THE BLOG
09/08/2011 02:08 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

Patriotism vs. Nationalism in a Post 9/11 World

As we approach the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, every media source overflows with stories about 9/11 heroism and the lasting effects of that terrible day on our country. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, "it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." The anniversary marks another chapter in the healing of our nation.

The sense of pride permeating our culture in the days leading up to the anniversary is palpable, and while I share in the pride, I also feel cautious. Many in our country practice justified patriotism, but unfortunately, there are also those that ascribe to dumb, blind nationalism.

George Orwell described patriotism as the "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people." Conversely, he described nationalism as the feeling that your way of life, country, or ethnic group is superior to others and warned this feeling can lead a group to impose their way of life on others. In simple terms, patriotism is good, but nationalism is dangerous and can lead to war.

If you are proud of the troops defending this country, that is justified patriotism. If you wear red, white and blue pajamas to bed and every night before you go to sleep you yell out your window, "These colors don't run," that is dumb nationalism. Being proud of the lasting effects of the Bill of Rights on the world political landscape -- patriotism; believing a kid from Mexico named Miguel picking strawberries for 35 cents an hour is the reason the taxes on your house just increased -- dumb nationalism. Beaming during the singing of our national anthem -- patriotism; arguing that the act of helping people in need brings us one step closer to socialism -- dumb nationalism. I could go on and on, but I'll end with this example -- If you believe in freedom of religion but don't understand the irony behind your anger at a mosque being built near ground zero, then you are the number one culprit of dumb nationalism in 2011.

The intersection between patriotism and nationalism was at a forefront in the days following 9/11. I loved seeing all the flags flying and the spontaneous patriotic singing on 9/12. It made me proud to be American. Then on 9/13, my good friend, a practitioner of the Sikh faith who wears a turban to express his beliefs, was run off the road in his car and punched in the face without explanation. He wasn't even Muslim, but his dark skin made him a target for ignorance. I've never been more ashamed of my peers. The FBI reported that hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern origin or descent increased from 354 attacks in 2000 to 1,501 attacks in 2001. Not one of those can be justified as patriotism. They were all a product of dumb nationalism.

Several months ago I was talking to a stranger in a bar in Indiana. Our conversation turned to the situation in the Middle East and he postulated, "Muslims are everything that's wrong with the world today." I respectfully disagreed. While I strongly disagree with the conservative practices of Islamic states, we should be angry about fundamentalism not Islam. Fundamentalism is the celebration of extremism and fanaticism. As Winston Churchill said, "a fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

Unfortunately, fundamentalists exist in every faith, Christianity included. The people of the Westboro Baptist Church may not kill people, but they spread a lot of hate with signs that read things like "Thank God for dead soldiers." If we keep lumping all Muslims together, then we keep practicing dumb nationalism.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century spawned the concept of nationalism. Before the American Revolution, there was no concept of "America". We existed as individual colonies and identified ourselves as Virginians, New Yorkers, etc., not as Americans. It wasn't until we were faced with a common enemy in the British that we bandied together and began formulating a national identity. I've experienced similar phenomena when I try to approach a group of girls in a bar only to watch them join forces and expel the common enemy, me. My favorite example of dumb nationalism is the song "Yankee Doodle" whose chorus includes the lyrics "stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni." The British actually wrote that song and sang it to make fun of the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Macaronis were fashionable British men who dressed and spoke in an affected, epicene manner. In the song Yankee Doodle, the British were saying that colonists were so dumb we'd stick a feather in our hat and believe it made us the height of fashion. Instead of being angry, we were filled with so much dumb national pride we said, "That's a catchy tune! Let's teach it to every second grader in America from here on out."

The Yankee Doodle example is hilarious, but too many examples of dumb nationalism are scary and dangerous. America helped found dumb nationalism, now let's rise above it. Let's make our country better -- that's the best memorial we can give to the victims of 9/11 on this anniversary weekend.