Europe during World War II. I have felt it, in Independence Day rodeos in Montana, where a young woman carries the American flag around the arena, horseback at full gallop, while the National Anthem is played. I have felt it, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
I have felt it, in ceremonies standing at military attention with the aging Cuban heroes of the Brigade 2506 -who carried out the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion landing in Cuba- as we struggle singing the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner. And then, as we effortlessly intone the words of the Cuban National Anthem memorized in our youth. I have felt, it reading in English Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful prose in the Declaration of Independence and, reading in Spanish, José Marti’s Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses).
Patriotism is best defined as love and devotion to a homeland, and a sense of alliance with other citizens who share the same values. It is a love and devotion I feel for both, my place of birth, and the country that, nearly six decades ago, welcomed me as a 13 year-old political exile. But, patriotism is related to, and shares ideals with, a more problematic concept: nationalism. The two words are often used as synonyms. They are not. George Orwell, in his forceful essay “Notes on Nationalism” offers a coherent distinction:
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself, but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
In other words, patriotism is primarily a feeling. Nationalism goes beyond; it exalts one nation above all others, and seeks power and prestige by projecting a national identity based on shared social characteristics, such as culture, language, religion, or political beliefs. But, nationalism takes a nasty turn when it takes the chauvinistic form of believing that a state should be reserved only for those sharing those sociopolitical and ethnic characteristics. As such, jingoistic nationalism transforms patriotism into a posture of superiority and aggression toward other nations. For example, that kind of nationalism was central to Hitler’s philosophy, and also led to the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Today, in the Ukrainian conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a nationalist imperialist, and the Ukrainian protesters are patriots.
Patriotism is essential to liberty, because pride in our nation, and the willingness to defend it, form the basis of national self-determination. In tandem with patriotism, nationalism has the virtue of being a strong force for unity, particularly in wartime. But, it must be added that, while nationalism can unite us, it often unites us against other people. Patriotism flows from the individual, nationalism focuses on the state.
Patriotism is connected with admirable ideas such as bravery, valor, or duty, while nationalism is often associated with, unsavory sociopolitical movements such as white supremacy or anti-Semitism. Nationalism can mean different things to different people and, in the United States we seldom apply that label to ourselves. Instead, we adopt the much more benign form of “American exceptionalism.” However, in other countries the term “nationalist” is favored, and often included, in some form, in the names of political parties.
Finally, I will borrow the colloquial expression used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to acknowledge the problem of defining pornography: Patriotism or nationalism, “I know it when I see it.”