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.

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