On Being a Patriotic Skeptic | Vol. 3 / No. 50.2

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0

A recent discussion on r/skeptic about whether patriotism is something that we, as skeptics, should be skeptical of has had me thinking — and (as I think you’ve heard me say before once or twice) I think the dose makes the poison.

Patriotism is, I’ve decided, a lot like loving your family. But where loving your family is, say, a cup of morning coffee, patriotism is like the chemically-separated, concentrated, powdered caffeine you can buy in 500-pill bottles capable of killing a horse. They’re both forms of in-group favouritism, but one is a lot more dangerous than another.

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t apply your in-group love for family to a point where it’s unhealthy. Take half a dozen shots of family-love espresso in the morning and a Starbucks “Trenta” of it at lunch, and you might find your family life is a little more like the “family” life or life in some pretty objectively awful families. But that said, the amount of damage that can be done is somewhat limited to you and those near to you.


At least, comparatively.

See, love of country is a lot like a drug, in that the dose makes the poison. Having a little is like being proud of the things you and your compatriots (i.e. the people in your country with you) have managed to accomplish. But having a lot inevitably crosses over into thinking other people’s countries are worse, and both dosages carry with them a lot of cultural baggage.

Pride in what your country is and does is great, if you don’t imagine that only you get to decide “what your country is and does,” and don’t allow that pride to come between you and evidence that doesn’t support your assertions.

Take America. America is “number one in the world” at very few things these days. Not zero things, but few, and many aren’t very good. US News actually ranked Germany as the (beauty-queen-levels-of-subjectivity) “best country” this year, with Canada number two and the UK number 3 — though with the purchasing power of the pound dropping like a stone that last one will probably change next year. The US was number four. It was ranked as the most “powerful” country (which comes as little surprise with the world’s largest air force being the US Air Force and the world’s second largest air force being the US Navy), but on a number of other key indicators it fell rather shorter (quality of life was ranked 14th, for instance). It’s also definitely number one in the per capita number of its own citizens it incarcerates. It’s number one in per capita gun ownership (at 112.6 guns per 100 residents). It’s not the number one in incarcerations per capita anymore (Seychelles seems to beat it) but it’s a hell of a #2 with nearly 700 per 100,000 (for comparison, Canada is 114).

There are plenty of things Americans can be proud of — a booming space economy, great (if expensive as all-get-out) universities, the first and second biggest air forces (if you’re into that sort of thing) — those are based in fact. But too much patriotism, and you’ll start omitting the negatives, and there are plenty enough of them to keep everyone sober if they think about them pretty much at all. I mean there are still millions of Americans in danger of bankruptcy from illness because they aren’t insured, for one thing, and for another our allies just torched a funeral in Yemen and killed more than 140 people. America isn’t perfect. Nobody is.

Nobody’s number one in everything, and the majority aren’t number one at much of anything.

And really, that’s the point of skepticism, isn’t it? It’s a data-driven outlook on life that takes the facts and tries to formulate them into an understanding of the way things are. A skeptic can be proud of her country, but if she’s going to remain a skeptic, she’ll need to temper that with facts.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.