Wednesday, November 9, 2011

#8 - Patriotism

NOTE: After writing all this I realized that it isn't necessarily patriotism that I have a problem with (I don't mind if somebody has visited virtually all the countries in the world and decides after all that they like their country of birth the best) but unjustified patriotism - Patriotism for it's own sake. 

Patriotism, given its most charitable definition, is a devotion for one's country. It is also generally heralded as a desirable and positive value. I do not believe that patriotism is either valuable intrinsically or valuable consequentially. I will argue these points by firstly refining what 'patriotism' is generally meant to mean, discussing the origins of patriotism as a value, looking at the demands of patriotism and finally summarizing some of the more negative consequences that an unrestrained and unquestioning patriotism can yield.   


Let us first take a look at what the word 'patriotism' actually means. It certainly seems  prima facie as if patriotism implies a certain exclusivity. It is not common that you hear of someone being patriotic to more than one country. Furthermore patriotism is usually linked to the country of one's own birth. Given these additional common features of patriotism I do not think there is a large leap in redefining Patriotism as being: A devotion to one's country of birth at the exclusion of an equal devotion to any other countries. 



This sort of patriotism is generally expected of most citizens even if not explicitly alluded to. People generally sing praises of their countries and make claims like "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else" even when they haven't experienced any other country than their own. If criticised for their outlandish claim (how could you possibly say that you wouldn't want to live anywhere else when you have only experienced one locality?) this same person would probably look at you like you had made a serious faux pas. Patriotism is not only a desirable value but is also a socially engrained, accepted and expected trait - It is a cultural norm that is reflected through our "Buy Australian Made" signs and sporting competitiveness. Like most norms however Patriotism remains largely unquestioned.



So why should we feel patriotic? This is the part that I struggle with. It all seems almost farcical how arbitrary the grounds for patriotism are. It seems to be a case of luck what country we are born and raised in. Before our birth we had no choice or input into which country we would soon be expected to be patriotic towards. I can easily imagine circumstances in which I was born in England or Japan and would have adopted the same sense of patriotism for that country. This does not of course, instantly degrade the value of patriotism - It just means that it isn't intrinsically valuable. But perhaps it holds some instrumental value, maybe patriotism brings about more good in the world than it does bad.


Patriotism gives us a heightened sense of community. In a world of steadfastly patriotic types everybody could be friends with one another under the common flag provided that certain obligations be fulfilled. Because, you see, in practise patriotism goes far further than simply claiming 'oh yes, I love my country'. It means committing oneself to a myriad of other values that are have been historically prevalent.
It is common rhetoric in Australia that perceived negative courses of action are labelled 'un-Australian' by one political party or another. This claim is mysteriously insulting to many people who have fallen prey to the transparent binary opposition of Australian = Good, Un-Australian = Bad. But to call something un-Australian or un-American or un-*any country* isn't to say anything very revolutionary. It simply says "the residents of this country haven't often thought of things in that way". The values of a country are determined not through the search for an intrinsic thing of value, nor through the development of a categorical imperative nor through any sort of rational deliberation - They are developed through looking backwards, through looking into the past.   

Were there such a thing as Australian Values (or any country specific values) these values would be discovered by looking into the past to see what the previous generations had deemed to be important and emulating these values in the future. A disposition to blindly accept these values lies at the heart of patriotism. To be an Australian patriot you simply must care about giving people 'a fair go' or supporting 'the aussie battler' without questioning the origins of these beliefs or their practical value. If you disagree with these values you're simply un-Australian. 


One of the side-effects of unrestrained patriotism is an enlarged collective ego. This is to be expected through the self-congratulatory rhetoric that patriots world-wide engage in but it also creates the illusion that we have reached the apex of our development. This provides a disincentive to change and fosters ethnocentrism (the feeling that one's own cultural rules are superior or more right than the rules of other cultures).  



Whilst largely a topic to be discussed in a later blog I am primarily bothered by the patriotism of wealthy western countries because of the sense of entitlement that goes with it. In Australia (and I'm sure in many other countries) the phrase 'we must protect our way of life' is thrown around a lot. Again, to even mutter that phrase you must assume that any deviation from the status quo would be a downgrade. To say 'we must protect our way of life' is to adopt a discourse of war; what exactly is being 'protected' and from what or whom are we protecting it? More importantly 'why protect it at all?'; if we really have reached the apex of enlightenment (we haven't) why would we neglect to share this with the world? It is because we feel somehow entitled to our privileged and 1st world surroundings, a feeling of entitlement that is misplaced. Patriotism provides a socially acceptable alternative to fulfilling our obligations to human beings in suffering overseas with the excuse that 'we should support those at home first'.



There is much that Australia could learn from other countries and vica versa - Patriotism is the arrogant value that prevents this shared quest for enlightenment from occurring. Socrates is quoted to have said "I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the  world". I couldn't agree any more passionately. We are all citizens of the world.  



1 comment:

  1. I like this. Sometimes I feel like patriotism is badly disguised bigotry.

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