The Ethics Of… Patriotism

They say that travel broadens the mind, but I’ve often found returning home opens your eyes the most. It is one thing to travel to foreign lands and learn about the incredible diversity of cultures and ways of life in the world, so different to our own yet so normal for others. It is completely another however, to come back home and see your own country, it’s customs and it’s people through eyes that have seen the alternatives out there. Things you once never noticed become glaringly obvious – customs and behaviours that you never questioned before, never even really thought about before, stand out as completely bizarre – the way Australians insist on putting winter-themed Christmas decorations up in temperatures that nearly melt them is a good example. Combined with this shattering of your sense of normality, the questions people ask you when you return home are enough to shake you to your core.

It was 2010 when I returned from a year solo backpacking through Europe. Still reeling a bit from the reverse-culture shock, I was at my old high school doing a talk about my experiences when one of the students asked the question that stopped me dead in my tracks;

“When you were travelling, were you proud to be an Australian?”

12 months prior I would have answered that question in a heartbeat. Of course I’m proud to be an Australian! Australia is a great country! It might not be perfect, but it’s my home and I love it. But this time that answer seemed hollow. Australia is a great country? What does that mean exactly? After all those European nations I’d visited, after all the things I’d seen done better than Australia does them, after coming home and realising just how incredibly unpleasant parts of the Australian culture can be, can I honestly say that Australia and everything in it is ‘great’?

And was that ever true? To say “Australia is a great country” or that “I’m proud to be an Australian” is a massive sweeping statement. What about all the things I don’t like or that I’m not proud to be associated with? What about the widespread racist undertones that colour our reaction to immigrants? Or the way we so frequently scorn Aboriginal Australians for being in the mess our ancestors put them in? What about our drinking culture that borders on self-destruction? Or the way we’re so happy to excuse nearly any crime, even rape, provided of course that the offender is really good at football?

And the funny thing is that this is true even if you don’t think these things are a problem – if you’re totally fine with our passive discrimination towards brown people, you’re hardly going to be fine with the legal line of multiculturalism, are you? No matter which way you slice it, there are big parts of Australia that any individual will dislike, simply because anything as massive and complex as a country is going to contain a lot of contradictory behaviours and standards.

Am I proud to be an Australian? What does that even mean?

But this is just semantics, right? You can still be proud of something even if it’s not perfect, you just need to do your best to improve on the flaws. Indeed you could argue that is the defining characteristic of a patriot; someone who is proud of their country regardless of its problems, and is willing to do what it takes to overcome these flaws. Hooray for patriotism!

But this comforting line of reasoning still wasn’t quite doing it for me. There had always been something… disquieting about being proud of my nationality that I’d never been able to put my finger on exactly. I’d usually gotten around it by writing it off to the way patriotic messages tend to be used to promote bigoted agendas, rather than a problem with patriotism itself, but after a year travelling I wasn’t so sure this was right any more.

A nasty, persistent little question kept floating into my head; when was the last time I was proud to be Australian that didn’t involve comparing Australia to another country? Think about that for a second. When do we as a people really stand up and say, “I am proud to be an Australian?”

Sport is the first thing to come to mind, when our team is competing against other nations to see who is the best. If they weren’t competing against other countries, but rather other Australian teams, would we be wrapped in patriotic fervour then? Of course not, we’d barrack based on whatever state or region they were from. Why is that? They’re still Australian teams, surely if patriotism is about celebrating who we are then we shouldn’t need other countries around to feel that way.

How about Australia Day then? The day where we all celebrate the birth of our modern nation (while awkwardly ignoring the theft and genocide that made it possible) by taking a day off, going to the beach, wearing vaguely-patriotic clothing and relaxing. No other countries are involved in that, so surely that shows we can be patriotic without comparing ourselves to others, right? But ask yourself, how much of what we do on Australia Day is actually in any way about being proud of our nation? The vast majority of us just appreciate an excuse for a day off, and wear our green and gold thongs more for the look of the thing rather than to actually make a statement about the state of the the nation.

Except of course for those that do take Australia Day seriously; the small but extremely vocal group every year who, decked out in their Australian flag cape, make it their mission to tell everyone they can how awesome Australia is. How do they do this? Why, by ragging on foreigners and immigrants of course! Sometime physically! Even their moto, “Australia is the best country in the world!” confirms the pattern – not just that Australia is a great country, but the best in the world. We can’t even stop comparing ourselves to other countries even when none of them are paying us any attention.

But what’s the problem with that? Even if patriotism seems to be built entirely around comparing ourselves to other countries, why does that make it a negative thing? Nearly all pride functions like this after all; we’re proud of winning at sport, aceing a school test, or physical looks, or our artistic skills. Just because these things are relative to those we are better than doesn’t mean we should be proud of our achievements does it? Well there’s two answers to that:

1. Measuring our quality relative to others, whether that be how great our country is or how pretty we are, is a brilliant way of making yourself a neurotic ball of smugness and anxiety. Either you’re going to be gloating at those who are ‘below’ you, or stressing about those ‘above’ you, and this is never going to stop because you will never be the best at everything – even if you were, you’d have to worry about threats to your very many titles. It’s little wonder then that the most loudly patriotic among us also seem be the most insecure and easily threatened.

2. You have sweet bugger all to do with anything you’re proud about. Every human being is a product of a million different factors they have no control over, from their genetics to their upbringing, their nationality, their socio-economic status, right through to which post code they belong to determining which schools they are eligible for. All of this means that it’s debatable whether an individual has any influence over what they achieve in life, let alone how great their home country is. So if you had virtually no control over the state of your country, what the hell do you have to feel proud about? And when everyone else had equally as little to do with their situations, let alone where they were born (or can afford to move to), how can we justify comparing ourselves to them, let alone feeling smugly proud about our superior situation?

