On Patriotism


1. The False Religion of Patriotism
2. Love of Country
3. Humanity and the Nation State

1. The False Religion of Patriotism

George Bernard Shaw once famously remarked that patriotism was the conviction that one's country was superior to all others, simply because one was born in it. Strictly speaking, of course, patriotism is the love of one's country, and a person may love his country without necessarily thinking it superior. But truth be told, it generally does involve precisely such feelings.

Man is a social animal, and has coalesced in groups of one form or another throughout the ages, with loyalties to tribes and clans, city states, religions and ethnic groups. The modern nation state is a fairly new innovation, and its viability depends to some extent on a shared identity and loyalty to the polity. The problem arises when patriotism is raised to high principle, when it becomes an orthodoxy.

There are several problems with partiotism. The first relates to the typical notion of superiority. The sense of identity essential to a deeply felt and passionate partiotism relies upon differentiation with the cultures and the social realities of other states. It depends on the judgment that we are better than them. This typically involves natiaonalistic mythologizing, which is a form of self-deception, and at the end of the day the entire belief system is irrational - just as all gods cannot be the one true god, so all states cannot be superior to all the others.

This nationalistic sense of superiority, and corresponding denegration and discounting of the rights of the peoples of other nations, creates the conditions in which conflict is so much more likely. It is so easily manipulated by those in power to drag the nation into war. Goering understood this well.

Second, as patriotism becomes an increasing orthodoxy, it entirely stifles the political discourse and debate so necessary to democracy. "My country, right or wrong" forecloses discussion. Any criticism of policy is attacked and suffocated as being unpatriotic. Consider the atmosphere in the U.S.A. shortly after 9/11, when the few people who tried to ask questions about the "root causes" for the attack were utterly vilified. Bill Maher was almost fired for an 'unpatriotic' comment. Even in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the few who questioned the wisdom or legality of the war, were marginalized.

Third, once mobilized, patriotism begins to become self-perpetuating in a society. Like a religion, it becomes entrenched, working its way ever more deeply into the fabric of the culture, and develops into dogma. It can become ludicrous. Consider the issue of Barak Obama being chastized over not wearing an American flag lapel pin during the campaign - to the point that he ended up feeling compelled to wear one.

So when governments begin taking steps to consciously cultivate and foster increased patriotism, we should be concerned. Japan, for instance, revised its Basic Law on Education a few years ago, to make the inculcation of patriotism a primary and concrete objective of the education system. And so, the descendents of the Sun Goddess, just like the Master Race of Aryans, the people of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, and the Han peoples of the Middle Kingdom, to name but a few, can learn that they are really superior to everyone else. That never leads anywhere good. - Gamma.

2. Love of Country

I hate Nazis too. Most of us do. Really. They were very bad. But seeing them and all the other ills of modern life as an emanation of patriotism is a little simplistic. Even for you. It is sort of like blaming love for domestic abuse.

The world is replete with examples of people who have been gulled into all sorts of folly in the name of patriotism. And religion. Or race or ethnicity. But these perversities do not mean that the love of one's country or god or people should be swept away. These attachments or modes of socialization are a necessary part of our evolutionary make-up. We just ain't human without them.

And, like it or not, these attachments serve a purpose. A shared past and a shared sense of the present helps shape a shared vision of the future. It is true that the misuse of patriotism in China saw the horrors of the cultural revolution but more recently it has seen hundreds of millions people elevated from desperate poverty. It also shaped the process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa and it helped topple the iron curtain.

I am embarrassed by my country's current foreign policy. From the abandonment of Canadian citizens in foreign jails to its stand on climate change to its indifference about passing Taliban prisoners to be tortured. My discomfort is not simply that these things are wrong and illegal. It is is wrapped up in my pride of country. Canada has a long tradition of being a strong and vocal player on the international stage. Our retreat into weakness offends my love of country deeply. I may not resort to calling the current government unpatriotic yet, but I reserve it as an option.

