The word ‘patriotism’ has been associated with a couple news stories this week; in relation to Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate a leading Iranian army officer coupled with him seeking the Republican nomination for a second term as president, and in relation to Rebecca Long Bailey’s expected declaration that she will enter the Labour Party’s leadership contest. It’s a word that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the concept as a “feeling of attachment and commitment to a country, nation, or political community” and differentiates it from ‘nationalism’. This latter term, which I’m even more uncomfortable with (particularly due to its association with the far right) is defined as “loyalty to one’s nation”, and as having a history starting in the 19th century. Patriotism, on the other hand, is defined as “love of country”, but this time with having a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans for whom it was “associated with the love of law and common liberty, the search for the common good”. So what’s wrong with that? Well, firstly, I think it difficult, if not impossible, to claim words have definitive meanings. Effectively, words mean what people in general interpret them as meaning, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the attitude of many who describe themselves as patriots . And secondly, but far more importantly, I fear that the term narrows our sense of solidarity and attachment to a far too confined sense of community.
The news item about Donald Trump well illustrates the worst connotations of the word. This story referred to his invocation of an evangelic and patriotic fervour to help support his nomination for a second term, his repeated use of the term ‘America first’, and his assertion that ‘God’ was on their side. In a comment aimed at the Iranian leadership, he was reported as saying “You don’t stand a chance against the righteous might of the United States military.” This is the use of religion at its very worst: it’s the claim that the believed source of all that is right and ethical supports one group of people, one nation, with the implication that therefore whatever they decide to do against any other nation is, by definition, right. This was the sort of attitude that allowed the colonialisation of various global communities by those whose military power was the greater, and the genocide of certain ethnic groups deemed to be of lesser worth. I’m sorry, but such an attitude is not only bullshit, it’s not only bullshit that is ethically obnoxious, but, by mitigating against the need to develop a sense of global community to allow humanity to overcome its global problems, it’s bullshit that has the potential to destroy us all.
Rebecca Long Bailey’s used the term in a much softer and less overtly troublesome way, but problems still exist. She talked about the need to revive a sense of “progressive patriotism” in order to unite communities; she pointed out that “Britain has a long history of patriotism rooted in working life, built upon unity and pride in the common interests and shared life of everyone.” Now the idea of communities being united and working for the mutual benefit of everyone I fully endorse. And I accept that the size of the community that you feel part of and work to enhance must, at one level at least, be limited in size. I genuinely feel part of my local community, far more than I feel part of my national community, and very much more than I feel part of a global community. But my fear is that in emphasising the unity of particular groups, particularly national groups, we limit the boundary of our common interests and shared life to the extent that ‘everyone’ only applies to those who live within our own national boundary, and (potentially) only those that pledge allegiance to that boundary.
As I’ve said on many, many occasions, the existential threats facing humanity on this planet (climate and ecological breakdown for example) do not respect national boundaries; sea levels will increase across the world, climate and its effects on weather systems cannot be confined to particular localities, and ethically the wealthier nations of this world have an obligation to help those fellow humans fleeing their loss of habitat. We can only combat these threats through the recognition and acceptance that ‘common interests’ and the ‘shared life of everyone’ refer to the interests and lives of every global citizen. I fear that calls for patriotism mitigate such a recognition and acceptance by confining our focus to a national boundary, and that this harms us all.