Patriotism has a bit of a bad name among intelligent socially liberal types. The purpose of this post is to suggest that this is for very good reasons, but that a complete rejection of patriotism may be ill-founded, and that there is a kind of patriotism that is good.
First the good reasons: patriotism is much abused. In wartime, people who criticise the war, or the way their country is fighting it, are called ‘unpatriotic’. Patriotism is used to send young people to wars that shouldn’t be fought, and do little more than kill lots of people. Because of the uses the concept can be put to in wartime, governments like wars, and are often keen even in peacetime to imply that their people are at war, even if the opposition is something like ‘terror’. In general, the kind of behaviour we often see exhibited by the most vocally patriotic is unattractive and sometimes abhorrent; at best it seems to imply chauvinism and arrogance.
As opponents of the notion point out, there’s something rather odd about the idea of being proud of an accident of birth, and confusing the successes and failures of a political construct one happens to be associated with with one’s own failures and successes. This seems obvious and compelling, but I’m not convinced. People who put forward this argument are very rarely so prepared to criticise people for pride in their family. But your family is just as much an accident of birth as your country; and we generally have no problem with taking pride in other accidents of birth, like natural intelligence and beauty, which seems equally misplaced. The thing is that we have evolved to identify ourselves with larger-scale units to which we belong, and this has been very useful to us. It is one of the things that has helped us to be such a cooperative species. While patriotism often brings competition, and sometimes brings war, it is in fact a product of evolved behaviours and attitudes that are our best hope for world peace.
So what do we do? Patriotism certainly misfires and leads people to do stupid and appalling things. And, even if our genes tell us to put our finger in the fire, it doesn’t mean that we should. Our genes tell us to eat rather more sugar, fat, and carbohydrate than is good for us too. We do our best to fight that (well, some people do); should we also do our best to fight patriotism? Am I advocating rejecting patriotism in favour of all being citizens of the world and members of no unit below the human race? Not really, no. There’s something wrong there too, although I have lots of respect for those few people one meets who genuinely seem more human or worldish than European or Flemish. I suppose part of the problem is that stopping at humanity is somewhat arbitrary too; why not be members of no unit below animal, or eukaryotic organisms, or DNA-based lifeforms, or lifeforms generally?
Well, that may be a bit specious… The main reason I’m not advocating this is that I think patriotism can be harnessed for good; and when something seems so difficult (probably impossible) to eradicate, we might as well use it. And perhaps the place to start is to encourage people to take the family analogy seriously. If your brother has a drink problem, it’s not anti-family to recognise the problem and try to help him. If your mother is launching unjustified attacks on other families in the neighbourhood, it’s only right to criticise her and try to get her to stop. Just because you identify with your country doesn’t mean you agree with everything everyone in it does. And, as a member of your family, you may be in a position to help other members of it in a way that outsiders cannot. We should see our countries like this. It may be an accident of birth that you were born belonging to one nation rather than another, but that accident of birth probably makes you better placed to do good for that nation than for other nations. And if you do something that makes your country better, then your pride in that country’s successes is just a little bit more rational, because you have some right to feel pride in yourself.
We are right to hate the boors who use patriotism as a stick to hit other nations; these are like the people who think theirs is the best family in the street, and that they deserve to be treated differently on that basis. And we are right to despise governments who exploit patriotism to make their people do bad things for them; we rightly hate parents too who exploit their children’s familial love to commit crimes or ‘do everything daddy says, and don’t tell anyone…’ But these are examples of chauvinism and exploitation, not patriotism as such. If we can promote an understanding of the distinction, and encourage the feeling that patriotism is an active, not a passive thing—that it means actually doing something to make your nation (or town, or continent, or world), and the lives of people in it, better (which does not preclude doing the same for other nations, towns, continents, and people too)—then we are better, not worse off, for our irrational pride in accidents of birth.