Thursday, 15 February 2007


“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”


“Patriotism …is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, conscience, and a slavish enthralment to those in power”


Reading 1loneranger’s fascinating account of his childhood on a US Army base leads me to reflect, yet again, on the nature of patriotism. The Oxford Concise defines a patriot as “one who defends or is zealous for his country’s freedom or rights”. While it surely cannot be bad to defend one’s own country’s freedom, as in the two World Wars, over-zealousness in patriotic fervour all too easily leads to the violation of the rights of others. The history of the West is studded with examples of this.

The United States of America, in particular, has a fervent patriotic tradition which originated in the circumstances leading up to the Revolution against the British, in which the activities of self-styled “patriots” played a significant part. Whatever historical hindsight may tell us, the issues in that conflict were by no means clear cut, as the American historian Theodore Draper sets out in fascinating detail in A Struggle for Power. But history is written by the victors, and the American Myth that is the precursor of the American Dream assures us that it was all about blameless downtrodden pioneer colonists being tyrannised by a wicked monarch and a greedy grasping motherland. This myth lingered into the twentieth century, and is hardly fertile soil for the even-handed “Special Relationship” which so many British politicians have naïvely flattered themselves exists between the erstwhile motherland and her wayward overgrown daughter.

Even Kipling, that enthusiastic chronicler of Empire, mocked “jelly-bellied flag-waggers” in his schoolboy novel, Stalky & Co. In the earlier part of the twentieth century it was distastefully fashionable for loud-mouthed sedentary elderly gentlemen who never went nearer a front line than their West End clubs to exhort the valorous young to fight and die gloriously for their country in the Flanders mud. This type of hypocrisy, compounded by the election of a post-war parliament which, according a future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin [Kipling’s cousin, incidentally] largely consisted of “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”, led to a revulsion in the 1920s and ‘30s against the senseless patriotism of the killing fields, and was largely responsible for the appeasement mentality which at the time was not nearly so dishonourable as it may seem in retrospect.

Sadly, we are immersed in an equally senseless wave of misguided patriotism by the purblind responses to the Twin Towers atrocity of September 2001. Americans, never folk to swallow such a brazen insult, have embarked upon a “war on terror” which is as ill-directed as it is unwise. The spectacle of the world’s only [for the time being] super-power stumbling around the world like an infuriated elephant which has been attacked by a swarm of hornets and blundered into a quagmire is dismaying to all would-be friends not only of the USA but of freedom and democratic values. The ancient saying that the Gods first make mad those whom they wish to destroy is never far from one’s mind.

As Nurse Edith Cavell said before her execution by the Germans in World War I, “Patriotism is not enough”. And she added: “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. True patriotism requires not only the strength of lions, but the wisdom of serpents and the peaceful heart of doves.


Jose said...

Excellent, Anticant. Leaders resort to patriotism, to God, to hatred,to lies, anything that suits them in their fight for power.

Richard W. Symonds said...

I think you are confusing "Patriotism" with "Nationalism".

Easy trap to fall into - and you've fallen right into it.

Let me love my country please - I am English and I love it. I don't love my government, or anyone who tries to manipulate the love of my country for their own ends.

Read Orwell : "Notes on Nationalism"...

1loneranger said...

Wonderful post anticant.

richard has a good point.

Take for example the public's trichotomy regarding the mantra - "Support the Troops".

The public at large seems to have a bit of a problem separating ideas of supporting the soldiers, supporting the war and supporting the country for one another.

One is often told they must hate their country if they don't support the war effort and the troops who apply the effort.

Debate could be given to all separately and not confused with one another.

That being said, it is quite easy to see how they all get convoluted, whether intentionally or otherwise.

1loneranger said...

I should state. Regardless of the fact that I presently live in Canada.
I feel unwavering loyalty and respect for the United States and what its Constitution and Bill or Rights stand for. I would go so far as to say I love them.

I also love the intrinsic quality of the country and its people.

