September 09, 2004

The patriot and the dog

There has been a lot of talk about patriotism lately. In my opinion patriotism is a good thing – everyone should be a patriot to their own country. Patriotism is a form of tribalism, without it we are not fully human. But what exactly does it mean? Does it mean that we should support whatever our country does? Of course not! Key point: countries are not governments, countries have governments, and they can be bad ones! Can you imagine a German patriot during World War II fighting against the Nazis? Or a Russian patriot fighting the communists? I can. A while back Glenn Reynolds tied himself in knots trying to describe his relationship to the idea: My country, right or wrong:
I'm not a "my country, right or wrong," guy. But I do think that if patriotism means anything it means giving one's own country the benefit of the doubt -- of which, in the case of this war, there's not really much need for -- and that the people I was discussing in that post are doing quite the opposite and adopting a "my country -- of course it's wrong" attitude. To root for your own country's defeat is to separate yourself from its polity, to declare it not worth saving or preserving, to declare the lives of its soldiers less important than your own principles. It's not always wrong, but it's a very a drastic step, as drastic as deciding to mount a revolution, really, and yet it's often taken by superficial people for superficial -- and, as in this case, tawdry and self-serving -- reasons.
I certainly agree with the content of his words, but I think that the expression, “My country right or wrong” is a simple one, and easy to defend. It means: Right or wrong, my country is MY country. It is akin to saying, “My brother right or wrong.” Though I may think that my brother is a mass murderer and should be locked up for the good of society, I still love him and will be a loyal brother to him – e.g. I won’t disown him. (And yes, you can be patriotic to two countries, just as you can have two brothers.) You can’t necessarily tell from actions whether a political dissident is a patriot or a traitor – acting out of love or hate. But I grew up in the US, spent my first 25 years there, and I know that many people object to its actions because they hate America – not the other way around. 

Is John F. Kerry one of these people? I don’t think so. Rather, he seems to me utterly lacking in character. His opinions are whatever is most politically advantageous at the time. (In stark contrast to the President who, agree with them or not, has the courage of his convictions.) Nevertheless, this does have bearing on patriotism. Loyalty (to a country or a person) doesn’t mean putting their interests before your own, but it does mean not pursuing your interests at their expense. Kerry might well be guilty of this. Which brings to mind a passage from the Talmud, describing a time of calamity:

בית ועד יהיה לזנות
והגליל יחרב והגבלן ישום
ואנשי הגבול יסובבו מעיר לעיר ולא יחוננו
וחכמות סופרים תסרח
ויראי חטא ימאסו
והאמת תהא נעדרת
נערים פני זקנים ילבינו
זקנים יעמדו מפני קטנים
בן מנבל אב
בת קמה באמה כלה בחמותה
אויבי איש אנשי ביתו
פני הדור כפני הכלב
הבן אינו מתבייש מאביו
ועל מה יש לנו להשען על אבינו שבשמים 

Beyt va`ad yihye liznut
V’hagalil yeherev vhagavlan yishom
V’anshey hagvul y’sov’vu me`ir la`ir vlo’ y’honanu
V’hokhmot sofrim tisrah 
V’yir’ey het yim’asu
V’ha’emet t’he ne`ederet
N`arim p’ney z’qenim yalbinu 
Z’qenim ya`amdu mipney q’tanim
Ben m’nabel av 
Bat qama b’imah kala bahamotah
Oyvey ish anshey beyto
P’ney hador kifney hakelev
Haben eyno mitbayesh me’aviv
V`al ma yesh lanu l’hisha`en 
`Al avinu shebashamayim

The house of council will be for prostitution
And the Galilee will be destroyed and the outlaw will breathe easily
And people from the borders will wander from city to city and won’t settle down
And the wisdom of scribes will putrefy 
And those who fear sin will be become disgusting
And the truth will be not found
Youths will insult the faces of elders
Elders will stand for the sake of youths
Son will deride father 
Daughter will rise up against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law
A man’s enemies will be members of his household
The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog
Sons not embarrassed in front of fathers
And on what do we have to lean? 
On our father who is in heaven

Mishna Sota 9:16

What is the meaning of, “The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog”? It is explained that this refers to the leaders, who will lead the way a dog leads his master: he runs in the direction he thinks his master will go, then looks back to see if he is following.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 9, 2004 11:37 AM
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