Rethinking patriotism

00:28, Jul 12 2013

What really makes people so suspicious of patriotism, as a personal attribute?

I mean I get it, in a surface way. Patriotism is not a modern quality.

We live in apathetic times. Younger generations are becoming less religious and the church itself has not been a model for much of anything, globally. Political leaders everywhere are becoming more and more disingenuous and slippery. Economies are failing and the old methods of fixing them don't work anymore. The things that people are supposed to believe in are falling apart.

On top of that, social progress - gay marriage, women's rights, etc - and a focus on protecting individual rights (something I support entirely) is undercut with just a smidge of nihilism.

There is no greater system of social beliefs that can be placed on a population anymore, so we are all left to live in line with our own individual, rather than national, morality.

To some, I know that patriotism is akin to extremism. To believe in the sanctity and value of a collective ideal that we can't touch or see turns geography into religion. The notion that the greater idea of New Zealand suffuses our land like some mysterious holy spirit and we're just meant to love it all of the same, it sure makes me think of church.  


Patriotism is a quality that has led to a lot of darker struggles through history. It is at the heart of the "us versus them" dynamic that is easily manipulated in people and can be put toward evil; you only need to look at Hitler and World War II, or the eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine, or the misguided American invasion of Iraq in 2003, for proof.

There's a great passage in Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs about an experiment he conducts, where he emails a group of his friends and asks them if they could date somebody who was attractive and successful, or attractive and successful and extremely patriotic, which would they prefer?

One of his friends responds that patriotism is on par with listening to Cat Stevens and liking movies starring Robin Williams. It is just a little uncool. I think that this, more than anything, is at the heart of our patriotic suspicions. We might know deep down that it can be dangerous, but instinctively it just seems a little earnest for our tastes.

Americans get stick for being patriotic chest-thumpers. There are flags everywhere here. Crowds break out into chants of "USA! USA!" without even a faint hint of self-awareness. Politicians here are compelled by cultural convention to expound on the virtues of this country as being the greatest on earth, the architects of modern democracy, etc etc.

I'd counter your suspicions about American patriotism by saying that the same instinct which leads you to try to write off an entire country and spew out the phrase, "Americans are all a bunch of..." is no different from patriotism, in any sense. It is a tacit endorsement of the idea that there is a set national character that can be easily ranked and assessed.

Our national obsession with the All Blacks and our insistence on feeling like less of a country when they lose is also compelled from a similar, patriotic place.

Americans are more overt about their patriotism, and while it is a little uncool (what is awesome about people dressed in flags, with face paint on, high-fiving each other? Nothing!) and a tad dangerous historically, it is also an unavoidable human instinct.

We all want to feel part of something, and a country, by virtue of our passports, is the obvious choice.

So I think that it is time we gave patriotism a break. What is wrong with taking pride in the country we were born into, that we pay tax to, that we spend most of our time in? 

In some ways, a distrust of patriotism for me ties into a death of belief in human community. The Internet has made islands out of all of us.

In World War II, patriotism and division led to some of the darkest acts ever recorded in human history, but by the same token it was the very reason that other countries rose up to fight. 

It's a quality, fuelled by loyalty and selflessness, that doesn't deserve outright dismissal. Thoughts?

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