Saturday, October 10, 2015

An Unparalleled Congeries of Imbecilities

Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose, which is a suspiciously foreign way of saying: Every few years, some ardent left-wing Guardian columnist decides it's time to take "a new approach" to patriotism.

This week, it's earnest sixth-former Owen Jones.  "What is more loving of one’s own country than wanting to rid it of injustice?", he asks.  "What is more patriotic than wanting the majority to have a fairer share of the country’s wealth and success?".

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable, until you remember that "patriotism", in the sense that it's used by the Daily Mail, has little or nothing to do with a love of justice or fairness, and even less to do with  actual love for the people or the nation.  Despite its endless pom-pom-waving for Britain, you'll notice that the Mail has nothing but contempt for most of the people who actually live here.

The kind of patriotism we're talking about is mainly just resentment and cowardice.  It's a blunt refusal to even attempt to see the world as it is.  It's a joyful retreat into an infantile fantasy world where everything bad is somebody else's fault, and all of our problems can be solved by reliance on childish concepts like faith, flags and force. 

If this sounds like it's indistinguishable from Jingoism, well then, that's because it is Jingoism.  This form of patriotism - self-pitying belligerence, worship of a country that doesn't exist and never has existed, aimed at rallying crowds of us to oppose them - is the only kind that counts in politics.  Anything less is inherently suspect.

If you doubt this, consider: we've had an abject lesson right here in Scotland within the last couple of years.  For a large number of Scots, "patriotism" has now come to mean "desiring independence from the UK".  To this part of the populace, the very idea that a person could be any kind of true patriot, and yet have no interest in Scottish independence, is an outright logical impossibility.  It's an absurdity that can no more be true than 2+2=5 can be correct.

I've lived here for 37 years and I have no desire to live anywhere else*.  When I wrote this, I typed up a long ramble about my affection for the people and places I've known my entire life, but then realised - what's the point?  Unless it ends with the words "And thus Scotland should be an independent country", every sentence would be seen as cravenly dishonest, if not actively infuriating, by many Scots.

As it is in the UK, so it is elsewhere.  In Russia, patriotism isn't much more than non-stop, woe-is-us boo-hoo about the rest of the planet's endless disrespect, and dark mutterings that a bit of healthy violence would settle their treachery.  In the US, it means saluting the flag, singing louder and hating anyone who suggests that there's anything wrong with America except for its abundance of traitorous hippies.  In China, the very notion that China isn't the bestest nation ever, or that the Communist Party isn't the most awesome government of all time, is tantamount to treason.

This is why there's really no point in trying to redefine "patriotism", in Britain or anywhere else.  The very attempt suggests that there's something wrong with the idea, which is the same as saying that there's something terribly wrong with the country itself - something wrong with its traditions, its people, its singular contribution to the blah blah of etc. etc.

As well to redefine "Tuesday" or "sausages".  Or maybe better, since nobody's going to kick your head in for re-examining bangers and mash.   

Which is all another way of saying - the Labour Party, the Greens, the Lib Dems, none of these people will ever be accepted as patriots in the way that e.g. David Cameron or Nigel Farage are patriots.  A reasonable discussion of what constitutes patriotism is impossible, because this kind of patriotism is utterly inimical to reason.  It's imperviousness to argument is the very reason for its existence.

Better not to seek acceptance on these terms, when the mere attempt is an admission of guilt.


*Well, I could handle a couple of months of the year living somewhere a bit hotter, but no more than that.

14 comments:

Metatone said...

Some persuasive thinking there.
Yet, if someone other than Osborne or Farage is to come out of the next election smelling of roses, then "patriotism" will need at least neutralising as an issue, no?

Anonymous said...

I thought that patriotism = loving your country

And nationalism = hating everyone else's

Phil said...

On that basis, the fact that the SNP don't wish England any harm ought to mean they're nice patriots rather than nasty nationalists, but clearly this isn't always the case. The trouble is that both patriotism and nationalism mean thinking your country's great because, well, just because, and disagreeing strongly with anyone who thinks otherwise - including, or especially, people who just think they've got more important things to think about.

Patriotism vs nationalism - and other ways of drawing a line between nasty nationalism and nice nationalism, e.g. 'civic nationalism' vs 'ethnic nationalism' - is ultimately a judgment call, usually made by somebody who's aware of liberal and radical critiques of nationalism but wants to exempt somebody from them, e.g. arguing that the fact that Plaid Cymru are nationalists doesn't make them Tories. It's understandable - particularly given that some leftists will maintain that Plaid Cymru are Tories given half a chance - but I've come to the conclusion that it's misguided: when nationalists are (e.g.) socialists and democrats, it's because they're also socialists and democrats, not because they partake of some special progressive form of nationalism. (I know whereof I speak - for a couple of years in the 1980s I was the only English nationalist on the Left. Don't ask.)

