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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Saturday, July 19, 2008

patriotism and matriotism

about a week ago, John Holbo from Crooked Timber posted in reaction to a discussion of what constitutes patriotism. there are some really interesting questions raised, including (but not limited to): can patriotism condone or include a critical stance towards one's country? do liberals and conservatives have different versions of patriotism? does patriotism mean thinking your country is objectively the best, or is it more akin to familial love or loyalty to a sports team? is patriotism an import quality for all citizens to have, or is it essentially a military virtue? if an individual is patriotic, must s/he love everything about her/his country, or is s/he allowed to love only some aspects thereof and wish to remake others? near the end of the post, the blogger quotes Carl Schurz: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." I think that does an excellent job of summing up what patriotism is (or perhaps should be) about, and I highly recommend reading the posted linked above, as it's got some great thoughts on the topic.

however, what I want to discuss here is not patriotism per se, but the language we use to think about (and by implication the concepts we use to think about) patriotism. at one point in the post, Jonah Goldberg is said to have quoted Ramesh Ponnuru as saying, "can't love of my country be like love of my mother?" Holbo says this conception, rather than patriotism as thinking your country is objectively the best, is pretty much spot-on the way to approach the issue.

If you love America because it is objectively the best at doing certain things that’s fine but not patriotism. That’s like loving your football team only so long as its winning, which is sort of the opposite of team loyalty. As I was saying: who thinks that loving your mother means loving everything about her to the point of being opposed to your mom improving herself or getting her act together or overcoming her problems? If your mom has problems – maybe really serious problems – and your brothers or sisters are trying to help, do you stand athwart the train of helping mom crying ‘stop!’ On the grounds that you love her too much to bear to see her become better, hence un-mom-like?


what's interesting here, to me, is the use of "mother" as the image for country. not least is this striking because of Lakoff's discussion of the "strict father" vs "nurturant parent" metaphors for conservative and progressive politics, respectively. what's interesting is why patriotism is not described as loving your country like you love your father. the etymology of patriotism and patriot come from the Latin and Greek meaning, roughly, "of the same father." given this etymology, and given Lakoff's assertions about conservative philosophy framing government as a strict father, why does Ponnuru describing loving one's country like loving one's mother rather than like loving one's father? I have a few guesses.

first, I think it's partly because it's because Ponnuru (and Goldberg, for that matter) are male. for a man, loving your mother is expected. loving your father is perfectly reasonable, as well, but it's a different sort of love. it's the love that is at most times gruff and distances, and it only comes through in bear-hug embraces at special occasions like graduations, weddings, and perhaps some holidays. it's not the kind of interaction that's usually associated with love. with your mother, though, it's much more of a caring, comforting sort of love. I think, implicitly, Ponnuru, and through citation Goldberg, are here trying to set up a certain sort of framing of how they think about country and government, that it is not a somewhat distances, gruff interaction, but that citizen and country truly care for each other.

second, there are different perceptions about correcting mother vs correcting father. in the scenario one describes above, it's easy to envision gather with siblings to try to correct some of Mom's more self-destructive behaviors. but can we really envision correcting Dad? I don't think so, at least not as readily (I'm sure that those more familiar than I with feminist literature on authority in the family would have more informed things to say about this than I do). given the etymology of patriotism, I'm a little surprised at the idea of loving your country like you love your mother, but given the argument being made, it's not a surprising framing at all. if we're making the point that patriotism and desiring to change/correct your country are not mutually exclusive, it seems much more advantageous to frame country as mother than as father.

so who cares? does it really matter if we love our country like we love our mother or like we love our father? yes, it matters a great deal, partially by virtue of the fact that many people often tend to think that it doesn't matter all that much. using the metaphor that your country is like your mother has different entailments that your country is like your father. by using the language associated with maternal, rather than paternal, relationships, the speaker invokes (albeit somewhat subconsciously) a whole series of entailments and implications about interacting with one's country, based on interacting with one's mother. I think what's important here is not the specific metaphor being used, whether it's mother or father. what is important is recognizing that a metaphor is being invoked at all and questioning what that metaphor implies, what is doesn't imply, and what alternative metaphors might be used. how would patriotism be different if we thought about it instead being like loving your father? or your grandparent? or your uncle? what about being like your relationship with your coach? your boss? your therapist? how about a different metaphor entirely that doesn't anthropomorphize one's country and treat it as a sentient human being, but rather frames the country a complex entity whose actions arise from the combination of many individual actions? in this regard, the country as a sports team metaphor might be better, but there is another whole slew of entailments and implications concomitant with the sports team metaphor that are really beyond the scope of this (already somewhat longish) post.

suffice it to say, I think there needs to be some critical questioning of the ways in which we talk about and think about these central, key political concepts, such as patriotism.

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