Patriotism–What is it? How can we Measure it?

As budding “social scientists” (the scare quotes are legitimate), it is good form to not only define concepts that are malleable but also to provide qualitative and/or quantitative evidence regarding their existence. A recent brouhaha in American politics centers around the political concept patriotism. What is it? How do we know it exists? Can it be measured? These are all important questions, so important, in fact, that they could determine the outcome of the next US presidential election.

In intro to comparative, we’ve been analyzing social identities, ethnic, national, etc. As we know from reading O’Neil, patriotism is based on the idea of citizenship–an individual’s relationship to the state in which s/he lives. O’Neil defines patriotism as “pride in one’s state.”

As near as I can tell, some opponents of Barack Obama’s candidacy have based some of their resistance on what they view as his lack of patriotism. If I’m reading this correctly, the base their argument on the fact that Obama does not (in fact, may even refuse to) wear a lapel pin in the shape of an American flag. This is interesting since it also touches upon issues of national identity; remember that we tried to determine just what is meant to be American. Does one have to wear an American flag lapel pin to be considered patriotic? If any of you think that this is an issue of negligible import, I refer you to this screen shot of the CNN website:


Given that I’m not a citizen of the United States, I’ll leave that for others to answer. I am, however, a citizen of the Republic of Croatia and this episode does remind me of an incident from the mid 1990s, which I, then working for the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, witnessed. Join me after the jump.

hrvatska-zastava.jpgThe Croatian flag is a tri-color, with horizontal fields of red, white, and blue (from top to bottom), which contains the coat of arms–the “Šahovnica“–in the middle field. The šahovnica has been used in various guises throughout Croatian history as a symbol of Croatian nationhood. While Croats have lived under many different types of regime–Communist Yugoslavia, the Fascist Ustasa regime during WWII, the unitarist, Serb-dominated inter-war regime, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (you get the point!)–the šahovnica has remained a constant expression and symbol of the Croatian people.

The wars of Yugoslav secession during the 1990s caused not only untold bloodletting and suffering, it led to a reorganization of the structural demography in that part of the world. An “unmixing of peoples” (to use Rogers Brubaker’s phrase) transpired, with regions becoming more homogeneous ethnically than they had been before the war began. Ethnic Serbs had historically been a majority in much of the Croatian municipality of Hrvatska Kostajnica (Serbs comprised 63% of the population in 1991, while the 2001 census lists Croats as having a 77% majority). Upon the start of hostilities in 1991, Serb forces took control of Hrvatska Kostajnica and maintained effective control until the Croatian military operation “Storm” in August, 1995 returned the area under Croatian sovereignty. The concomitant forced mass exodus of Serb residents (mainly to Bosnia, but also to Serbia itself) was followed by the usurpation of their property by re-settled ethnic Croats, who had themselves been forced out of their ancestral homes in the Posavina region of Bosnia by the Serb authorities there.

In the summer of 1998, by which time the displaced Bosnian Croats had been living in (mostly) Serb houses for approximately three years, a group of Serbs tried to return to, and reclaim, their homes via a United Nations-sponsored refugee return program. This led to protests and a violent reaction on the part of (a subset of) the recently arrived Bosnian Croats, who feared that they would be homeless and also knew that they would be unlikely to be allowed back to their own homes in the (now) Serb-controlled part of Bosnian Posavina. A group of Bosnian Croats attacked the homes of ethnic Serbs (those who it was believed had returned) and it left the few returnee Serbs cowering in their homes fearing for their lives.

Our organization was quickly notified of these events, and late the next day a few of us made the two-hour trip to the area in order to try to help calm things down and also to report on any human rights violations that had occurred.

As our car made its way along the last portion of the two-lane road into the municipality of Hrvatska Kostajnica, I noticed that every house we passed had a Croatian flag prominently displayed at the front of the house. What was more noteworthy was that the red of the flag had bled onto the white field below as a result of the previous evening’s rain shower. That meant that these flags had just been put up; in other words, these flags were not the signs of an overtly patriotic populace, but that of a group terrified that their home would be the next one targeted for violence by the unruly mob. Thus, these ethnic Croats, who had been forced from their ancestral homes in Bosnia and found refuge “amongst their own” in Croatia, were not confident enough in the protection afforded by the newly democratic institutions of the Croatian state, but had to hope that their physical protection (from their own people) could be won through the instrumentally cynical display of the Croatian flag.