Patriotism versus Jingoism

A meditation for Flag Day, 2021

It is not uncommon to hear people confuse patriotism with jingoism. So let's spend a few moments this Flag Day reflecting on the difference.

Jingoism is well described by Robert Hendrickson as "bellicose chauvinism." But given the general level of culture, I am afraid I can't leave it at that, but must go on to explain 'chauvinism' and 'bellicose.' Chauvinism has nothing to do with sex or race. I have no objection to the phrases 'male chauvinism' or 'white chauvinism,' the latter a term widely used in the 1950s in Communist Party USA circles; but the qualifiers are essential. Chauvinism, named after Nicholas Chauvin of Rochefort, an officer under Napoleon, is excessive nationalism. 'Bellicose' from the Latin word for war (bellum, belli) means warlike. So we get 'warlike excessive nationalism' as the definiens of 'jingoism.'

According to Henrickson, the term 'jingoism' originated from a refrain from the British music hall song "The Great MacDermott" (1878) urging Great Britain to fight the Russians and prevent them from taking Constantinople:

We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo if we do/ We've got the ships, we've got the men, and the money, too.

'By Jingo,' in turn, is a euphemism for 'by Jesus' that dates back to the later 17th century. (QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. p. 395) So much for 'jingoism.' I think we are all going to agree that it is not a good thing.

Patriotism, however, is a good thing, a virtue. Like any virtue it is a means between two extremes. In this case, one of the extremes is excessive love of one's country, while the other is a deficiency of love for one's country. The patriot's love of his country is ordinate, within bounds. The patriot is neither a jingoist nor a neutralist. Both are anti-patriots. To confuse a patriot with a jingoist is like confusing a dissenter with a traitor. No doubt sometimes a jingoist or chauvinist will hide beneath the mantle of patriotism, but just as often a traitor will hide beneath the mantle of dissent. The patriot is also not a xenophobe since ordinate love of one's country does not entail hatred or fear of other countries and their inhabitants. Is patriotism, defined as the ordinate love of, and loyalty to, one's country justified?

Although it does not entail xenophobia, patriotism does imply a certain partiality to one's own country precisely because it is one's own. Is this partiality toward one's own country justifiable? If it is, then so is patriotism. As Socrates explains in Plato's Crito, we are what we are because of the laws. Our country and its laws have overseen our nurturance, our education, and the forming of our characters. We owe a debt of gratitude to our country, its laws, those who have worked to maintain and defend it, and especially those who have died in its defense. This assumes that the laws and the principles and values that underpin them are good and just.