I also confess to some ambivalence about allowing dual citizenship and I support encouraging immigrants to learn English or French and to learn something about the people who built this country. It works both ways - I should learn about the people who will shape its future. I support immigration almost without restriction. But being Canadian should have some definition and normative edges. It should represent a broadly held set of values. I recognise that there are dangers in this, but it is risk that offers some rewards. It is a path to vitality and strength.

So, while I agree that American flag pins and Japanese textbooks can cause mischief and harm, I do not agree that the love of country is the problem. Just because it can be exploited or counterfeited does not mean that it does not have value. - Beta

3. Humanity and the Nation State

It is unfortunate that my friend has chosen to tilt at straw men rather than grapple with my argument. The problem of Nazis and "all the other ills of modern life as an emanation of patriotism"?! I argued no such thing, nor even did I deny that patriotism has some value. The argument was simple and straightforward - patriotism relies upon a sense of superiority that can create hostility and conflict; it stifles internal debate; it is a self-perpetuating meme within a culture; and therefore we should be concerned when governments try to mobilize and exploit it. Beta addresses none of these.

But he does make an assertion that is insupportable - that love of country is one of those "modes of socialization" that is necessary to our very humanity. This cannot be right. Now, I conceded in my own argument that man is a social animal, for which the loyalties to various groups and collective entities have been crucial throughout history. That is certainly part of our evolutionary make-up, as Beta asserts. But there is no basis for arguing that the nation-state, the "country" of our times, is an entity to which we must develop such "love" in order to fully express our humanity.

The territorial state is a modern innovation, emerging in the 17th century, and the nation-state newer still. It was not until the 19th century that a true sense of nationalism developed, and was deliberately mobilized by statesmen. And by nationalism here I mean the understanding that the political entity of the territorial state, and the culturally distinct people or nation that inhabit it, are and ought to be congruent. We have only lived in such nation-states for some 150 years, and the fact is that we have lived without the modern sense of patriotism for most of our history.

Of course, as any casual reader of Shakespeare will attest, there has been love and loyalty for other political and social entities. My point is that we could be just as human, derive our collective sense of past, present and future, by mobilizing a sense of affection, loyalty, and common bond, for some more cosmopolitan conception than the nation state. The nation-state relies to some degree on a certain level of patriotism, but our humanity most surly does not depend upon love of the nation-state. - Gamma.

The Year it All Changed


2. 2001

1. 1989

In this article in yesterday's New York Times, there is a discussion about the problem with using ammunition designed to pierce Soviet body armor to fight Taliban soldiers. Apparently these old schoolbullets don't do the same degree of damage on men in threadbare cotton and wool. They just pass right through. A number of thoughts run flicker across the mind, but front and centre is: Soviet body armor? Really? Isn't that war over?

I know it is. I remember it ending. I was almost there.

Twenty years ago, in 1989, I was a high-school dropout in the process of developing a bad substance abuse problem, a bad attitude and participating in some bad career choices. Desperate for a change, I made plans to travel. Europe on $25 a day was still possible. For reasons that are lost within the whirlpools of a fading memory (see substance abuse problem above), I decided that I wanted to start in Germany. My plan was to leave at the beginning of November and visit the Berlin wall.

It was a very odd year. At the time it was hard to get perspective but it definitely felt like the world was waking up from a slumber. In hindsight, it was a full-fledged chaos of historic proportions - the world was awakening from the dead.

By the end of May of that year, Reagan was gone, Hirohito was dead, the last Soviet troops had left Afghanistan, cold fusion had been discovered, Solidarity had been legalised and the Goddess of Democracy had appeared in Tiananmen Square. In June, the devastating news about the massacre in Beijing was tempered by the optimism of elections in Poland and growing freedoms in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By the end of summer, massive demonstrations in the Baltic States and the collapse of Hungarian border with Austria and East Germany were creating seismic rumblings.

