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Being rooted in one spot will give you the clarity to know that some words and some concepts can only be stretched so far away from the ground where you have taken your stand, until they are warped out of any justifiable meaning.

One of the things I found on moving home to Kentucky 22 years ago is that our love of country is a very little and very local thing. Our love for our large country as a whole is an extrapolated, sympathetic extension of the real love we feel for a specific place small enough to know–because you can’t really love something (or someone) without knowing it well.

I don’t think we generally think about patriotism as a little thing. I’d say we generally think of it as a big thing, wrapped up in big language. At the moment America is going back to war again, or rather we are beginning another war on another front, and whenever we start a new program of bombing abroad we very naturally can expect grave and resolute political rhetoric at home, making a patriot’s case for action.

Here, for example, is President Obama on September 10:

Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.  It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.  It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny.  It is America –- our scientists, our doctors, our know-how –- that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola…. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so that they can’t pose a threat to the Syrian people or the world again.  And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future.

America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.  But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.  From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.  These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.

To give equal time to a Republican, here is President Bush in March 2003, at the start of the Iraq War:

My fellow citizens. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger….To all the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.

These are not the Biblical candences of Lincoln, but the promises are still extensive and the rhetoric is big: a broad-shouldered rhetoric for a large, populous, wealthy country that justifies its hard choices with sweeping language about good and evil.

I think a lot of Americans associate patriotism with talk like this—with a sea-to-shining-sea love of our hugeness and worldly international success and the rightness of our might; with Presidential speeches, and sharply worded arguments from the House floor, and claims of being the world’s greatest example of democracy, and even with all that endless talk we get every four years about winning the most medals of any country at the Summer Olympics.

However, what a lot of this language is, is nationalism, or sometimes even jingoism—certainly much of it, however well intended by some who use it, is not a healthy kind of patriotism. It’s too sharp-elbowed and swaggering and boastful, and too full of its own merit, and glories too much in its own size and strength. It justifies action over inaction even when the action taken makes a bad situation worse, and it often justifies collateral damage with ease, because the omelette it is making is too important to spend much regret on the broken eggs.

But what, really, is our love of country? Think about what you most want to protect–the places that you most love, the people you would put yourself at risk to guard and save. Who and what comes to mind? Of course it’s our own homes, our families, our neighborhoods, the places where we grew up, and the places where our loved ones live. When a disaster like 9-11 happens, we feel for those directly affected, because we can sympathize with their suffering, and we understand the symbolism of a particular attack that is meant to be felt as an attack on our country as a whole. But what we fear for is our own. Unless I had a friend in a Tower or on one of those 9-11 planes, my emotions are shock and horror at other people’s suffering, and the fear that the loss that has befallen someone else could someday happen to me or to someone I care about.

Certainly I care about my country as a whole. But I am one woman, and I am just not big enough to contain enough love or fear to embrace all of the continental United States, or all of the southeastern United States, or all of the Upper South. My country is really Kentucky, and in particular my part of Kentucky, which extends from this side of Louisville to the far side of Henry County, about 45 miles east of here. If my patriotism were ever put to the test, what I would be fighting for is this place and the people who belong to it—these streets and fields and these endlessly interesting regular folks whom I know so well, and yet never well enough.

Soldiers, fighting abroad in a war that isn’t directly threatening their own hometowns, will generally tell you what motivates them day to day is taking care of the friend who marches or sits in the Humvee beside them. It’s the rare man who goes to battle for an idea. Most of us have to be driven by something or someone much more concrete.

There is a story my cousin Ann tells of a relative of hers down in western Kentucky, who fought both sides in the Civil War just long enough to get both the Union Army and the Confederate Army off his land. He was defending, probably, about a quarter-square-mile’s worth of ground—and the livelihood and well-being of his family. I don’t know enough about the background of that story to know if he stayed home out of selfishness or mulishness or optimism or dire necessity, but I have always thought he was very typically human in so clearly demonstrating the limits of exactly what he was fighting for. As C. S. Lewis points out in his book The Four Loves, where he has a very good discussion of patriotism that I am drawing on extensively here, this right kind of patriotism doesn’t have any vision of empire. It’s not an aggressive emotion, unless it is forced into self-defense.

