Among the various explanations offered to make sense of the turbulent politics of recent years, one issue remains consistently overlooked: patriotism. National pride is rarely factored into the expert opinions, in-depth analyses and political commentaries.
And yet it’s central to so many of the issues that currently concern us. We can’t hope to fully understand the election of Donald Trump or the vote for Brexit, the rise of China or Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or the resurgence of right-wing populism in countries as different as Brazil and Italy, without at least an awareness of the power of patriotism. As George Orwell once wrote, ‘one cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism.’
It’s no overstatement to describe national pride as one of the most powerful forces in the world today. No other idea or belief is so widely held, so unreservedly praised or so uncritically accepted. It’s celebrated as a fundamental tenet of almost all political groups, left to right, mainstream to extreme.
However, venture beyond the usual pleasantries and platitudes that surround national pride, and it’s clear there are serious problems with the patriotic obsession in politics. Not only does patriotism account for so much of what’s going on in the world, it accounts for so much of what’s wrong in the world.
For one thing, why is it that members of the far-right are so fond of patriotism? Shouldn’t fellow patriots be concerned that patriotism is used by extremist groups, such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, to lend credence to their hateful beliefs? For another, what about the autocratic regimes governing China, Russia and North Korea, which likewise rely on national pride to boost public support and buttress their power? Then there’s the uncomfortable knowledge that patriotism, perhaps more than any other belief, is used worldwide to justify and even encourage war and violence.
On top of all this, the sentiment’s extraordinary sensitivity to criticism and dissent has led to an intolerant atmosphere in many countries, where the idea of challenging patriotism or being unpatriotic is not only considered wrong, but a crime that needs to be punished. What are we to make of those who have been arrested for failing to stand for the national anthem, told to leave their country for ‘disrespecting’ it, or even murdered for their perceived lack of patriotism?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a sentiment as ubiquitous and powerful as patriotism would be the subject of energetic debate, along with other important ideas such as liberalism and democracy. Not so. Wherever you go in the world, it’s simply assumed that national pride is a good thing. The pervasiveness and danger of patriotism makes this near-total absence of serious, critical discussion regarding it all the more remarkable.
This won’t be the case at Imagine! Belfast, where I’ll be discussing The Problem With Patriotism at The Crescent Arts Centre on 26th March. With examples from around the world, I’ll be making the case against patriotism, exploring the scientific, philosophical and political evidence which shows it to be an illogical, dangerous and unnecessary burden.
Not only would the world function perfectly well without national pride – despite the occasional fearmongering arguments to the contrary – but I’m convinced it would be a significant improvement on the one we’re currently stuck with. Patriotism, by putting our various nationalities before our common humanity, works to prevent a more integrated and peaceful world. We no longer have the time for such parochialism: the most pressing challenges we face today are global, not national, and it’s only globally that we can ever hope to solve them. I believe that the world awaiting us beyond the narrow and divisive confines of patriotism is more united, capable, exciting and hopeful.
Do you agree? Or do you think patriotism has a purpose in the 21st century? Join the debate! You can find out more about my talk on the 26th March at the Crescent Arts Centre, and book your tickets, here.
David Mountain is a writer and researcher based in Edinburgh.