Telling versus showing

Brad surveys the nation (at least the flying public), and writes:

If anything, my point is that it’s sad that we, as a nation, seem to have lost our sense of patriotism — and there could possibly be an inverse relationship of the degree that one is vocal about it and one’s IQ.

I think this sentence is revealing. I agree with the second half, and disagree with the first. I would argue that patriotism is not fundamentally about wearing shirts or pins with flags. It isn't about that frayed flag limply drooping on your porch during a rainstorm, or the magnetic yellow ribbon on your SUV. Failing to display the flag in those ways, then would not indicate a lost sense of patriotism. Each example, abundant in the world around us, is a case of someone so desperate to tell you about their patriotism that they wind up showing a profound disrespect for the nation itself. I couldn't guess whether they intend to paper over an unwillingness to consider what loving the nation truly means, or have been fooled into believing that they are showing love for the country simply by talking about loving the country.

On my recent travels, I saw a person wearing a shirt from (anti-drug program) D.A.R.E., emblazoned with a flag, a lion and one of the slogans from the global war on brown people terruh. I'm sure the intent was to seem patriotic, but all I could think was "Could you fit more of our failed wars onto one shirt?"

Because I recognize those wars as fundamentally flawed, and feel strongly that approaching them as "war" is a way to guarantee failure, I consider my reaction against that shirt to have been patriotic. Twain famously remarked that "Patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel," and elsewhere defined a patriot as "the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about." That hollering is meant to cover up the silence of actual actions. Great writers, and great leaders, know that it's better to show the audience than to tell them.

In his notebooks, Twain wrote:

A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can't legally be a Christian and a patriot--except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart. The spirit of Christianity proclaims the brotherhood of the race and the meaning of that strong word has not been left to guesswork, but made tremendously definite- the Christian must forgive his brother man all crimes he can imagine and commit, and all insults he can conceive and utter- forgive these injuries how many times?--seventy times seven--another way of saying there shall be no limit to this forgiveness.

Of course, many people who proclaim themselves Christian patriots are neither. Twain ties patriotism to nationalism and nativism, which is a true enough description of the practice, but not of the principle. In contrast, his account of Christianity is right in principle, but reflects very little of how it's practiced. True, a few churches provide sanctuary to people fleeing economic and political repression in the lands south of our borders, but that strikes me as the least Jesus would have Christians do, not the most.

Fred Clark made the point a while back that evangelism – which most Christians regard as a duty – is not the same as proselytizing. "Evangelism properly understood," he explained "is a form of hospitality. Hospitality is an invitation -- 'welcome,' 'make yourself at home,' 'take a load off,' 'taste and see' -- not an imposition." The same could be said of patriotism. I love America, and love being an American. I would like, on balance, to see other nations and their people to be more like America and its people. Which is to say, I want them to be pluralistic, classically liberal, friendly and supportive of neighbors. Of course, other people don't think that is what America is or ought to be. Which means I have to reach out internally as well as externally.

Just as it seems clear to me that tenets of Christianity demand that Christians do good works, my patriotism demands that I and my nation ought to do good works. That is hospitality, and it is better than all the pious moralizing in the world.

We live in a world which is increasingly displeased with America, and our government has been working hard to diminish the few forces meant to build bridges. Similarly, the conservative Christians in America have been working hard to ostracize anyone who will not toe their line in every detail. Neither our President nor his allies in the evangelical movement seems to have learned an important lesson.

Too often, we expect people and nations to declare they are with us before we will embrace them. I don't see how that could be Christian or patriotic. Jesus told his followers "Whoever is not against us is for us," and I think that's not a bad way to view the world. When Christians show up on my door bothering me with pamphlets, it is an imposition, the act of someone who is against me. When Habitat for Humanity builds houses for the indigent, it is the act of a friend. When America sends the Peace Corps to help dig wells and build schools, or when the National Guard steps in to help after a tsunami, it is the act of a friend. Peace Corps volunteers don't need a flag on a shirt to tell people that America is great – their actions and behavior tell the people how great America is. When the American Friends Service Committee builds schools, science labs, libraries and civil society in Gaza and the West Bank, they don't need to tell anyone that they are American or that they are Quaker. Their beliefs and values are displayed in their acts, so words and symbols are unnecessary.


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Excellent post. I oftentimes connect true patriotism with who would be willing to fight for our country. If I were to find out that a draft was taking place, I would be looking into real estate prices in Vancouver or Toronto in a heartbeat. It's sad (and cowardly) but true. I have to wonder if more people share my mentality now than they would have in prior generations.

This is a fine post, and comes from the writer's heart. I feel compelled to point out that it has been many years since the Peace Corps dug well or built schools and in my experience serving in Tanzania, volunteers display the same reckless lack of respect for their fellow humans as other misguided "patriots." Sadly, the actions of the Peace Corps volunteers I worked with (and the staff members) show the world how truly selfish and oblivious to their own privilege Americans really are. The Peace Corps is a national myth that needs to be busted since it has been bought out by Bush grant-money and atrophied due to a lack of progressive vision.

By Brian Maher (not verified) on 03 Jul 2007 #permalink

I agree it's a fine post, which makes these nitpicks seem all the more churlish, but (i) it was Dr Johnson rather than Mark Twain who said "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"; (ii) your "Jesus told his followers" line seems to have gotten duplicated in those last two paragraphs.

"Evangelism properly understood," he explained "is a form of hospitality. Hospitality is an invitation -- 'welcome,' 'make yourself at home,' 'take a load off,' 'taste and see' -- not an imposition."

Well hell, if they'd bring a beer with them, I might not slam the door in thier faces.

Great post. These days, at least here in the midwest, patriotism has become more like nationalism.


My sense is that different parts of the Peace Corps work differently, and it could be that it has changed in recent years. A friend of mine was in Central America about a decade ago and seems to have enjoyed it. I think she was involved in a water project (though probably not digging a well specifically).

While Johnson probably did originate the "scoundrel" line, Twain did deliver the quoted phrase (which lacks "last") in a speech. Thanks for pointing out the other duplicated reference.