We’re long overdue to start looking at some commonly used expressions to see if they are heavily laden with meaning, or are ultimately meaningless. I call the procedure of putting these sayings under the microscope axiometry, a term I invented a few years back:
Axiom: “A rule or principle that many people accept as true.”-metry: “Art, process, or science of measuring.”
For Part VII, I’d like to look at a phrase and an idea that has been a part of the American lexicon for a long time . . . for as long as there’s been an America, some might say, and that is Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Except our third President is never confirmed to have said this. Although it is the kind of thing Thomas Jefferson could plausibly have said, and is a statement he likely would have believed, we need to recognize that accuracy matters. The first known usage of this phrase was in a 1961 publication called The Use of Force in International Affairs:
If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism?
Howard Zinn also gets credited for this saying, but screw that guy.
In any event, this statement has become a rallying cry to Americans of all types who oppose what their government does. Let’s see if the idea behind this statement 1) makes sense and 2) is actually any good.
There isn’t much need to over-explain this particular saying, so ingrained is it in the American psyche. So without further ado, on with the axiometry!
Patriots love their country. Patriots do what is good for their country, and what their country asks them to. Before figuring out if dissent really is the highest form of patriotism, we need to understand what “patriotism” is. Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It is true that tough love is a form of love, and that dissent could be thought of as tough love, is that really the highest form of patriotism? Wouldn’t doing what your country wants be the highest form of patriotism?
Obviously, we don’t want citizens to be mind-numbed robots blindly doing what they’re told. But if your country is in a crisis and needs you to help out or sacrifice or even refuse to badmouth it to foreigners, you do it. That’s the “highest form of patriotism,” not opposing what your country is doing.
Don’t support a war your country is involved in? Patriots don’t undermine the war effort. Patriots don’t refuse to fight when called upon. Dislike the current President? The highest form of patriotism is to deal with it until the next election. Patriots don’t riot in the street or physically attack those who do support the current President. Patriots love their country and their fellow countrymen no matter what.
And if you do oppose what your country is doing, guess what? There are ways to register your displeasure that don’t involve standing in direct opposition and working towards thwarting what your nation is doing. After all, elected representatives put into place via a democratic process received more votes than your preferred candidate–what right do you have to stop what a majority of your countrymen want? Who’s to say what you think should be done is better than what is being done, anyway? Nobody said that this is the United States of You. Stop being so arrogant. Don’t like the direction your country is going? Get more people to vote the way you think it should go and follow the processes. That’s more patriotic than dissent.
Anyway, these days the definition changes depending on who the current occupant of the Oval Office is. How hypocritical!
When the chips are down, your homeland is all you’ve got. Love it. Defend it. Cherish it. Nurture it. And don’t conflate opposing it with loving it.
“My country, right or wrong” is how nations such as the United States get into horrible, unwinnable quagmires like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Blind devotion is not the highest form of patriotism, because that would mean body bags full of needlessly dead soldiers and trillions of wasted dollars equate to a higher degree of devotion to one’s country than stopping the bad thing from happening in the first place.
Every society needs people who will stand up and say “No” when bad things are happening. These bad things are bad for THE COUNTRY. Dissidents don’t get a charge out of their dissent for the mere sake of being different. A contrarian sometimes has a point, after all. Very often, that point is that if someone truly loved their country, i.e., was a PATRIOT, they’d want to STOP it from going down a bad road. You’d do the same for a family member or friend about to embark on a destructive path, right? Why wouldn’t you do the same thing for your country?
And whether a majority of your country thinks this destructive path is the right one is beside the point. Just because a thing is popular doesn’t make it good or right. The question posed by the originator of this phrase is whether dissent is the highest form of patriotism when your country is doing something practically and morally wrong. In light of this context, dissent would be the most patriotic action of all.
Dissent is contextually the highest form of patriotism. It isn’t the de facto highest form of patriotism. If I may indulge in some lawyer-speak, the validity of this particular axiom is one of those “It depends . . .” issues.
And no, that doesn’t mean it depends on whether the people in charge are your party or not.
I’m old enough–and observant enough–to remember that all the hardcore dissidents from the years 2000 to 2008 suddenly wanted Americans to respect the dignity of the office of the president no matter who it was, pull together, and be good patriots who do what the government says once January 21, 2009 rolled around. What changed?
I’m also old enough to remember when the same people literally rioting in the streets from 2016 to 2020 suddenly decided they wanted all Americans to come together right around November 4 or so.
Anyway . . .
Claiming that dissent is the highest form of patriotism no matter what is cloaking yourself with smug, unearned moral superiority in an attempt to justify your seditious position that you, personally, believe. But claiming that dissent is the highest form of patriotism when your country is doing something evil is actually pretty accurate. Of course, this opens up another whole host of questions one must seriously consider if “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” is elevated from a sanctimonious platitude to an actual valid principle, and that is defining good and evil.
If there is some sort of generally agreed-upon standard of what is good for a country versus what is not, what is right for a country and what is wrong, then we can get into a serious discussion of dissent being the highest form of patriotism when one’s country is embarking on the wrong or evil path. Otherwise, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” is just the inverse of the equally brain-dead assertion of “my country, right or wrong.”
Of course, these days any agreed-upon standard of right or wrong is impossible to find. To get into an America-specific reason, that’s what happens when you are not a cohesive nation with a cohesive culture, but are instead a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith conglomeration held together by the threat of force. Religious principles used to be the bedrock that held cultures and nations together, and with these religious principles came an immutable set of standards. Here in the West, what used to be called Christendom, Christian morals filled this role, and all laws were derived from these Chrsitian principles. If a king or other noble was acting counter to the teachings of Christ, the people could rise up and point to this fact and credibly claim that opposing their nation was actually patriotic because in opposing a nation that was acting counter to God’s law they would in fact be upholding God’s law, and there are fewer forms of patriotism greater than that.
Obviously, Islamic principles play this role for a billion or so people on Earth. I’d imagine that Hinduism does as well.
In lieu of that, especially in America where we’re told that all religions are equally valid, except for Christianity, which is the worst, we have no standard save for what is legal. And what is legal doesn’t always mean right or good.
Legal can also be magically changed if fifty-percent-plus-one want it to change, or if five-out-of-nine unelected wizards in black robes mystically declare it to be. That’s how you get abortion on demand, endless wars, crime, rampant drug use, ubiquitous pornography, dubious authoritarian measures to combat a disease with a 99% survival rate, and govermnets that lie, cheat, and steal in order to enrich its members at the expense of everybody else they just pretend to like in order to give their reign a patina of legitimacy.
Whew, that’s a lot of rancor, isn’t it? But it’s true.
Final Recommendation: Only use this phrase in its original context, which is when one’s nation is doing something morally wrong. Dissent is the HIGHEST form of patriotism if you actually have a standard of right and wrong to compare it to. I suppose a lot of the conflict we see within the United States is over what this standard will be.
That said, given how utterly horrible the ruling American political/media/industrial class is and what it’s trying to do to us, I wonder at the type of person who would actually be a patriot these days.