Some thoughts on patriotism

by John Jackson © 2010

There’ve been noises from the government about making children swear an allegiance to the Queen or British flag; in other words, they want to instil a sense of patriotism.

What does patriotism mean though?

To many people it simply means some sort of pride in one’s country, a sense of historical or cultural identity, or a unifying concept that transcends religious and ethical differences: the pride in one’s nation should have precedence over other allegiances such as religions or ethnicity. Questioning and criticism of current beliefs, views and practices is encouraged as it brings about positive change. This is known as ‘constructive patriotism’.

To others, however, patriotism is an irrational notion. It stands for a love of, and obedience to, the country of one’s residence and its government. ‘Blind patriotism’, as it is known, is characterized by unquestioning positive evaluation, staunch allegiance, and intolerance of criticism.

Instilling a sense of blind patriotism into the populace does more for government than the individual. It’s all about instilling a mindset whereby the individual should think of it as his/her duty to put the needs of their country above their own. When governments are calling for a need to instil patriotism, it’s undoubtedly the ‘blind’ version they’re thinking of!

Appeals to patriotism are often used in times of war by governments to coerce people to join and fight; much of the appeal’s power coming from the slur of claiming those who don’t do their duty for Queen and country as unpatriotic and cowardly.

Possibly the most famous illustration of this was President John F. Kennedy’s appeal to patriotism:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

It was particularly well delivered and particularly well received and, of course, that’s why so many people know it even today. It’s an archetypal example of an appeal to patriotism.

What does this short sentence mean though, and how do similar appeals relate to the UK?

Well our country is a collection of landmasses with ~58 million inhabitants. I don’t think anyone can ask pieces of land to do anything for them nor, for that matter, ask the same of so many other people. Equally, an individual cannot do anything for the pieces of land we inhabit nor for more than a few other individuals. So using the term ‘country’ in this context just doesn’t make any sense.

Now, a country is run by its government; so perhaps when political leaders come out with this sort of jargon, what they mean by ‘your country’ is ‘your government’: country just being politicalese for government.

So if we use country in the sense that it was meant by Kennedy (and by all politicians who appeal to patriotism) then the sentence reads:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your government can do for you; ask what you can do for your government.

When looked at in this manner, it’s not quite such a friendly message!

There are, of course, other issues with patriotism. Some see it as a form of, or an excuse for, racism: showing preference to one’s own type rather than others (group dynamics); and problems can arise when a sub-culture in society, such as a religious group (e.g. Muslims), holds their allegiance to their religion in higher regard than to their country of residence.

Perhaps the fundamental problem with patriotism is that it creates a group mentality. This can give rise to the problems that are caused by group dynamics, whether within a nation or with other nations; and group dynamics are an easy way for leaders (not even just political ones) to influence people’s thinking - think of 'Johnny Foreigner' in war time and 'immigrants' in peace time.

I don’t think pride in one’s country is a bad thing, but this is different from blind patriotism (which I see as an irrational notion). So let’s be proud to be British, but let’s have a more cosmopolitan attitude to other peoples and cultures.

Our children can be proud of their country and become good and responsible citizens without this notion of blind allegiance to those who are in power.

Patriotism is generally considered to be a good thing (pride in your country etc.) but as there are two main ideas as to what patriotism is (constructive and blind) we need to be wary of the equivocal use of the term. When governments are calling for patriotism to be taught to schoolchildren, we really ought to consider what it is they mean by it. We may assume it’s a good idea because patriotism is good; but if it’s a case of a non-questioning, obedient attitude being encouraged, then it might just not be such a good idea after all.