The Line Between Patriotism and Chauvinism
The classical liberal values that we espouse on this site can be thought of as the greatest political and economic innovation of the last 500 years, the adoption of which has led to the greatest human flourishing in the history of mankind in diverse cultures all over the world. Whatever its other faults, this is the gift that western civilization has given our species and it should not be denigrated or forgotten, even by those who wish to highlight the many groups who have often been left behind or intentionally harmed by its spread.
The fact is, that countries who adopt democracy, limited government, and general economic liberty create the conditions whereby people can reach as high and as far as their own ability and desire allow them to. No other system that we know of can simultaneously allow for a poor person to become rich and successful while at the same time allowing those who are already successful to remain so.
The tragic history of tribes of human beings fighting for pieces of the resource pie becomes lessened as wealth becomes more about creativity and innovation than who owns the most land or resources. When being attacked by those who are ignorant of economics and who argue against the value of western civilization, we can point to these incontrovertible truths and use them as a shield to defend the hard won victories of the last two centuries.
Yet the success of our civilization cannot blind us to the value of other civilizations or cultures, for without them much of what we have accomplished may not have been possible. The grand inventions of the Chinese dynasties, the development of advanced mathematics by Islamic civilization, or even the dawn of civilization itself in Egypt and the Babylon, these things form a heritage common to all of us and should be celebrated. When we make the mistake of tying western civilization to ideas such as race or culture and forget that the uniqueness of its contribution lies in the articulation of universal values, we end up crossing the line from pride to chauvinism.
One problem with chauvinism is that it assumes that because you are part of a particular group, that somehow you share in the positive traits of that group and can lay claim to the past accomplishments of its members. It is possible for a Vietnamese man living in Ho Chi Min City to be more “western” than a white man living in Charlotte in terms of what he believes about the proper role of government in society and the rights that we have by virtue of our humanity. At the same time a man from charlotte is not being very western if he denies the autonomy and dignity of a human being and wishes for collectivized control over the economy and family life in pursuit of a socialist utopia.
The fight to maintain what our forefathers accomplished is never really over because every generation produces people who want to take us in a different direction, who want to limit freedom for their own ends. Chauvinism is easy because it merely requires you to affirm an identity, not actually determine for yourself what that that identity demands from you individually. It can also dangerously lead you to think that other groups are worth less than yours because the focus becomes not on the individual within those groups but rather the superficial characteristics of the group itself. The entire political and economic paradigm that emerged in the West is predicated on seeing people as individuals and judging them on their merits and character, not those of some abstract group. To do otherwise is to play the identity politics game, a game which is antithetical to the basic character of our nation.
President Trump and his most loyal supporters are an example of this problem with chauvinism, his campaign and early presidency have all been about restoring the greatness of America, yet he has failed to articulate what that greatness was all about aside from a general sense that winning is good and losing is bad. Here is a President who has done very little to improve the free market, to protect and expand our liberties, to limit the power of government. Instead he has been almost constantly involved in petty squabbles over how the media and others have been unfair to him. He exemplifies the man who wraps himself in the flag and spouts jingoistic platitudes without really taking the time to learn about the unique and rich history of ideas and accomplishments that made both America and the West great.
This brings us to another issue with chauvinism, it simply fails to deliver in terms of defending and expanding the very thing it purports to value. Without an articulated and clear idea of what it is that is being defended, the chauvinist comes across as unjustifiably boastful and arrogant, turning off the very people that he should be courting and allowing himself to be grouped in with the worst rather than the best. It cannot convince those who are on the wrong path and who want to take the country in the wrong path because the only thing that it relies on is an unquestioning patriotism and not a set of ideas and principles. There is no argument, only the application of force and the desire to win. This brings out the same on the other side and we get tragic displays such as what happened in Portland between Antifa and Alt-Right Trump supporters.
The pride that we have in our civilization must be a starting point, not an end in of itself. That pride and that love of our home and where we come from must be a catalyst towards deep study, reflection, and self-improvement so that we can become agents of change towards greater liberty and prosperity.
We should stand up for what we believe in and not back down, but that fight must come from a place of superior virtue, knowledge and rhetorical skill, something which takes time and effort to cultivate. We should look towards the examples of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln for what strong but humble patriotism looks like, not emulate those who think reflexively and ferociously attacking others is the way to win. Winning the battle of ideas requires that we show how our ideas are better and that we are worthy of those ideas by constantly striving to be better, not by just assuming we are already the best.