My more libertarian-minded FaceBook acquaintances seem to have the habit of catching a whole lot of heat for inflammatory posts on days like this. I can't beat them up too much for it; God knows I've said some things that have probably pissed more than a few people off. There are surely better ways to affect some sort of outreach, but that's not really what I mean to focus on here.
In some of the comments on one particular thread that was ignited tonight there was some sparring over what patriotism means. And, depending on how any given person referenced the term, about any normative statement made sent everyone else reeling. It became clear pretty quickly that the definition of the word was contested, and, being that no one was interested in defining terms, it's continued to escalate in a pretty dismal way.
In any case, I noticed no less that five different (general) ways in which patriotism was invoked:
1. Patriotism as fealty to people.
2. Patriotism as fealty to culture.
3. Patriotism as fealty to ideology.
4. Patriotism as fealty to (rehabilitatable) government.
5. Patriotism as fealty to the nation-state (in all ventures).
I put these in order from most agreeable to least (for me, of course). And I believe the initial poster was being critical of patriotism as it pertains to #5 and perhaps #4. But the people who were pissed off (mostly conservatives and minarchists) had some variant of #1-4 in mind. Those with #1-3 in mind tried very hard to detach patriotism from the government of the United States of America. But, of course the context of each particular invocation could not be more glaring; the boundaries of these seemingly distinct fealties are all mysteriously very geopolitical.
So you take pride in or swear your allegiance to people. Good for you. But when you're using the word patriotism, specifically, you're not talking about Iranian people, or Chinese people, or Mexican people. No, when you're "patriotic" about "people" you mean to say you're "patriotic" regarding Americans - or, rather, citizens of the United States of America. The same seems to hold true with patriotism in the context of culture, ideology, and government itself. It doesn't seem like we're being pulled to feel patriotism for any one of these things based on specific qualities of each - as surely we are able to find such qualities in different places all over the world. And, yet, we don't feel such associations with them.
Indeed, even within our own nation we do not find uniformities regarding these items. To the extent that there is any real unifying theme to be had among these items, it really does seem to be the banner under which such allegiance is held; an allegiance to the nation itself. So while I can sympathize with trying to divorce the concept of patriotism from the government itself (particularly when you find yourself out of favor with its current incarnation), it does seem like it's the common denominator. And beyond the cognitively dissonant recognition of the flag's prominence in state formalities (from the flagpoles of every public office to the fabric of state-endorsed uniforms), we need look no further than the words of the Pledge of Allegiance itself - a picture of which started the whole FaceBook kerfuffle to begin with:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation..."
Of course, that's not to say that Bellamy's terse verse excludes anything more inclusive. But it's hard to look at this pledge we take (most notably as children in those wonderfully government-centric institutions we call public schools) and think it's silly that people would think of patriotism or allegiance in terms of the nation-state. There's at least some level of folly in denying what seems so obvious on some level.
Nevertheless we're treated to what seems like an almost self-excusing conflation of terms. It's almost as if we find refuge in these more ambiguous meanings because we want to believe that the nation (the state) was and can still be more in line with what we wish; as if it's a way to escape losing some kind of traditional pride. In it's own quaint way, it's almost a self-enforced excuse machine for the state itself as well. I mean sure, the United States is killing lots of innocent people around the world and encroaching on liberties here at home as well, but that's not important! What's important is this specific set of ideas I like (which only some people share) that was instituted before by one administration or another or could be instituted in the future if we're lucky enough!
You see, there's the REAL America and then there's the not-so-real America. The REAL Americans are people X; the REAL American culture is culture X; the REAL American ideal is ideal X; and the REAL American style of government is government X. To the extent that thing Y isn't thing X, thing Y isn't American. So all the horrible stuff that the government or its people engage in - not American! It's something else altogether. So while you criticize America for Y and Z, it's important for you to understand that America is actually X. YOU DO NOT CRITICIZE X!!!
That really does seem to be how silly things have gotten. In a lot of ways, it's similar to some of the arguments rendered about the Constitution from the orginalist crowd. When confronted with half of Spooner's argument, that the Constitution has failed because it's allowed for all the bad laws and policy thus far, defenders will often retort that the Constitution didn't fail, that simply some of us had failed it. But given the purpose of the Constitution, you're just reiterating the damning evidence! You can retreat to saying something like what the founders intended in it was good, or the particular interpretation that I have of it is good, but that doesn't erase how it is actually being used (or misused)!
This is how some of us feel with regards to self-proclaimed "patriots". You can narrow your definition of this nation or it's governance to whatever you believe to be right or just, and simply view everything else as a coup. If your definition of the United States is just whatever portion of it is in compliance with your ideals, I can't stop you. But I can think it's silly. And I can think that your choice to use these broad national terms to describe a very particular subset of said nation is not only misleading but functionally apologetic. In trying to steal the national rhetoric to distinguish that which you believe to be good you seem to do little more than excuse the things you actually detest.