July 4th is about cookouts and fireworks — but also patriotism, at least in theory. It's a time in which Americans are supposed to celebrate their country's founding and successes. "Proud to be an American," and all that.
That kind of uncritical patriotism might be a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow, especially given 2017's political climate. Luckily, there are more sophisticated ways to understand "love of country" than uncritical endorsement of its history. Perhaps one of the best insights into the nature of a more sophisticated patriotism comes from Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in an essay titled "Is Patriotism a Virtue?"
MacIntyre argues that the answer to that question is a qualified yes, provided we understand patriotism in the right fashion. He sees patriotism as going beyond mere love of country or even willingness to criticize it, instead defining it as a core foundation of people's lives — a kind of grounding that allows us to be our best selves:
I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.
MacIntyre's patriotism is that it doesn't require you to fit into any kind of binary, either loving your country or hating it. It's about understanding the way in which you are bound to your country, the ways in which its prides and sins shape the way you relate to other people the world over. Absent a sense of connection to your own country — a sense of shared responsibility for what happens in your nation— it will be hard for you to live a fulfilling and moral life. Patriotism is less about celebration of government, then, than it is about caring for the people who you share your country with.
There's plenty to critique about MacIntyre's ideas. But the essay is thought-provoking and, at very least, worth a read between beers.