Thursday, October 28, 2004

Regarding Patriotism

A recent e-friend sent me an essay he wrote in 2002 called "On Patriotism". He was responding to the then-crisis of the Indo-Pak stand-off at the borders in late spring. Reading his essay reminded me of my own bleak thoughts on the subject:

For some years now, it's been clear to me that patriotism is no longer a worthwhile ideal. More destruction and grief is sponsored in its name, more envy, greed and vanity, than anything else. Most of us are brought up to feel an automatic devotion to the flags and anthems under which we are born, and most of us respond with warm loyalty. I wasn't any different when I was a child, but I grew up outside my country. I can remember the sense of pained shock and disbelief I felt when I returned at the age of eight -- nothing I saw around me conformed to my ideal of a country that I could feel proud of, or love.

Today of course, what I'm questioning is the need to feel those kinds of emotions at all, in reference to countries. We make a mistake, I feel, in thinking of countries as people. Assigning them personal pronouns and ascribing emotions to them merely distorts our understanding of what they are: groups of humans collected under a banner, in a particular geographical location. When we make countries into people, we set ourselves up for feeling emotional about them, as if they were our parents or our enemies. But they are nothing of the sort. They are figments of the collective imagination, merely a means of organizing humans into groups, quite often arbitrarily. Many countries are populated by several different ethnic groups, even though the governments of most nations try to put forward an image of homogeneity or choose one group over other groups as being the most representative.

Patriotism is a false ideal. Unlike (say) love or devotion to our parents, or the desire for food, there's nothing natural about patriotism. It's something we have to be taught, which we would never learn on our own without specific prompting. Its aim is to inspire loyalty in individuals so that they will act in the national interest when called upon, rather than in their own interest or in the interest of something larger than a single nation's or individual's needs. Most of us are brought up to relate to Our Country as if it were a benign parent, yet as adults we're surely aware that there's very little confirm this status.

Mostly, what we learn to understand as we grow up is that Our Country is US -- we make it what it is by our pattern of voting and tax-payment. If we're conscientious and if the machinery of government works smoothly, we can ensure a tolerable standard of living for ourselves. Most often, though, we discover that there's no special mystique to citizenship: however much sentiment we load onto the plate of patriotism, it can just as easily be tipped up and replaced by despair or contempt following a change of government. Contrast this against feelings towards parents/family -- whether we love them or hate them, there is an internal stickiness to familial bonds that can't be erased by fiat. They can't be forged artificially either: it has surely happened often enough that a person is brought up out of contact from his/her biological family and finds, when united, that sharing DNA isn't enough after all. It's like missing something crucial like a tongue or a retina at birth -- even if artificial substitutes can be constructed by medical science later on, the nervous system will not have developed a vocabulary of comprehension. An artificial eye (even if such a thing existed) could only work on someone who had already learnt to see.

I believe that the effort of instilling patriotism is a little bit like attempting to install a sense organ -- such as an eye or a tongue -- for which there is no corresponding neural network in the human brain. Many of us are conditioned to believe there is, so we can fool ourselves into responding emotionally to claims upon our patriotism but the fact that some people can transfer their allegiance to other countries and to other ideologies suggests that the same is true for all of us.

Consider for instance the way that the patriotic citizens of all the various countries on this planet appear to feel equally passionate about their nations' history/geography/culture/biota: how do we make sense of that passion? How is it possible for every citizen to be right? Either everyone is equally deluded about his/her own country's virtues or there are real differences in the physical and cultural assets of nations, yet everyone is brought up to be blind to the assets of all other nations save their own. Either way, there is self-deception.

I can remember, for instance, feeling so vain to know that I belonged to the nation that housed the Taj Mahal! But over time, as I met the citizens of countries that housed (say) the pyramids or the Golden Buddha, or Mt Everest or the Great Barrier Reef ... well, the preciousness of my national asset seemed hard to maintain -- not because it was less or more, but only because it seemed rather the same. There's no way I can decide whether or not the Taj Mahal is more precious than the Great Barrier Reef or the Great Wall of China. So I would rather avoid the whole business of feeling proud or not-proud -- after all, how can I lay claim to the beauty of the Taj? It's just a coincidence that I happened to be born whithin the geo-political entity that contains the monument. It really owes nothing to my efforts or even my ancestry. I can admire it and enjoy it, I can be astounded by the craftsmanship that went into it -- just the same as I can enjoy the Sphinx or the Great Wall -- and that's about all.

It would be so great if, wandering the globe, we could all be enabled to think: there's our Sphinx -- our Machu Pichu -- our Easter Island -- our golden marmoset -- our Grand Canyon -- our Emperor Penguins -- everything belongs to every one of us resident on this planet and we can all rejoice equally in all of it.

Of course, in the real world, what matters is economic rather than cultural assets. If we as a species could pool the world's resources of petroleum, wood, water, agricultural land and all the rest, PERHAPS we'd have made the first true step towards unity, peace and international understanding. Then again, if we really did pool our resources, if we really did dole out assets on an equitable basis so that no nation or ethnic group had a greater share of the pie than any other ...


