Taking the Knee: How Patriotism Became a Dirty Word

This article first appeared on the Hoover Institution site.

President Trump once again has enraged the left by suggesting, with colorful language no less, that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired by their teams.

Progressives criticized Trump’s lack of presidential decorum, racial insensitivity, and disrespect of the players’ First Amendment rights—and the head of the NFL defended the players and rebuked the President for his tweet demanding the players be fired.

At the same time, declining attendance at NFL stadiums and lower ratings for televised games suggest that many Americans are unhappy with privileged athletes disrespecting the country’s flag.

Though anti-patriotism is having a cultural moment in the United States, disliking and disrespecting one’s own country is nothing new. The origins of modern anti-patriotism lie in the continuing influence of Marxism on Western culture.

Marxist and socialist political movements intrinsically disdain patriotism for several reasons. As a political theory that transcends nations and peoples, Marxism is the natural enemy of particular ethnic or national identities and loyalties.

GettyImages-692364608 Antifascist demonstrators burn a 'blue lives matter' flag during a protest on June 4, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Scott Olson/Getty I

These attachments create a “false consciousness” that obscures the true engine of history: the ownership of the means of production and the permanent conflict between workers and bosses.

Pride in the success and power of the British Empire, for example, distracted the ordinary worker from the oppression under which he suffered, and which forestalled the collective ownership of the economy, and the egalitarian utopia promised by Marxist theory.

The idea that patriotism camouflages the injustice of capitalism became increasingly widespread in England before World War I. In 1907, J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study influenced Vladimir Lenin’s 1916 Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism .

Hobson reduced Victorian imperialism to what he called “economic parasitism,” or the exploitation of the labor, resources, and markets of colonial peoples. War was the inevitable outcome of imperialism, as competing empires fought over control of foreign markets and resources.

The belief that World War I was driven by capitalist bosses and fought for the sake of patriotism and nationalism reinforced this interpretation. Loss of faith in the empire created a loss of faith in England.

By the 1930s, such attitudes of “unwarranted self-abasement,” as Winston Churchill called them, were common among the British intelligentsia. The newspaper cartoonist David Low created Colonel Blimp, a caricature of the blustering, xenophobic, patriotic imperialist.

The poet Wilfred Owen, who served in France during World War I and was killed a week before the armistice was signed, called patriotism “The Old Lie” in the most famous piece of literature to come out of the war, “Dulce et Decorum,” an ironic reference to the Roman poet Horace’s famous line, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

The popular writer H. G. Wells protested against the “teaching of patriotic histories” that promote a “poisonous war-making tradition,” and novelist J. B. Priestly called patriotism “a mighty force, chiefly used for evil.”

The influential Bloomsbury group of writers, artists, and intellectuals were instrumental in propagating such attitudes and making them status symbols of intellectual sophistication.

The draft-dodging Lytton Strachey attacked Victorian imperialist heroes like Florence Nightingale and General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in his 1917 book Eminent Victorians .

In 1939, as England was facing down Nazism, the novelist E. M. Forster epitomized this fashionable set of attitudes when he said, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend , I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” (emphases in original).

By 1941, anti-patriotism was so prevalent that socialist George Orwell wrote disapprovingly, “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.”

This animus against patriotism among the intellectual elite survived World War II, and became even more widespread in the postwar period. One factor was the left’s analysis of the war, which did not distinguish between the extreme ethno-nationalism of Nazism and fascism, and the liberal democratic nationalism that had destroyed those regimes.

Patriotism thus became associated with Hitler and Mussolini, who exploited it in order to gain support. Nationalism was redefined as diseased patriotism, as in Charles de Gaulle’s statement, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

Among leftists, patriotism has always been considered dangerous for another reason. Liberal democratic nations––especially the United States––were successful in achieving all of the social, economic, and political boons communism had promised but failed to deliver.

As French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote in 1957, leftists have “a grudge against the United States mainly because the latter had succeeded by means which were not laid down in the revolutionary code.

Prosperity, power, the tendency toward uniformity of economic conditions––these results have been achieved by private initiative, by competition rather than State intervention, in other words by capitalism, which every well-brought up intellectual has been taught to despise.”

The New Left that came to prominence in American universities in the sixties was the heir of these Marxist-inspired prejudices. The members of that movement discredited the old anti-communist liberals, who were seen as tools of a neo-imperialist “Amerikkka.”

Slogans like “My country right or wrong” and patriotic songs like country singer Merle Haggard’s “Fighting Side of Me”—with its refrain, “If you don’t like it leave it”—were reduced to caricatures of the common man’s bigotry and ignorance.

Burning the flag, resisting anti-communism, and mocking American history, religion and bourgeois mores became badges of honor and signs of cosmopolitan sophistication for artists, writers, and university scholars.

Meanwhile, Communist fellow travelers like the Hollywood Ten and traitors like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs became martyrs to rabid American jingoism in the eyes of the left. As in Orwell’s England, America’s cultural elite had become ashamed of its own nationality.

Despite the resurgence of patriotism with the election of Ronald Reagan and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fashion of anti-patriotism persisted. Even after the attacks on 9/11 and the short-lived habit of homeowners displaying American flags, some intellectuals and professors reflexively blamed the attacks on the United States and its neo-imperialist foreign policy sins. The bitter protests against the Iraq war reprised all of the clichés of American wickedness.

More than a decade later, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was ruthlessly criticized as a sign of incipient fascism—and his proclamation that January 20 was a National Day of Patriotic Devotion was declared “jingoistic” and a reflection of “darker motives” by a writer at Foreign Policy .

This skepticism of patriotism is no longer limited to intellectuals. A Gallup poll last year found that 52 percent of Americans were “extremely proud” to be American compared to 70 percent in 2003. For young people aged 18 to 29, 34 percent were extremely proud, compared to 60 percent in 2003.

As Gallup concluded, “Millennials’ greater reluctance than young adults before them to say they are extremely proud to be an American may also be a factor in the new low and, if so, could signal further declines in patriotism in the years and decades ahead.”

Any further decline of patriotism would have momentous implications for our country. As Hoover Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell has written, “One may of course live in a country parasitically, accepting all the benefits for which others have sacrificed––both in the past and in the present––without any notion of being required to do the same.

But once that attitude becomes general the country becomes defenseless against forces of either internal disintegration or external aggression. In short, patriotism and national honor cannot be reduced to simply psychological quirks, to which intellectuals can consider themselves superior, without risking dire consequences.”

Without feelings of affection for one’s distinct way of life, solidarity among citizens is weakened—and fighting, killing, and dying for that shared identity becomes less important.

Genuine patriotism does not require hating other countries or not criticizing our own. Self-criticism has been the intellectual dynamic of the West since Socrates. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

We should acknowledge our country’s flaws and mistakes, and seek to make it better. But we should also acknowledge that its ideals and virtues have created a political community worth loving and defending.

Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of nine books including Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization; Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta, and History in California; with Victor Davis Hanson, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age; Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide; and most recently The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America. His next book is titled Democracy's Dangers and Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama.

Join the Discussion