Bryan Caplan  

Patriotism as Political Correctness: The Conquest of America

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I scorn political correctness in all its forms - and its most widespread and successful form is patriotism.  Think about it: Schools take millions of kids, then endlessly tell them they all belong to the same glorious blameless imaginary community.  Any child who thinks otherwise - who insists that his so-called "fellow Americans" are mere strangers with no special claim on his time or affection - is a pariah.  The patriotism of political correctness is so powerful that only a few iconoclasts treat it as controversial.

The good news: Contrary to most of its avowed foes, political correctness isn't as bad as it used to be.  When I was a kid, I saw this video - "Elbow Room" - dozens of times on t.v.  It first aired in 1976 for the bicentennial.  Don't read any irony into it, for there is none.

And just for fun, count the total number of Indians who appear.






COMMENTS (16 to date)
Daniel Fountain writes:

I don't think patriotism falls under the realm of political correctness. I think political correctness is a subset of patriotism. To expand:

Political correctness relies on identifying a group and then taking care not to offend any subset of that group. If patriotism were a form of political correctness then the group in question would have to be unconstrained, i.e. the world. This would mean disparaging remarks against foreigners would be politically incorrect (but it's not considered so in usage) and this presents a contradiction of definitions and usage.

However if political correctness is a subset of patriotism, then the group in question becomes citizens/legal residents of the country. As such disparaging remarks against foreigners (regardless of how poor) are not considered politically incorrect, but disparaging remarks against poor citizens is.

Put another way, unconditional patriotism means not offending fellow citizens, which is how people generally implicitly define political correctness in usage. Unconditional political correctness relies on not offending anyone, anywhere, which is not what people seem to care about.

E. Harding writes:

"I scorn political correctness in all its forms - and its most widespread and successful form is patriotism. Think about it: Schools take millions of kids, then endlessly tell them they all belong to the same glorious blameless imaginary community. Any child who thinks otherwise - who insists that his so-called "fellow Americans" are mere strangers with no special claim on his time or affection - is a pariah."
-Oh, God! I don't even want to remember how many times teachers lectured students (mostly goof-offs worthless ones) that sniggering amongst each other while the Pledge was on was extraordinarily disrespectful to Our Troops, who Defend Our Freedom in lands abroad, and every bit of their life was due to their service.

Njnnja writes:

I'm not sure you understand what a community is. It is a construct that can be as big or as small as the community is able to enforce. So the fact that the "American community" can make a pariah of someone who denies their membership in it means that it is, in fact, a community. Only if it were not able to make a pariah of the community denier would it be "imaginary."

Robert H. writes:

I think reforming patriotism beats rejecting it. Patriotism doesn't have to mean radically discounting the welfare of foreigners. I try to be patriotic the same way I am a sports fan: it's fine to irrationally support the Cowboys (or Eagles, or whomever) over other teams, but that doesn't mean you would say "oh, I'm an Eagles fan. I have no problem with firebombing dallas."

The alternative, just eliminating "irrational" tribalism based on accidents of birth, history, and culture, sounds like one of those Marxist experiments in social engineering that sound good but don't work.

MikeDC writes:

But we libertarians largely believe in government as a contract between individuals.

And to secure a contract of that sort, you need some affection and shared expectations. I can be a stranger with the guy I contract to mow my lawn, because if he doesn't do his job, then I just hire someone else.

On the other hand, if the people I contract with to define and enforce my property rights have no more than a stranger's consideration for me, I'm in considerably worse shape.

IVV writes:

Chef, from South Park: "You can't make fun of an American for being black, brown, or whatever, but you can make fun of foreigners, because they're from another country."

My very foreign and very white wife laughed for hours from that one sentence alone.

guthrie writes:

I remember that Schoolhouse Rock short. I also remember bringing it up to my father who looked at me and said 'That's what the Soviet Union says to justify their invasion of other countries' (I believe this was before their invasion of Afghanistan). I was surprised at the time, but it certainly makes much more sense now.

Think of the pioneers as illegal aliens.

If I were a nativist, the preceding sentence would have been sarcasm. It's not.

Richard writes:
Think of the pioneers as illegal aliens.

The term "illegal alien" has no meaning without sovereign territories and laws. It's like saying the pioneers behaved in a way that was "unconstitutional" when there was no written constitution.

E. Harding writes:

@Joseph
-That leads to some pretty strongly nativist conclusions.

Nathan Smith writes:

I think it's cool to put a history lesson in a song like this.

However, the "elbow room" theme is a bit misguided. Land scarcity isn't an important constraint on the flourishing of most people almost anywhere in the world.

That said, it was more of a binding constraint on prosperity in pre-industrial times.

Jameson writes:
"I'm not sure you understand what a community is."
Yep, that's pretty much the most glaring weakness in all of Bryan Caplan's political thought.

On whether patriotism is a form of political correctness, I just don't think that's how the term is commonly used. Today we think of "political correctness" as scrutinizing what you say so as not to offend historically oppressed or disadvantaged groups. Americans as a whole cannot possibly be considered one of those groups, though certain groups of Americans can.

Ron writes:

Ultimately fails as an argument, but it is always worthwhile to think about the nature, costs and benefits of patriotism.

It's easy for us insular, provincial Americans to downplay our American identity. It doesn't enter into our daily lives that much except maybe when arguing foreign policy or immigration online. But try going overseas for a while and ignoring your American identity. You cannot. Your treatment by everyone you encounter will be determined by it. This will hardly be altered by how patriotic you consider yourself to be.

SaveyourSelf writes:

"Any child who thinks otherwise - who insists that his so-called "fellow Americans" are mere strangers with no special claim on his time or affection - is a pariah."


This sentence made me laugh till I cried. Part of it is that I think it is true. The other part was picturing an 8 year old describing other people as, "strangers with no special claim on his time or affection..."

HA! I still can't stop laughing :)

Adam writes:

Isn't the German word for "elbow room" Lebensraum?

YS writes:

Patriotism is not so much about political correctness as it is about conformism and social norm enforcement/ostracism.

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