Enough dancing around the point, allow me to put my cards on the table: patriotism is not about the celebration of who we are and what we have achieved, it’s a celebration of what we are not, who we are better than, and why we should look down on them. It’s a divisive, alienating, simple-minded response to our own insecurities, attempting to make ourselves feel better about our problems by mocking those who have it worse, and resenting those who have it better.

I stood there, staring blankly as this realisation thundered through my head in front of that class of increasingly uncomfortable high school students, and realised that this was why I had never been comfortable with the idea of patriotism. Arseholes like Pauline Hanson, John Howard and the Cronulla rioters didn’t hijack patriotism, they were products of it. ‘Aussie Pride’ wasn’t being twisted to their agendas to fear and loath outsiders, to wilfully ignore our own shortcomings and blame others for them – being proud of our country and comparing ourselves endlessly against other nations, despite none of us being able to claim much credit for our situations, was the neurotic soil in which the diseased plants of xenophobia found root.

So am I proud to be an Australian? No, but neither am I ashamed. I did not have a god damn thing to do with being born here, and despite what I’d like to tell you, I’m yet to personally have had much of an influence over the current state of the nation. But while that means being proud of my country makes no damn sense, so too is being ashamed of my country equally ridiculous, despite its many flaws. And once we’re free of this patriotic allegiance to the idea of a nation, the situation becomes a lot less uncomfortable:

I am an individual who lives in Australia. There are many good things about Australia, as well as many bad things. The good things should be celebrated and encouraged. The bad things must be changed. And on this very simple basis, free of all the anxiety and arrogance of patriotism, my duty is clear.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Patriotism

  1. I can’t promise this will be short, but I will try. lol

    Let me just start by saying that I feel the same way about patriotism. The more I read your stuff about attitudes in Australia the more I find how similar they are to the U.S. I sort of expected Australia to be a bit more like Canada, but that appears to not be the case. I guess that both the U.S. and Australia are relatively young countries that developed in isolation. Canada is no less isolated but I think it’s proximity to the U.K. gave us a little more parental supervision than Australia or the U.S. 🙂 I often compare the U.S. to an unruly teenager. Teenagers are rebellious, think they are always right, and when undisciplined can be fairly destructive. lol

    Growing up Canada was not very patriotic. Some argued that we should be more proud of who we are as a nation, and I agree to a certain extent, but after living in the U.S. now for18 and half years seeing the extremes of patriotism makes me want to err on the side of being a lot less prideful. I think comparing a country’s behavior to how we behave as individuals is sometimes very a propos. When we reflect and find a fault in ourselves, there is a part of us who fights against. Who says “Hey, no, you’re great, everybody else is wrong!”. And as Freud side our minds are in constant conflict superego and ego, ego and id. There is a prevalent attitude, especially amongst conservatives that if you criticize the country then you are not a patriot. They represent that voice inside us all that tells you that you are doing great even when you aren’t. Admitting you are wrong about something, admitting you are treating people well, admitting that you aren’t very good at relationship, etc, well these can leave you stressed, depressed, and shakes the very foundation of your being. Nevertheless if you did practice that type of self reflection and correction you get used to and you actually learn to value it, because as you reform yourself you realize that you do get better and that you are happier than when you were simply deluding yourself that everything was alright. The attitude also causes you to usually seek help and to learn more.

    The fact that many countries, probably not just the U.S. and Australia don’t act like this, shows that Patriotism is tightly tied to belief. I know Richard Dawkins has made this comparison before as well. There are some people that have beliefs, but are also not afraid to be critical of the dogma of their own religion and of people who claim to share the same faith but do not act humble and compassionate. Then there are those who hold beliefs who are fanatics. Who think that their religion is the best, and that all others are going to burn in eternal damnation because they believe in false gods, or no gods, or whatever. They are as guilty of religious exceptionalism as many in the U.S. (and from what it sounds like is the case in Australia) are of American exceptionalism. Our country can do no wrong, no other country has anything of value to teach us, and the fate that other countries have suffered in history will not happen to us because we are simply better. Of course now that the democrats are in power, they are happy to criticize and call it their patriotic duty to do so. If you are liberal you are un-American and the population is extremely divided here in the U.S. The anti-immigrant sentiment among conservatives is also very strong, despite the fact that they were all immigrants at one time, and that many immigrants here in the U.S. want to be here, love the country and appreciate it as much as anybody else. History of course shows that as each wave of immigrants came in there was just as much hostility to those outside groups. Anti-Irish, Anti-Italian and now Anti-Latino. Outside groups are always perceived as a threat to nationalism, despite the fact that over time those outside groups get absorbed into the country and then a new wave of immigrants becomes the object of hate.

    I guess the most surprising thing is why do governments not act like the more self-reflective, self-correcting individuals instead of trying to always trump up the delusional brand of patriotism. It’s not like if some leader just “Man, we are really fucking up right now, we need to change our ways. We are losing respect globally, our infrastructure is falling apart, and we really need to do a better job of accept other people who want to be part of our nation, just as we once wanted acceptance when came here”. Unlike an individual whose vision of self may be shattered and could fall into depression, it seems unlikely that people would become depressed and start going “yeah we suck, let’s move to a different country!” Rather I think if governments took an honest self-critical view of the country people would actually come together instead of being divided and work together towards solving the nation’s problems. Perhaps I am just being naïve.

    Attempts to keep my response short have clearly failed. lol

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… “Australia: Love it or Leave” | The Ethics Of

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