court, State Court, Municipal Court and Small Claims Court and I am not a lawyer. I can think of few place on Earth where I could get away with that, but to feel free enough to do that in a country that not so long ago considered me chattel shows just how willing Americans are willing to grow as a collective people.

I don’t agree that Americans value those within our borders more than those without. If you attack us, we will smite you down; that goes without saying, but just look at our disaster response. We are very generous to provide voluntary individual donations to distressed areas, and our young adults still hop on planes to provide assistance. We are just a giving people. We are cowboys by nature. We love America so much that we take every opportunity to spread our culture outside of America. We create little Americas everywhere we go.

We are a young country, and in my opinion, when people say “America: Love it or Leave It”, they are proudly informing you that in America, you are free to leave. Try that in North Korea. You are free to love America enough to help her reach her potential (because we are a very young country) or you can leave. Those of us who love the idea of America don’t want to fight with those who want to destroy the idea of America in favor of other ideals.

Oscar Moralde on May 21, 2012:

Love of ones' Country is just like a prayer you do everyday that will remind you are free and happy.

shea duane from new jersey on May 20, 2012:

You know Freeway, I say: My country right or wrong, but when it's wrong, lets fix it... I'm in the process of fighting a local government issue right now, and even at the local level, it's hard stinkin' work. Sometimes I feel like I'm banging my head against the wall. The police might respond quickly, but every other local branch of government has a 3 week window... further, no one can say this is because the government is too big... I live in a small town. I think what has happened here is that those in power forget that these local ordanances are affecting our lives. I say, yes this is my town, but things should be done so that we can be safe and comfortable.

Paul Swendson (author) on May 20, 2012:

On some level, I end up following the axiom, "My country right or wrong." Whatever deficiencies, it is still home. And if am a good American, I will never give up on the place, even when it may fall woefully short of my expectations or of its supposed ideals.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 20, 2012:

shea - If your words and thoughts are pollyanna-ish, then we need many more Pollyannas! :)

shea duane from new jersey on May 20, 2012:

I love America: I think as a country America is young and easily manipulated by power. But wow, what a beauty! And because this country is so huge, it is like many, many different smaller countries in one. Like all human beings, there is goodness and ideals and hope in the heart of our country, but that is often hidden behind anxiety and fear and self-obsession. But I really do love America... anyone who has ever walked the woods or forests or beaches or mountains knows there is more to the country that politics and negativity. I think we all need to work hard to make our political environment match our hearts and the nation's beauty. Yes, I know I sound like a pollyanna.

wewillmake from kerala-INDIA on May 20, 2012:

Country is the life of everyone lives there. I love my country India very much. It is the largest democracy in the world. There is an absolute freedom in my country and i love it.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 20, 2012:

Freeway - It is as you say about respect and admiration for ideals and concepts. Reality itself just like human nature everywhere is often disappointing and sometimes horrifying.

But it is like heroes we (some of us - I fear younger generations confuse celebrity and popularity with real heroism - which is about sacrifice for others or for an ideal) admire, not because they succeed or win the battle, but because they tried,they gave of themselves, they invested much.

The way our country was founded, what it represents, the principles we aspire to, although never attain...these things inspire devotion, a kind of love. That is what love of country means to me. I particularly love the quote below.

"And we are not attached to our tribe because it is superior to any of the others. Like our families, we love our tribe because we happened to be born into it. And we feel the strongest attachment to our tribe when another tribe threatens us. As was made very clear on September 12, 2001, patriotism is always the most intense when there is some outsider to fight."

Just as squabbling friends or family members close rank when faced with an outside threat. Excellent Hub. SHARING

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on April 27, 2012:

Country is something like family. We love both despite their faults and drawbacks. We are fortunate to have a country that is better than most because we have a say in how it is run. lets not lose that.

joe scalise on April 25, 2012:

This country is in quicksand and it will continue to sink if everyone thinks we are playing in a sandbox. They have been lying to me since grade school, when they told me that I would be safe under my wooden desk on the event of a nuclear attack. I was convinced that they didn't have wooden desks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on April 25, 2012:

Sooner, We'll see.

