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A Defence of Patriotism


There is a topic that I have seen inspire arguments and flamewars on the internet from time to time. Everyone who has spent time in forum or comment threads knows that some topics are sure to cause a fight. Even mentioning religion, or abortion, or politics is very likely to result in a protracted fight, though the topic I’m thinking of is not nearly so volatile: patriotism. If someone expresses their love for their country, or even pride for their state or hometown, they risk starting an internet brushfire. There are some people who consider “patriot” to be a synonym for “bigot,” and who will make a loud argument about the foolishness of having pride for any particular segment of this earth. They will point out that where we are born or raised are purely arbitrary and accidental. How then can we discriminate against other places and other peoples over an accident of birth/

Whenever I encounter someone with this attitude I typically find myself at a loss for words. No adequate response comes easily to mind because it never occurred to me that anyone would fail to understand why a man might love his home. That is strange enough in itself, but to then accuse the man of being irrational or morally deficient simply because he is proud of his home is something that seems beyond belief. Has this person never felt relief at the first sight of home after a long journey? Has he never thought that his furniture and his silverware and his pots and pans were preferable to those in other houses simply because they were his? Has he never traveled far away and been homesick?

Perhaps he has, or perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he would say that none of those things make a difference. He might say that pride and patriotism and rubbish. The world is so big, perhaps, that only a fool or a madman could claim that any part of it was superior to the rest. To that my only reply is that it is a noble sentiment to say that we should love the entire world, true; but it is foolishness to try to create love for places you do not know by destroying your love for the places you know best.

It brings to mind a quote I recently read by G. K. Chesterton. “Bloch, and the old prophets of pacifism by panic, preached that war would become too horrible for patriots to endure. It sounded to me like saying that an instrument of torture was being prepared by my dentist, that would finally cure me of loving my dog.” The context is a little different, but thinking of the quote made me realize why the flat rejection of all forms of patriotism or home-pride is ridiculous. I love the state of Washington, where I was born and raised, similarly to how I love my dog. I love my dog, but I don’t for a second believe that she is the finest and best canine specimen in the entire world. And if you asked me whether I thought Washington was superior to all other 50 states I would say that I couldn’t make such a judgment: after all, I haven’t been to even half of the states. If you asked me if the little valley I grew up in was the greatest valley in all existence I would have to confess my ignorance of all valleys. And if you asked me to choose the greatest and best of all countries in the world I would have to ask you what metric you were using to measure greatness. However none of that changes that fact that I love my country, I love Washington State, and I positively adore the valley I grew up in. Just as I love my dog, even though I am aware that finer examples of the breed exist in droves.

I am reminded of a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell And Webb Look. The sketch featured a wedding reception where the best man gives his speech. However during the speech he does point out that the bride is most certainly not the most beautiful woman in the world, as her new husband had described, but was instead simply high-average as far as looks are concerned. As people began to boo him he started protesting that it’s the truth, and that the groom isn’t perfect either. The joke was, of course, that the best man was being totally honest and accurate, but that he was missing the point. Yes, the bride was not in fact the most beautiful woman in the world, or the smartest, or the nicest, or the hardest working: but she is still the bride. She is still loved. I love my wife, and I am proud of my wife. I am downright patriotic about my wife! If you want to say that your wife is better than mine then you’re in for a debate! To an untrained eye perhaps my wife is not as beautiful as some: but if you knew her as I do you would know that she is the most beautiful of all. In the same way, the place where I was born may seem ordinary or even ugly to an outsider, but to my own eyes there is no place I love more.

Some will respond by pointing out that our homes are completely arbitrary. It was only by chance that I was born in Washington: why should I be proud of having been born there? I agree that it was a kind of accident, in that I had no hand in it. It was also an accident of chance that led to one particular Labrador becoming my dog. Should I love her less for that? You can even argue that meeting my wife was just as much an accident: if we had gone to different schools or had different friends we never would have met. Yet I still love my wife. It may be an accident of genetics that I was born an American, but I see no reason for that to prevent me from being proud that I am one. I do not begrudge someone born and raised in China for being proud of China: there is much about China that is deserving of pride. There is much about America that is deserving of pride as well, and since I am an American I will gladly take pride in them. We must all play the cards we are dealt, after all.