And then, in November, it all just collapsed. At the beginning of the month there was an iron curtain, a Berlin wall and a cold war and by the end there was a new Europe. Everything that had defined the previous fifty years was gone. Poof.

I just could not get my act together and make it to Germany. I could see what was happening. I wanted to be there. But I just could not process it fast enough. Instead of standing in the middle of it all in Berlin, I spent my winter slinging bad, grey steaks at a grey, bad steak restaurant. The tumult of it all froze me out.

In the intervening 20 years, I have often wondered if my own paralysis is not a telling metaphor for the geopolitical stasis that followed. America, in hindsight, was simply not ready for the consequences of victory. Without a Soviet counterpart, they lost their way. Alternatingly, trying too hard to be the only global superpower or not trying hard enough. A certain ennui set in. Then arrogance. Then hubris. Then folly. And more folly. And more folly. Did I mention folly?
I like to think that I have caught up to events. That I have moved on. I shook myself out of the torpor that had plagued me. I have given up fatties for fattoi. I got my degree. Then another. I work for a living. I do alright. I make my own way.

But, if the truth be told, sometimes I catch my eye in the mirror and wonder what might have been. Or, worse, I am distracted with a nostalgia for that much simpler time when the choices I had to make were, in so many ways, an accurate reflection of who I really was.

Maybe I am not alone. Maybe that explains the ammunition in the M-16s. - Beta

2. 2001

In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Cold War ended, and famously, history came to an end. Liberal democracy and its free-market capitalist system had triumphed, and so history had reached its ultimate objective.

Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way. President George Bush Senior announced a New World Order, but it quickly became a messy and more complicated world. History somehow kept marching on. It is perhaps true, as Beta suggests, that America was "not ready" for victory. But another take on this is that Americans, and indeed people generally, are not ready for complexity and randomness in the system. And what we have seen more recently is an illustration of two related and old truths.

First, we like stable and grand struggles of good versus evil. It helps to define us. Ever since we created God and Satan, we have ordered our world in this way - and then engaged in heroic crusades against infidels. These crusades have been horrific, leading to endless misery and suffering, but they nonetheless imposed a stability on our external relations, provided a self-righteous sense of our own identity, even provided a false basis for a nobleness of purpose. Whether it be the Persians, the Mohammadins, the Mongolian hordes, heathen savages, fuzzy wuzzy Zulus, the Frogs, the Hun, the Nips, the Gooks, the Commies, or the Klingons - we always need a "them" opposed to our "us".

When the wall fell and the Cold War ended, we were confronted with a messy complex world with no enemy to give it order, direction, purpose. We drifted. We looked for new enemies - Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler, but he just wasn't really up for the job.

But we didn't have to wait too long. Just twelve years actually - half a generation. With a terrorist attack on a beautiful summer day in 2001, we were back in business. George Junior could jettison Dad's New World Order, and direct all the energy of the United States towards creating a new world dichotomy. Communism, which had replaced Fascism, could now be replaced with Islamic Fundamentalism (or, Islamofascism for those who understood neither).

And so we are still in the midst of two wars commenced as part of that crusade. And herein lies the second old truism, one also alluded to by Beta. It is captured in the aphorism "Generals are doomed to always fight the last war". The classic example is the French reliance upon the Maginot Line, constructed after World War I to defend against the kind of infantry attacks of that war. The German forces of Hitler, employing the Blitzkieg strategy enabled by armour, simply went around the Line and took France in record time.

And so in Afghanistan, we are poised to invest more heavily in a counter-insurgency war. The kind of war we learned how to fight, in the dying days of our loss of Vietnam. In Vietnam, of course, we were still fighting World War II and Korea. Now in Afghanistan, we are applying Vietnam, but in a struggle that is really against a trans-national terrorist movement with no real geographical center of gravity. But no matter, it is at least the manifestation of our fight against evil, our crusade against the Islamic radicals who are intent on world conquest. Or something like that.

Maybe one day we will learn to live with complexity. It might make for a better world. - Gamma.


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