Sooner28 on April 25, 2012:

Perpetual disappointment. I don't think anything is going to change.

Paul Swendson (author) on April 25, 2012:

I guess the one recurring theme in the various comments so far is the ideal of America is superior to the reality, and the purest form of patriotism is respect for those ideals. And allegiance to principles should take precedent over allegiance to the leaders of the moment.

The United States has always fallen short, and it always will. It's part of the problem of creating high expectations. If our nation had never claimed to represent noble principles, would people be as disappointed with our weaknesses?

Sooner28 on April 25, 2012:

The "love of country" is nothing more than an attempt to control people. I love principles, or the actions of certain inspirational leaders. What kind of moron says "America: love it or leave it?" What if America tortures people? What if it lets corporations pollute air and water? What if it bails out financial institutions with billions, while letting the poor fend for themselves?

Actions are what matter, not some sort of mystical land that is "blessed by God." Great hub.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on April 25, 2012:

More than most countries, The United States, which happens to be my country, is a country that people have chosen. It is a nation of immigrants from it's beginning. People have come here to seek a better life for themselves. After a century and a half of being colonies, the people chose a new form of government based on principles and individual rights they believed to be God-given -- rights that government would not be able to take from them. This government is described in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.

Have it's people -- even the founders -- been perfect in applying its principles? No. There is not a perfect people, country, or government anywhere. But many who have lived elsewhere still have chosen to emigrate here because they see more opportunity to live their lives without government interference than in other countries where they might live. When people are content where they were, they don't normally choose to leave and go somewhere else.

I love America because of its form of government, its ideal of liberty under law, and the freedom people have always had to pursue opportunity and their dreams. Slavery was a blight on this country, and we paid the price with a terrible civil war. Are there still racists among us? I'm afraid so, but I believe you will find them anywhere where races live in close proximity. The majority of Americans are not racists. Do we have crooked politicians? Yes we do. I don't love that, but I don't know of any country in the world where I would find less corrupt political situations.

By and large, Americans have been a generous people, opening their hearts and wallets to help not only their own countrymen, but also those in other countries who have suffered natural disasters. Our citizens often go into third world countries and help their citizens obtain medical care, pure water, and other needs-- even when there is no disaster. We are a nation of volunteers at home and abroad.

Perfect? Of course not? Some bad apples among us? Of course. But I can't think of another country I'd rather give my allegiance to.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on April 25, 2012:

Why does Doctor Johnson and his dictionary keep coming to mind?

Definition of Patriotism. = "The last refuge of a scoundrel". Wise words.

joe scalise on April 25, 2012:

Loving ones' country is an emotion about a concept. People have differing definitions for love of country and patriotism During the Bush regime the neo-cons felt that those who didn't feel it was right to travel halfway around the world to kill people who did nothing to us or possess the terrible weaponry they supposedly harbored was unpatriotic. Patiotism and love of country are concepts or tools that allow the power elite in this country to get citizens to do horrendoua things under the guise of protecting our homeland. America is a beautiful continent as is Europe, Asia and so on. Some people may claim to love the Alps or the rainforest but that is not the patriotic claim of loving ones' country. If we truly loved our country for its beauty and wonder we would all be so-called tree huggers but patritotism allows us to love our country but bastardize its beauty and well being in the name of capitalism. You are right that the phrase "My country right or wrong" is a misguided sentiment. Just like saying, "America is not perfect but it's the best government out there". In the contemporary world that may not be totally accurate. We may be better than blatant dictatorships but our dictators are standing behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz. Sure we have elections but candidate are provided by and for the wealthy. Our system of legislation is owned and controlled by corporate lobbyists. All in all we love an America that we have been led to believe exists. In the case of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s it's the promise of utopia that few still cling to. To the younger generation patriotism and love of country is about surviving in a jungle of foreign and domestic terror, uncertainty and predatory institutions.

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