About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

My country, right or wrong?

This phrase is often quoted in times of blind so-called patriotism and imperialistic nationalism. Yet, although the phrase itself is as old as it is stupid, few people who utter it seem to realize that its most famous incarnation is actually a rebuttal by Senator Carl Schurz back in 1872. The complete sentence is: “My country, right or wrong. In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” Schurz' biographer reports that the Senator's comment was greeted by a “deafening” applause, which clearly shows that members of that august body had more balls at the end of the 19th century than their counterparts at the beginning of the 21st.

Later on, on 17 October 1899, Schurz gave a speech at an event called the Anti-Imperialist Conference, in Chicago. Imagine anybody organizing such an event in today's America! Schurz elaborated on his original comment: “I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

Americans have come abysmally short of Schurz's expectations during the last five years. Perhaps the Democrats will muster some of Schurz's guts during the upcoming election, and reclaim the word patriotism from the mindless and dangerous idiocy Republicans have turned it into.


  1. Back in 1907 Mark Twain wrote, in "True Patriotism at the Children's Theater":

    "This chief point of importance relates to citizenship. Citizenship? We have none! In place of it we teach patriotism which Samuel Johnson said a hundred and forty or a hundred and fifty years ago was the last refuge of the scoundrel -- and I believe that he was right. I remember when I was a boy I heard repeated and repeated time and time again the phrase, 'My country, right or wrong, my country!' How absolutely absurd is such an idea. How absolutely absurd to teach this idea to the youth of the country....

    "Yet to-day in the public schools we teach our children to salute the flag, and this is our idea of instilling in them patriotism. And this so-called patriotism we mistake for citizenship; but if there is a stain on that flag it ought not to be honored, even if it is our flag. The true citizenship is to protect the flag from dishonor -- to make it the emblem of a nation that is known to all nations as true and honest and honorable. And we should forever forget that old phrase -- 'My country, right or wrong, my country!'

    "It may be that we must learn our lessons of citizenship on the East Side in the Children's Theater. There the true principles of true life which mean true citizenship are being taught to those boys and girls who are to be the future citizens of America. First of all they are taught self-respect and confidence. They are taught that the true motives of life are to reach for the highest ideals. The dramas that they play have morals that tend toward this aim. And best of all, they are taught to act for themselves and to think for themselves. It is this self-thinking that goes to make up the true public opinion. We say we have public opinion in America. We have none. We only think second hand. How many of us are there to-day who know whether it is better for the country to have a tariff or free trade? The only opinions most of us have on this subject are the opinions derived second hand from certain men who seek to influence us to their way of thinking, and their way of thinking is generally in a direction that will subserve their own private ends or the ends of the party which they represent. So, you see, we have no citizenship, and our so-called patriotism is a patriotism that is employed for the benefit of political parties and is made a party cry."

  2. Odd, I always thought the line sounded better as "my country, right and wrong." Glad to see others agree with the sentiment.

  3. Reminds me of Stephen Decatur..
    "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong"

  4. There is nothing wrong with patriotism.It goes hand in hand with citizenship.A citizen is a person who believes what the state stands for.

  5. The poster above is correct, the quotations "Most Famous" and first usage was by Stephen Decatur back in 1820.

    the Idea is not to love the flaws of one's home nation, but to love it DESPITE it's flaws, a trait that those who hold the phrase in such disdain often clearly lack.

  6. A true understanding of our country's history, and the meaning of Decatur's words are correctly stated by an "anonymous" = his/her History teacher did a fine job in it's explanation...I 'd bet it was in a public school too! About 30 years ago......not today..

  7. Get it straight. The original quote by Stephen Decatur included may she always be right. Obviously, anything done by man can be in error. The wisdom of the original quote recognizes that man can make mistakes. The beauty of the American system is that mistakes can be recognized and corrected. America is not a bad country. We are the most envied country in the world. Nobody risks death to get out, but they do risk death to get in.
    So, we must be doing something right in the eyes of the people of the world.



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