Ken Eadie, the prince of strikers said...

I read Jones’ article and it’s clearly written through the prism of Orwell’s ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ in which Orwell argues that socialism and patriotism are mutually compatible. Indeed it is no more patriotic than to be a democratic socialist, a line of thinking that of course reached its apotheosis in the unassuming figure of Major Attlee.

As an aside, every time another middle eastern bombing campaign starts, the opening lines of TLATU are brought to mind-

" As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."

ejh said...

I thought that patriotism = loving your country

And nationalism = hating everyone else's


This might well be the case, and certainly many people I respect have made precisely this distinction. However, none of them have ever troubled themselves to start questioning other people on whether or not they love their country, or whether they do so enough. It's maybe in that difference, rather than the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, that we should be most interested.

flyingrodent said...

The trouble is that both patriotism and nationalism mean thinking your country's great because, well, just because, and disagreeing strongly with anyone who thinks otherwise - including, or especially, people who just think they've got more important things to think about.

Thinking that there are more important things to think about than Scottish independence is, to many, the same as being a raging unionist. To a small but loud number, it's evidence of worse.

In my view, the old line about the difference between nationalism and patriotism is deficient. A better measure is if you're happy to just love your country in your own quiet way, or if you have very vocal opinions on how everybody else should feel about your country.

The former is great; the latter is the identifying mark of the utter dickhead.

(There may be examples that go against this judgement, but I'd bet they arise most commonly in extreme circumstances and are generally historical).

I am aware that my own noisy anti-patriotism places me in the ranks of the dickheads rather than the not-dickheads. But then, I never said I wasn't one.

Stephen L said...

Anyone invoking patriotism in support of a political project is pretty much being nationalist. This is more often acknowledged when you are part of a movement that doesn't have a state, like Nicola Sturgeon, than if you are part of one which does, like Gordon Brown and Owen Jones.

when nationalists are (e.g.) socialists and democrats, it's because they're also socialists and democrats, not because they partake of some special progressive form of nationalism.

... and the point you can tell that they are nationalists is when they put they put the national project ahead of democracy and socialism - which is pretty much always ( the contortions of the "I'm not a nationalist but" brigade supporting eg an Indy Scotland being in a currency union, or worse , support of the Alex Salmond advocate, Adam Smith Institute endorsed option of "just using the pound" were pitiful to watch). On this one _ let's see if the SNP in Westminster vote against the Govt on extending the right to buy in Housing Associations in England .

The idea that the SNP don't wish harm on the English is well meant I'm sure, but not one that can survive sitting through Gaberlunzie performing at an SNP conference social...

Incidentally the Gruaniad effort at claiming the flag for the left by Owen Jones is by no means the worst such attempt available. Connoisseurs of failure should seek out Jim Murphy's speech where he announced his 'clause 4' moment. Where he announced he was going to write governing "in the patriotic interest" into the Scottish Labour Party's aims and values.

Ken said...

'Of all the idiotic and perverted ideas accepted by the workers from that class who live upon their misery, patriotism is the worst.'

(I thought that was by Eugene Debs, but I can only find it online attributed to the IWW.)

Igor Belanov said...

I was under the impression that nationalism always has a political dimension, in that it believes that national identity and political sovereignty should coincide, while patriotism involves an emotional attachment and identity but need not have any political connotations.

ejh said...

It's a bit more than identity though, isn't it?

Igor Belanov said...

I suppose if you extend it beyond identity then it becomes national chauvinism. I should have added that nationalism relies on national identity being the predominant source of identification, above region, class, race, religion, gender, etc. Deutschland uber alles.

Anonymous said...

Loving the posts as always, Rodent. But Owen Jones is 31, and you have just revealed you are 37 - only six years your junior, as opposed to sixth-former. Heh heh!

flyingrodent said...

Owen Jones is 31, and you have just revealed you are 37 - only six years your junior, as opposed to sixth-former.

I suppose we must have a real Harrison Ford/Sean Connery thing going here...

dsquared said...

I can't remember who (Ambrose Bierce?) pointed out that patriotism is simply a form of vanity - it's a deep and abiding love of your country, not for any of its objective properties, but simply because you, yourself, happened to be born there.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is just the belief that your lot would be better off if they were in charge of their own affairs rather than being ruled by some other lot. That's the harmless form anyway. The more toxic version is where you extend that view to the belief that your lot would be better off ruling over some other lot, and therefore you should. But I don't think anyone in the SNP thinks that, although you can have fun sometimes asking awkward questions about Shetland.