From the Editor’s Keyboard

The Debate Over Patriotism

29 May 2014 at 17:18 | 5296 views

By Mohamed Turay, Guest Writer, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Is patriotism still a great Idea? The answer may depend on a host of factors including who is asking the question and to whom the question is being asked. This writer takes the view that while the practice of patriotism may be good, however the ideology itself contains questionable aspects. So, what’s your
definition of a patriot? Could it be that one’s “patriot” is another’s “traitor.”?

For starters, the commonest definition of a patriot is someone who loves his or her country, and is devoted or loyal to it. Based on the above definition, are individuals who criticize their governments and countries considered patriots? Probably “YES,” especially if the criticism is constructive and aimed at bringing about positive changes in the operations of individual countries and governments.

In a democracy, citizens are supreme, and are expected to engage actively in the formulation of policy. It is their patriotic duty to ensure that institutions of government are properly monitored to minimize the potential for abuse. And when abuse occurs, it is equally incumbent upon citizens to raise the alarm and resist such efforts. According to American writer Edward Abbey, “a patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” He or she must be willing to oppose individuals who employ glittering generalities about “patriotism” to rouse the emotions of compatriots and ordinary folks.

Worldwide “love of country” themes are popular and carefully choreographed and presented to unsuspecting members of the public as gospel truth. Any dissent or minor challenge to the status quo is often swiftly brought to an end either through violence, public humiliation or even death. Why is the world so committed to an ideology that is so divisive, perpetuates massive ignorance and bias and causes enormous suffering to fellow human beings? No wonder Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw stated, “you will never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race. Similarly, Ambrose Bierce noted that, “patriotism is as fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, blind as a stone, and irrational as a headless hen.” Patriotism fosters a “herd” and “robot” mentality; and promotes needless international conflicts. It categorizes us into “we versus them,” and allows citizens to unilaterally judge others and randomly administer punishment for actions considered unpatriotic. Besides, patriotism fuels racism, creates false enemies, and contributes to excesses in warfare. “The love of one’s country is splendid. But why should love stop at the border,” surmised famous author Pablo Casals. Patriotism violates fundamental religious teachings about loving thy neighbor as thyself, or being my “brother or sister’s keeper.”

In America, patriotism played a key role in the defeat of the British during the War of Independence and subsequent founding of the republic. Popular patriotic slogans during and after that war included:

“You are either with us or against us, Give me liberty or give me death, Live free or die, Don’t tread on me.” Probably the most controversial of these slogans is, “my country, right or wrong...,” attributed to Carl Schurz, a German-born American, who became a United States senator, and Army General in the American Civil War. Imagine the implications of Schurz’s words and extreme form of patriotism.

Among other things, it calls for absolute loyalty to one’s country regardless of whether the actions of a particular country are right or wrong. It’s like saying, “my country, never wrong.” Englishman Gilbert K. Chesterton, an opponent of unthinking and mindless patriotism, equated Schurz’s slogan to someone proclaiming “my mother, drunk or sober,” implying it doesn’t matter. This is probably an over stretch, but Chesterton’s point is easily perceptible.

Most definitely there are limitations to loving or supporting one’s country. Blind or unconditional support of any country can lead to major problems. Others may even view that as unpatriotic, since disagreements with your government or country on important matters of principle is commendable and highly recommended. It is important that you know what your government is doing. Don’t be bullied into silence or bamboozled to support spurious policies which may hurt the nation. Speak out loud and often, and in the words of Bob Marley, “Standup for your rights.” “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny, when the government fears the people, there is liberty,” declared Thomas Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence. Speaking out may help the government to rethink its policies, as well as enhance citizen participation in the nation’s governance. Always remember that it is easier to get rid of a bad government than to replace it with a good one. “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously,” stated the critically acclaimed and prolific British author Julian Barnes.

Besides, assuming that our only definition of patriotism is limited to unqualified or unrestricted love of country, an astute writer on the topic posed these questions: “what happens when the country is wrong or deficient in its policies, and does not deserve to be loved? What do you do when your patriotism
conflicts with your conscience, ethics or sense of fairness, and justice.”? In what seems to have been a direct response to the above thought provoking questions, British politician and historian James Bryce opined, “our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance. It is also owed to justice
and to humanity…” Similarly, renowned African American writer James Baldwin noted, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In other words, not everyone who criticizes his or her country is unpatriotic. On the contrary, some do so out of love and a truly genuine concern to highlight what is wrong and needs to be corrected. History has shown that political manipulation of the use of “patriotism” is a dangerous practice. In the first and second world wars, millions of people died because of raging patriotic fervor.

Nazi war criminal Herman Goering, an authority on the topic, maintained that citizens can always be manipulated to do the bidding of their leaders. “That is easy,” he said. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to
danger. It works the same way in any country.”