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?