11 September 2004

Patriots and scoundrels

By Rupert Read

When I was at university, I took part in a debate. I spoke in favour of the motion, 'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.'

Twenty years on, little has changed. For instance, I took no pleasure in this summer's Olympics: the naked jingoism of the media coverage, even that of the (supposedly 'objective') BBC, made the whole thing too painful to bear. I didn't necessarily want some British bloke I had never heard of to beat a skilful sporting opponent from another nation. Why should I 'support' someone, just because they are British? Isn't it a bit sad to feel happy if someone who you have never met beats someone else you have never met (but who has a foreign accent) at Synchronized Underwater Weightlifting?!

You could call me an internationalist. And an internationalist surely cannot be a nationalist. And yet, some of my cultural heroes call themselves 'patriots': Billy Bragg, in Britain; Michael Moore, in America.

And when I was campaigning in the Council elections, this June, I noticed something that surprised me: Many of the houses which were flying St. George's England flags (the elections took place about the same time as the 'Euro 2004' Soccer competition) were also sporting posters for one political party or another, including (indeed, especially) my own Party, the Greens.

That made me stop and think: Perhaps those people who identify with their country are not narrowly nationalistic? Perhaps many patriots are people who really care about their locality, and about their whole world, too.

Why else would it be that people supporting their national soccer team were also supporting political parties, parties trying to change things in a positive way? Maybe the reason why there were England flags and party-political-posters hanging from the same windows was that the same people who cared enough to shout for their country also cared enough to shout for the Party that they believed would make that country better. But then the following worry came to me: is Britain really a force for good in the world?

Next week, Norwich will be joining in the celebrations of 'Battle of Britain Week'. What is this event really for? Is it for the remembrance of past heroism? Or is the reason that our rulers fund events such as this that it helps them to justify present-day atrocities and illegalities? In the run-up to the attack on Iraq, in 2002-3 just as in 1990-1, we were often told that Saddam was 'a new Hitler'. This was silly propaganda: Hitler led the most powerful armed forces in the world, whereas Saddam's army was a pitiful remnant only. But invoking the ghost of the Second World War seemed to help Blair and Bush 'justify' their illegal war of aggression.

When the British Army is illegally occupying and subjugating another people, having first blasted many tens of thousands of those people to their deaths, some of us may find it hard not to feel ashamed of our country. It is hard to have any enthusiasm for the flag, when that flag has far too often thoughtlessly been waved - in our name - over the bodies of dead foreigners.

We humans need community. But too often, patriotism doesn't give us any real community. Instead, it gives us only a mythical sense of belonging, a sense that can then be exploited by unscrupulous leaders.

So I am still unsure. Does patriotism always lead to perdition? Or is it only that the worst scoundrels - such as the 'leaders of the free world' - use and abuse patriotism, to try to get away with murder? Is the problem really with the way that politicians and Generals twist love of country so that it turns into hate for certain foreigners?

It cannot be right to say, "We should not speak against war, when our troops are fighting", if what they are fighting in is an immoral war. It cannot be right to say, "My country right or wrong". That kind of disgraceful attitude is exactly what led to Hitlerism - and more recently, in the US, to the appallingly authoritarian 'Patriot Act' (introduced as a response to the events of September 11th 2001) which virtually abolishes free speech and 'habeas corpus'. Would a true patriot support the destruction of the very liberties for which the people have fought so hard, the very liberties that make one's country truly worth defending?

So: is being a patriot nevertheless quite compatible with being someone who cares about their neighbourhood, and about the planet as a whole?

Given the number of people who are keen to call themselves 'patriotic', we should hope that the answer is 'Yes'. Who knows; maybe one day, when patriotism is identified not with being a 'Little Englander' but with one's country doing the right thing the world over, then it will be easy for everyone to be proud of being British.