And how can man die better than facing fearful odds/ for the ashes of his father, and the temple of his Gods.
-Lays of Ancient Rome
There’s been much gnashing of teeth over Brexit, Great Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union.
I can’t speak for the economic pros and cons of either movement. If you haven’t watched it yet, John Oliver has a rather hilarious (and enlightening) rant about the sort of issues it may inflict on the British economy.
What’s really caught my attention is the rhetoric of patriotism that’s often employed by Brexiters, and other isolationist movements like Donald Trump’s campaign.
When the American election rolls around, we’re likely to see the same rhetoric bubbling up on news feeds again. Only in this case, the discussion will center on making America – rather than Britain – great again.
We tend to think of patriotism as an indisputably good thing. The idealized image of the patriot – the soldier who dies for his country – is often juxtaposed with the image of the traitor, the craven and the defector.
I believe that this sort of ‘received patriotism’ – an unswerving, unquestioning loyalty to one’s country – is problematic. There are serious, occasionally fatal, problems that come with blind loyalty to any entity, whether it’s a church, a state or an ideal.
Now, I’m not saying to go out and burn your country’s flag while cleaning your arse with copies of your Constitution. But I’ve always believed that questioning the commonsense is a lot like working out for the brain. It is all too easy for unquestioned beliefs to atrophy into dogma and irrationality.
In every day speech, we don’t tend to distinguish between ‘nation’ and ‘state’, generally seeing them as being the same thing. But before we can talk about patriotism, it makes sense for us to talk about the difference between the two.
Let’s talk about the state. Max Weber defines the state as the ‘entity that possesses the monopoly on the legitimate use of force with a given territory’.
I’m going to sound like an irreverent little shit, but here’s my simplified definition: The state consists of the current group of buggers (the ruling party) in your country with the biggest sticks (the army), and agreed-upon guidelines on when they’re allowed to beat you up (the law).
Sorta like Don Corleone from The Godfather, but…y’know? Legit.
Of course, that definition does simplify the business of statehood. It trivializes the important functions that healthy governments perform for their citizens: Services like public goods, welfare for the needy and very bad advertisements.
Nations, however, are an altogether trickier business to define. Benedict Anderson argues that the nation is an ‘imagined community’, which sounds like something you’d say on weed.
But have you ever been travelling alone in a foreign country, and had your ears perk up upon hearing an accent from back home? Turns of phrase that you’ve heard since your childhood?
You probably felt a warm sense of familiarity inside. You may have never met every single citizen in your country before, but it’s that feeling of familiarity that is the glue of an imagined community.
As you might expect, it’s a pretty damn powerful thing.
Here’s a funny thing that you may have noticed: Every nation on Earth believes that it is the true inheritor of greatness.
There has never been a country that glorifies its origins as the descendants of humble turd farmers. National myth always centers on the manifest destiny of a special group of people: we have Romulus suckling on a she-wolf’s teat, princes seeing invisible lions, kings lying asleep on magical islands.
Every collective group of people sees itself as holding a special place in the world. Britain calls itself ‘Great Britain’; China styles itself “The Middle Kingdom”; America is ‘land of the true and home of the brave’; the indigenous people of the Kalahari call themselves the Saan (which translates to ‘the first people’).
History, as Napoleon once said, ‘is a pack of lies agreed upon’. There is nothing that makes one group of people any more special than any other group, beyond their ability to impose their myth on the rest of the world.
Here’s an even more troubling proposition: States employ myths of nationhood and patriotism to ensure that the people in power get to stay in power.
I’m not saying this as a crazed conspiracy theorist, but rather from the perspective of the state as a rational actor. Flags, anthems, fireworks; these are ideological tools that can – and have been – used by governments to ensure loyalty and obedience. Patriotism can be used to win hearts and minds, to build solidarity and pride and a feeling of belonging.
But it can also be used to convince people that it’s ok to invade, colonize, or drop bombs on other countries. It can be used to silence dissenting voices and foster homogeneous values.
In short, it can be used to gain compliance, in the same way that monarchs once used the divine right of kings.
I’m not saying that patriotism is a bad thing to have. The problem comes about only when we are unaware of nationalism’s recent origins. Countries are constructed. They are not old and timeless. Flags are sewn;borders are drawn on a map; stories are told until they become real in our minds.
Blind, unquestioning patriotism is a dangerous thing. Sort of like a crazed cheerleader with a machine gun.
It’s funny until the bullets start ripping at you.
Patriotism becomes a problem when it’s used as a marker of belonging. Did you oppose the war in Iraq? Did you vote to leave Britain? Does your surname sound vaguely foreign?
“Ah-hah, we’ve caught you now, you unpatriotic bastard. Why don’t you go back to where you belong?”
It is indeed ‘sweet and right’ to love one’s country. But how should we go about it?
I believe that true patriotism should not be unquestioningly accepted on high. It should be forged in debate, discussion and a healthy dose of skepticism. True patriotism is concrete, not abstract.
It is a love for the multiplicity of people that one interacts with everyday, the fellow citizens that make up that nation: Straight and queer, Muslim and Christian, liberal and conservative.
Patriotism is complex. There is no magic formula. True love for one’s country does not preclude criticism, or the questioning of the narratives we are told by our government; it should be in spite – rather than because – of national myths and million dollar fireworks.
One should love one’s country. But that love should should be rooted in clear-eyed debate about the present, and not in opiate-ridden stories of the past.