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What Is Patriotism and What Shall We Do With It? by Max Eastman (page three)

"War and the mere joy of existence are incompatible"


What Is Patriotism and What Shall We Do With It? by Max Eastman (page three)

Max Eastman (1883-1969)

Wars will arise between nations so long as the instinct of fighting loyalty is allowed to attach exclusively to nations. And as soon as, and in proportion as, we offer to that instinct larger groups to which it may attach, wars among nations will become less and less likely. We shall eliminate national war by international union, exactly as the wars of family and clan and city were eliminated by national union. That is all we can say. That is all we can do with a trait which is hereditary. We can not ignore it; we can not mortify it; we can not preach it away, we can not pray it away, and we can not even reason it away. It is there like a mouth which is bound to be fed. But we can feed it a slightly different food. We can offer it a different object to cling to.

The patriotism of the people in New England clings more firmly now to the United States, than it does to Massachusetts or Rhode Island, and a war between those two states is hardly conceivable. The longer the United States endures, the less likely does a war between the states become.

And yet what is the United States? An artificial institution that was created offhand, for the express purpose of absorbing a little of that excess colonial patriotism that was sure to make trouble.

Last summer a Frenchman asked me where I came from, and I said, "The United States," and he said, "Which United States? Say, why don't you people name your country?"

And that is just what we have tried to do; and by a happy accident, in our most patriotic moments, we call this artificial unit of loyalty--America. Why not make it America? I put it to you as a fact guaranteed by the science of psychology that if some intelligent person with power would take the first steps toward a federation of the American republics, it need not be fifty years before half of the patriotic devotion of all the people on this side of the world would be consecrated to the task of perpetuating it.

And though it seems gigantic, it is by no means a utopian undertaking to unite the whole world of nations in such a federation. For all the organic interests of men, except their sheer love of patriotic fighting itself, are against the perpetual recurrence of international war. War and the mere joy of existence are incompatible. War makes it impossible to live, and it makes it impossible even to die for a noble purpose. Let men but understand themselves, and the mechanism of their emotions by which they are brought into this perennial catastrophe, and they will be ready enough in the sober intervals to take gigantic measures to prevent it.

Max Eastman originally delivered "What Is Patriotism?" as a speech at Cooper Union in November, 1915, in a Conference on the Future Foreign Policy of the United States. It later appeared in his book Understanding Germany: The Only Way to End War, and Other Essays (Mitchell Kennerley, 1916).

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