G.K. Chesteron also knew something about it. His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about a boy who is so thunderstruck by a joke of the King’s, to divide up the suburbs of London into little walled medieval cities with towers and flags and all the rights of their individual autonomy, that he grows up to be the great patriot of Notting Hill, preserving its Pump Street from the depradations of neighbors from other parts of town who want to destroy it to make a new road. When the King finally meets this boy, Wayne, as an adult, he finds how serious his patriotism is to his own little corner of London,

“My God in Heaven!” [the King] said… “is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who takes Notting Hill seriously?” 

“And my God in Heaven!” said Wayne passionately, “is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who does not take it seriously?”

In The Politics of Human Nature, Tom Fleming, the editor of Chronicles magazine, makes the argument that a right ordering of our ethical lives could best be pictured as concentric circles of responsibility—that the closer our physical ties to a person or place, the stronger are our ethical responsibilities for the well-being of that person or place. None of us has infinite amounts of time, emotional energy, or money, and so we must by necessity put our responsibilities in some kind of order. When we do, says Dr. Fleming, we should follow the general premise that our kin and neighbors and hometown ought to come before acquaintances or even strangers who live in far-off places. That doesn’t mean we have no obligation or no right to think beyond on our family circles and communities. But it does mean that charity begins at home.

As a practical matter I think most of us live this way. Think about where you spend your time and your money and see if I’m not right. Still, there are plenty of people arguing we should do otherwise. Philosopher Peter Singer, for example, an Australian who spends a good part of the year living in Princeton, New Jersey, says that we should prioritize our charitable giving by degree of the need rather than by nearness of the need. He likes to ask his students if they would feel they have an obligation to rescue a child they see drowning in a small pond. Of course everyone says Yes. He then asks if they would feel they have a similar obligation to rescue a drowning child in a far away place, especially (he says) if they could do so at little cost and no danger to themselves. His hope is to get his students to answer Yes again, because he is a great believer in global responsibility and global community.

I would agree that there can be such a thing as global–or at least international–responsibility. Droughts and wars certainly have international effects, and pollution can float across borders in a way that makes one nation’s trash another nation’s trouble. But I don’t think the term “global community” can mean anything. The world is filled with seven billion people. To say I have an equal ethical obligation to every single one of them is to so diffuse any possible effort I could make as to make that obligation meaningless, and by the way completely impersonal. Some terms just can’t be stretched beyond a certain physical limit. Neither Dr. Singer nor I can live “in community” with all the world–it just isn’t humanly possible. Goodness knows it’s a hard enough task to maintain the patience and the energy to live civilly and usefully within my own neighborhood.

As I think about it, Peter Singer is advocating giving up patriotism entirely. If we owe people according to their need, not according to the closeness of their relation to us, then patriotism is a dead letter. In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis warns against this, too. If we are going to style ourselves as being too ethically advanced to feel such a blood-and-soil emotion as patriotism, what, then, are we replacing it with—or what are we pretending to replace it with? Here’s what Lewis writes:

For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. When the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone, is spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

Of course I know that I was supposed to talk today about “Going Home”–why then a whole lecture on war and patriotism? Because war always sets me back on my heels—as it should, not matter how far off the bombing is. Here we are at a conference about localism, unlikely to mention Syria or the Islamic State much at all, full of good talk about how it is necessary, as Voltaire said ironically but truly, to cultivate our own gardens. But warfare tends to be about destroying things, not growing things, and it is one of the world’s greatest forces for upheaval—uprooting, in the present cases, our soldiers and their civilians.

I am not an international expert and do not have an informed opinion as to whether we are wise or foolish to be dropping bombs in Syria. But I am interested in language, and I do know a little about that, and the point I would leave you with today is that being rooted in one spot will give you the clarity to know that some words and some concepts can only be stretched so far away from the ground where you have taken your stand, until they are warped out of any justifiable meaning.


This piece was originally published at the Front Porch Republic and delivered as a speech at an FPR conference held on September 27, 2014, in Louisville, Kentucky. It is published here with permission of the author and has been slightly modified for this publication.

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