Monday, 23 January 2017

Banging the Patriotism Drum

“I am a citizen of the world" (Diogenes)

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” (Donald Trump)

I’ve never liked the word “patriotism” as it always seems to be so be inward looking. The root for the word “patriot” is the Latin “Pater”, and so it is connected with another more ominous word – “Fatherland”.

Ambrose Bierce liked it even less, and devoted to entries to the words in his “Devil’s Dictionary”:


One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.


Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

Now that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a pride in one’s country, but it can all to easily become a source of division, a tribal affair.

It is one thing to praise something that a country excels at, but another to say that it must be better than other countries. With the history that I was brought up with, of course, it was easy to see this writ large. The British Empire, the envy of the world,, putting British citizens and interests first, is a good example of both the best and the worst of patriotism.

The best, I suppose, because it many ways it was an Empire which brought technology and civilised codes of law to countries where matters could be more brutal. The worst, because it deprived countries for many years of their own self-determination. It was a paternalistic dictatorship.

There’s a lot of tribalism, of course, still around today, sometimes in relatively harmless channels. Sport is of course an obvious example of that attitude, where people root for “their country”, and “their countries team”.

Even there can be a downside, regarding how many medals Team GB brings back as more important that the skill and excellence of other winners.

Surely the Olympics is all about excellence above all, and that is what every team wants to achieve, not even so much against other teams, as to do the best that can be done, so that a world record breaker faces their own record?

This, as Robert Pirsig reminds us, was what the Greeks strived for.

"What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it—duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate 'virtue' but is in Greek aretê, 'excellence' … we shall have much to say about aretê. It runs through Greek life."

And so there is a place indeed for “Make America Great Again”, but it must not be done by a narrow minded vision.

It is when we get to the notion which seems to surface of “Make America Great”... at the expense of the rest of the world, that I part company.

Is there any country anywhere in the world which deserves “total allegiance"?

Charles Dicken’s short masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol” is about business rather than patriotism, but the message is the same: our vision should be global, embracing all humanity

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Isn’t there a higher loyalty, to the planet, and also to all the teeming millions who live and breath and suffer and die in poverty and misery thoughout the world?

Throughout history, rulers nations have sought to claim total allegiance to their nation, but there are values which transcend nationality.

It is not good enough to just say “we will look after our own”. That is too narrow a philosophy, too small a vision. Humanity can be better than that.

1 comment:

HookedOnJersey said...

There’s a lot of tribalism, of course, still around today

You mean, "Take that Grouville!"