The highest form of patriotism

The culture of forbidding meaningful dissent has permeated into every aspect of life

The highest form of patriotism


uring the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s-1970s, the chant “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” entered the US political lexicon. Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the line in fact had an unknown origin. Since then, the quote has been a rallying cry for those opposing the official versions of truth in the US and elsewhere.

But how and why did disagreement and dissent come to be viewed as disloyal and unpatriotic? Before answering the question, we need to understand how the official definition of ‘patriotism’ is constructed. Concisely, patriotism is the love and devotion for one’s country. However, countries are abstract entities, and as such, they are represented by different symbols to different individuals and groups. For some, it would be the flag; for others, it would be the armed forces or great political leaders. Ideally, countries should be represented by the people who inhabit them. Whatever comes to represent the country becomes a sacred symbol.

A society tolerates dissent as long as it does not question the sacred symbol of patriotism—and there lies the problem. The sacred symbols of patriotism are not created in isolation from power. In a single-party state, the party becomes the symbol of the state because the party is the most powerful entity.

In North Korea, the embalmed bodies of the two dead leaders—the founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, and his son and successor Kim Jong II—are preserved in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace as eternal leaders of the country. The memorial cost North Korea approximately $100 million. Another half a million is spent yearly on maintaining the site and its eternal occupants. While 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and almost half the population experiences food scarcity, questioning the mausoleum would be tantamount to disloyalty.

In most cases, the debate surrounding dissent and patriotism is more convoluted than in the North Korean example. During the Iraq War, Geoffrey R Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago, was invited to the right-wing TV show, The O’Reilly Factor. Stone recounts that the topic of discussion communicated to him was: is dissent disloyal? When the professor agreed to appear on the show, he believed it was a fair question to begin a healthy conversation. However, just before the show, the host of the show reframed the question to: can an American who wants the United States to lose the war in Iraq be patriotic? In a country at war, with young people dying in battlefields half a world away, how else can one answer this question but to agree that such dissent would indeed be disloyal and unpatriotic?

Dissent is allowed in Pakistan. We can write articles. News anchors and analysts criticise the government. Politicians, from the opposition and the government are given airtime on TV. However, all dissent must be “within limits.” What are those limits? If you have lived in the country long enough, and are average intelligent, you instinctively know the limits without being able to define them. If you do not possess a clear idea of the delineation, like an electric fence, the limits of dissent will alert you violently of their presence.

The culture of forbidding meaningful dissent has permeated the boundaries of high politics, seeping into the everyday life of society. The mechanics of silencing dissent have ensured a culture of compliance with power. Our local leaders would endlessly talk about the oppressors of the old, Nimrod and Pharaohs being the usual targets. However, you would never hear them talk about anyone who holds power over them.

Expression of dissent from ethnic social movements and civil society tests the ideological boundaries of the state, and therefore, must be punished into silence. Opposition political parties must respect the power configuration as it stands. They should be content with competing for their slice of the pie, or they will soon battle extinction.

Democracy without allowing meaningful dissent is a sham. Democratic accountability starts with the ability to disagree. When dissent is stifled in the name of sedition, people are robbed of a version of the truth that could show the nation a different path. As John Stuart Mill says, the silencing of differing opinions presumes the infallibility of one’s own judgment. The assumption of the infallibility of the judgment of a group or an individual is a dangerous proposition, even if it is held with the best of intentions.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, we have silenced into submission most voices that called for a different state-society relationship. If ideological harmonisation and evening out of dissent could create a utopia, Pakistan would be it. Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, when we look around, we are hardly a model state that political scientists would swoon over to note how an exemplary society works.

With the new media, the dynamics of dissent have changed. The state has largely lost its monopoly over the flow of information. Sooner or later, we have to decide whether we give the people what is their right under the constitution, or that they exercise it regardless. Dissent cannot be a crime. In fact, if understood correctly, to stand for what you think is the best for your country and the people is the highest form of patriotism.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Peshawar. He can be reached at

The highest form of patriotism