Wouldn't last a decade, would it?


Amrobilia said...

At the risk of incurring your wrath, I'm gonna quote what Aldous Huxley says (through his 'voice', Mr. Propter, in "After Many a Summer"). Reading your friend's piece reminded me of the closing portions of this book where Huxley speaks of patriotism etc...the Spanish Civil War was coming to an end at this point in the book:

" Every psychological pattern is determined; and, within the cage of flesh and memory, the local swarm of such patterns is no more free than any of its members. To talk of freedom in connexion with acts which in reality are determined is madness. On the strictly human level no acts are free. By their insane refusal to recognize facts as they are, men and women condemn themselves to have their desires stultified and their lives destroyed or extinguished. No less than the cities and nations of which they are members, men and women are forever falling, forever destroying what they have built and are building. But whereas cities and nations obey the laws that come into play whenever large numbers are involved, individuals do not. Or rather need not; for though in actual fact most individuals allow themselves to be subjected to these laws, they are under no necessity to do so. For they are under no necessity to remain exclusively on the human level of existence. It is in their power to pass from the level of the absence of God to that of God’s presence. Each member of the psychological swarm is determined; and so is the conduct of the total swarm. But beyond the swarm, and yet containing and interpenetrating it, lies eternity, ready and waiting to experience itself. But if eternity is to experience itself within the temporal and spatial cage of any individual human being, the swarm we call the “soul” must voluntarily renounce the frenzy of its activity, must make room, as it were, for the other timeless consciousness, must be silent to render possible the emergence of profounder silence. God is completely present only in the complete absence of what we call our humanity. No iron necessity condemns the individual to the futile torment of being merely human. Even the swarm we call the soul has it in its power temporarily to inhibit its insane activity, to absent itself, if only for a moment, in order that, if only for a moment, God may be present. But let eternity experience itself, let God be sufficiently often present in the absence of human desires and feelings and preoccupations: the result will be a transformation of that life which must be lived, in the intervals, upon the human level. Even the swarm of our passions and opinions is susceptible to the beauty of eternity; and being susceptible becomes dissatisfied with its own ugliness; and being dissatisfied undertakes to change itself. Chaos gives place to order – not the arbitrary, purely human order that comes from the subordination of the swarm to some lunatic “ideal”, but an order that reflects the real order of the world. Bondage gives place to liberty – for choices are no longer dictated by the chance occurrences of earlier history, but are made teleologically and in the light of a direct insight into the nature of things. Violence and mere inertia give place to peace – for violence is the manic, and inertia the depressive, phase of that cyclical insanity, which consists in regarding the ego or its social projections as real entities. Peace is the serene activity that springs from the knowledge that our “souls” are illusory and their creations insane, that all beings are potentially united in eternity. Compassion is an aspect of peace and a result of the same act of knowledge…

…Barcelona had fallen. Spain, England, France, Germany, America – all were falling; falling even at such times as they seemed to be rising; destroying what they built in the very act of building. But any individual has it in his power to refrain from falling, to stop destroying himself. The solidarity with evil is optional, not compulsory." Unquote.


Marginalien said...

(Why did you expect I might be wrathful??) Yes. Umm. I wonder what Huxley would say about the world we're living in currently! What passion he brought to his politics. No-one today invests passion in world affairs except in a negative sense -- there's gigakilotonnes of hate stockpiled on every street corner, but barely a few handfuls of compassion left on anyone's shelves.

Been watching the build up to the US elections? It's like watching teams pumping themselves up just before for a football game except that the outcome could affect the whole planet. I wish I could vote in that election. I believe that the US elections should be made available for anyone to vote in provided that they pay their taxes in the US (and their own countries too, of course). Considering that US policy affects the whole world, it seems only fair that the world should have a say in what happens in the US ...

Anonymous said...

patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

"My country right or wrong" is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying "My mother, drunk or sober." g.k.chesterton

a country deserves the criminals it gets - yours truly -after the 2004 eRection results

Amrobilia said...

Thought you might be wrath becuz for some reason I thought quotations are taboo on your site.

Feel the same as you do - about all earthlings being entitled to vote in the US Prez elections...Kerry would have sailed through...

mohaps said...

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.
George Bernard Shaw

Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious
Oscar Wilde

That being on the table, in my opinion, patriotism is like believing in G_d.

One may chose to believe in it if it helps one sleep better at night.. One may even drape it in ornate and intricate rituals and practices...but the fact remains it is far from a collective entity.. It is something entirely personal.. and it should remain so...

Like any other belief, when one crosses the threshold of something called "courage of conviction" and starts feeling the onset of a "missionary zeal" in a game of "mine is bigger than yours", the results are disastrous..

So I say to "patriots" what I say to the "devout" (my mom :) ) and "atheists" (my wife ;-) ),

"You are welcome to your belief or the lack of it, just don't go trying to rub some on me."