I define myself as a Patriot through and through (not a nationalist). Even while some of my fellow citizens and countrymen call me a traitor and a hater. I will never be able to get my head around that.

anticant said...

Well, Richard, I didn't use the term "nationalism", but I think I drew a clear distinction between healthy and malign patriotism.

Having re-read the Orwell piece - and as you and I agree, anyone who hasn't read a good deal of Orwell is missing out on both political wisdom and stylish prose - he says [writing in 1945]:

"By 'nationalism' I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classifed like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled 'good' or 'bad'." [Loads of that going on now, isn't there?]

He goes on to label the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests as 'nationalist' in contrast with 'patriotism', which he defines as "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power." Agreed.

Nationalsm, Orwell says, is obsessive, unstable,and indifferent to reality. "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, assassination, the bombing of civilians - which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side."

How drearily familiar!

Richard W. Symonds said...

Thanks for posting that, AC.

I honestly think that most people today who try and think clearly for themselves (amidst propaganda that is simply raping the mind) just can't manage the distinction between "healthy and malign patriotism"...

So, I'm keeping with "Patriotism" (Nice), "Nationalism" (Not Nice)...

Jose said...

Pity that English does not have a word for that. In Spain patriotism is a quite normal word, whereas (you'll permit me to translate so) "patrioterism" is "cheap patriotism" so to speak.

Perhaps I'm coining a new word?


These times when countries gather together in commonwealths, as happens with the European Union and once happened with the United States or is still occurring with the UK, the question of patriotism is becoming more and more decaffed. The interest is now general and in times to come perhaps the feeling will be totally forsworn.

A person will only be supportive of their own home and their neighbourhood, those would be their closer interests.

I know that today it isn't so, but new generations will abandon all ideas of patriotism. In fact what with music, films, novels, books,
that phenomenom is already happening.

Please don't shout abuse at me!

anticant said...

I used to believe that the solution lay in smaller units of self-government, linked together in regional, national, continental, and ultimately global federalism. I'd still like to think so - but the sad example of the former Yugoslavia, and the insatiable hunger for power of central governments, makes me wonder.

Ultimately, the crucial question is: can human beings - individuals and groups - live without a real, imagined or manufactured 'Enemy'?

Jose said...

A solution to that problem, for instance in the US, would be for each state to be completely autonomous. With alliances for defence in fully justified cases.

More like a Libertarian conception of a country, not a totally Libertarian system but some aspects of this ideology suiting modern times.

Leviathan states are the real, ultimate cause of too many conflicts.

Richard W. Symonds said...

If there was no 'enemy', it would be necessary to invent one.

anticant said...

The United States' Constitution didn't just appear painlessly. It was hammered out in four months of fraught negotiations between 12 of the 13 States [Rhode Island refused to attend] at Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 [see "Miracle at Philadelphia", by Catherine Drinker Bowen].

There was fierce opposition from many delegates to a Federal government as opposed to a looser confederation of sovereign States, and the outcome wasn't a foregone conclusion. But the rationale was compelling:

"The war debt still hung heavy; states found their credit failing and small hope of betterment. Seven states had resorted to paper money. ...Money printed by Pennsylvania must be kept within Pennsylvania's own borders. State and section showed themselves jealous, preferring to fight each other over boundaries as yet unsettled and to pass tariff laws against each other. New Jersey had her own customs service; New York was a foreign nation and must be kept from encroachment. States were marvellously ingenious in devising mutual retaliations; nine of them retained their own navies. Virginia had even ratified the peace treaty separately. The shipping arrangements of Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey were at the mercy of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts...." [ibid.]

Maybe they got better than they deserved in the end. They still have the letter of the Constitution: all they have to do now is to resurrect its spirit.

Jose said...

Resurrect the spirit? I think that burden should be placed on the citizens' shoulders, which is not going to happen if the American people don't awake from their political coma.

1loneranger said...


What would your suggested inoculant be?