Finally we must remember that love is not a zero sum game. If I love America it does not mean that I hate Canada. My love for the State of Washington does not negate any love for the city of Washington. My love for my dog does not spell hate for all other dogs. If you wish to remove a man’s patriotism then you wish to remove his love. We cannot make this world a brighter place by snuffing out candles.

Fighting the Frivolous Fight: Why Bother Arguing on the Internet?



Lately I’ve found myself doing something I swore I would never do again: namely, arguing about religion and philosophy over the internet.

I tried it for a while back in high school, and then swore off it forever. A good friend of mine has had a similar experience. “I used to argue with people on the internet a lot when I was younger, but there just isn’t any point to it. Nobody, including myself, has ever changed their opinions because of someone’s brilliant internet argument.” I have to agree. If you want to persuade people the internet is not the place to be. I have never, not once, heard of an atheist or theist changing their minds about their beliefs based on an argument over the internet. If you want to persuade someone, write a book. Even better, talk to them in person. The internet just isn’t going to work out for you.

Still, lately, I’ve started arguing metaphysics in comment threads all over WordPress. I haven’t changed anyone’s minds or opinions. I don’t have hope that I will. Yet, all the same, I keep doing it for two specific reasons. One of them I’m sure is good. The other reason is probably misguided, but it’s a reason nonetheless.

The first (and best) reason is that arguing on the internet makes me a better communicator. It exposes me to ideas and arguments that I would never have considered on my own. It’s one thing to sit at home, reading books of philosophy and thinking “Of course! It’s so obvious!” It’s another thing altogether to try to explain those concepts and suddenly have an objection come out of left field. I find that the more I sit with my books the less I understand people who don’t share my views. Debating on the internet lets me sample different ideas that come from people with entirely different backgrounds from myself. Even if, after further thought, I come to the conclusion that their argument is flawed, at the very least I’ve learned that the argument exists and how to better respond to it next time. Every argument I hear and consider teaches me something new about persuasion, argumentation, logic, and rhetoric. More importantly, every argument I compose a response to helps me practice clarity, simplicity, and empathy. As a writer all those things are useful to me. They are the building blocks of good communication. There have been many times where I’ve butted heads against someone who seems so incredibly stubborn and blockheaded that they seem to ignore my arguments entirely, claiming that I’m saying things that I never intended. When those times come I have to stop and consider: are they not getting my point because they aren’t willing to listen, or because I’m not good at explaining? Naturally, if the problem is on their end then there is nothing I can do to fix that. So I do the only thing I can do, which is examine my own words and try to make them as clear and understandable as possible. All of this is excellent real world practice that helps me become a better writer. Any idiot can sound persuasive in his head, and even hack writers can convince people who agree with them that they are right. The real test is facing a hostile audience and seeing how well you communicate with them. On that note, there are a lot of mean-spirited individuals on the internet who feel no qualms in peppering you with the most incendiary and hurtful insults they can come up with. This, too, is good practice. You will always have critics, and there will always be hurtful people out there. By weathering their attacks you can practice controlling your own emotions. There are a lot of people out there who want to rattle your chain just to see you blow up; better to lose your composure on a comment thread or forum (and subsequently feel embarrassed and learn not to give them the satisfaction) then to lose it in a more public arena.

So, to sum up the first reason, arguing on the internet is good practice for honing communication skills,  logical reasoning, and control over your emotions.

The second reason is the one that’s more shaky, though it can be explained more simply. Sometimes I feel that there are some things that you can’t just leave alone. If someone insulted my mother in public, you can bet I’d say something in her defense. I feel the same way sometimes when people insult my religion, or the people I respect. In those cases it’s not a matter of persuading someone but of defending the honor of those you love. I feel that what is good and right is worth standing up for, even if you only receive mockery and pain for your efforts. But I admit, this motivation may not be the best. Perhaps it’s better to accept that there will always be mockers and scoffers, and remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Still, I can’t help myself sometimes.