Patriotism is not without merit, however, it can easily take a senseless and immoral turn, and it is about sticking up for yourself, and not a country.
Individualism, patriotism, nationalism?…A spectre of human interpretations of the world around us – each one a potential danger. Maybe I have no sense of patriotism due to my upbringing – loving two cultures and living in a third. However, more importantly, the world I live in is my representation and no-one else’s.
For Donald Trump, ‘When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice’, but it is much more likely that when you close your mind to prejudice, there is no room for patriotism. But what is patriotism anyway, and what is the definition of a nation? Would you defend your nation in the same way that you would your family, or indeed yourself?
Is this what patriotism should sound like?
Arise children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised
Listen to the sound in the fields
The howling of these fearsome soldiers
They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts
To arms citizens Form your battalions
Let impure blood
Water our furrows
The music still sends shivers down my spine because I have been conditioned – like every French citizen – to associate the notes of the anthem with a country that I love. France not only fought its way out of a regime that starved its people, but showed the path of reason to the rest of Europe. When I hear the Marseillaise, it reminds me that I have had a French upbringing that I am proud of and love. But what should I do? Should I sing vociferously a chant so rich in words of violence and hate, or should I quietly reflect on the privilege I have being able to benefit from French culture and my being officially recognised as a citizen of the French republic. Of course, the verses of the French national anthem should be heard in the context of the French revolution, but today’s world is different, and the same words could be sung as rhetoric by Islamic fundamentalists fighting for all that ISIS believes in.
“When I hear the Marseillaise, it reminds me that I have had a French upbringing that I am proud of and love. But what should I do? Should I sing vociferously a chant so rich in words of violence and hate, or should I quietly reflect on the privilege I have being able to benefit from French culture and my being officially recognised as a citizen of the French republic”
And what about my fatherland, that I also love, whose culture I have also inherited, and whose national flag, the Union Jack, I consider to be the most elegant flag in the world? Its anthem is also no carrier of peace, and summons the heavens for help in sending the sovereign to victory against the enemy.
But every individual needs to feel part of a common project that is worth defending, and citizenship is an intrinsic and important part of what each one of us is. Our citizenship defines us and must not be relinquished or abused. Without a meaningful citizenship, individualism – in the sense of not caring about the other and the common land – leads to isolation, solitude, resentment and hate. It is a hidden but constant threat to our societies – beginning in the family and crossing the districts, to finish its race in the most remote city of the country which nobody can give a name to. However, extreme patriotism – in the sense of thinking that you and your country are superior to all others – also leads to hate and violence, and leads to the evils of nationalism – defence of a race instead of a country. Individualism and patriotism are the two facets of a common evil.
Patriotism today is the cruel tradition of an outlived period, which exists not merely by its inertia, but because the governments and ruling classes, aware that not their power only, but their very existence, depends upon it, persistently excite and maintain it among the people, both by cunning and violence. – Leo Tolstoy, On Patriotism, 1894
There is no better example of what Tolstoy meant than that of the EU referendum that took place last year in the UK. The campaign in favour of leaving was almost entirely focused on making the UK the best country in the world and a country where outside help and foreigners were not welcome. Nigel Farage, one of the lead campaigners, was adamant that the citizens of the UK “wanted their country back”. He even went so far as to say that June 23rd 2016 should be declared as “Independence Day”.
Patriotism today is like a scaffolding, which was needful once to raise the walls of the building, but which, though it, presents the only obstacle to the house being inhabited, is none the less retained, because its existence is of profit to certain persons. – Leo Tolstoy, On Patriotism, 1894
Thus, patriotism may be considered to be senseless because only one country in the world can be the best, and immoral because patriotism promotes one country’s interests at the expense of all the others.
We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. – Donald Trump, 2017
It is quite justifiable to want to protect the interests of your own country. This form of patriotism is based on the premise that people living in the same country are all striving to make their personal projects work, but well in concordance with a greater communal project represented by the country in its entirety. But what happens to patriotism when the perceived interests of your country are in conflict with more universal interests and human solidarity? In these cases, the moral justification for patriotism disappears and the latter must be rejected. An obvious recent example is that of Donald Trump’s annulment of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, in which he clearly put “America’s interests” first and foremost, despite universal consensus over the need to combat climate change.
One reason for patriotism that I can identify with, is that of gratitude. If you are thankful for living in a particular country, irrespective of whether you are born there or not, you will most certainly love and respect it. This concept gains much more importance for people who have freely chosen to live in a particular country as opposed to another. But this certainly does not mean that you have to follow blindly and without criticism something your country does that you find morally wrong. When Dutch prime-minister, Mark Rutter, published an open letter last January, criticising the attitude some people had towards the way of life in the Netherlands, I criticised most of his remarks. But I do agree with his fundamental idea that if you don’t like where you live, you are free to move, especially if you elected to live there in the first place.
“One reason for patriotism that I can identify with, is that of gratitude. (…). But this certainly does not mean that you have to follow blindly and without criticism something your country does that you find morally wrong”
So where do I stand on patriotism, and how can I possibly love two different and sometimes opposing countries, yet live in a third? If I stop and think about how I feel about France and the UK, I begin to realise that the patriotism that I feel for both countries is entirely related to my upbringing. Furthermore, although I love the Netherlands, I do feel that my patriotism here will never be comparable to my patriotism for the UK or France. You may think that true patriotism stops once you have left a country, and that you are only left with love of the country that you have left. Judging by my profound reaction to the Brexit vote, together with my enthusiasm to vote in the French elections, that is certainly not the case.
We are all a product of the way we were brought up by our parents. We are also strongly influenced by the way we absorbed the culture of, and opportunities in, the country we were brought up in. Interestingly, a recent survey shows that many young British citizens do not feel European, and more surprisingly, a lot of them don’t even feel British. They probably have their reasons for feeling in such a way, and I am not in a position to judge them on this. It is clear that patriotism is sticking up for yourself and who you are, and has nothing to do with sticking up for any particular country. Having said this, the confusion arises from the fact that the one leads almost invariably to the other.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.