Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A defence of liberal patriotism

George Monbiot writes about patriotism in today's Guardian. His article has been described by one Lib Dem blogger (Chris Ward) as "excellent", but I have to differ.

Monbiot sets out to prove that a liberal patriotism is unsustainable, yet he wastes a large part of the article repeating some nonsense that from the Daily Telegraph that no liberal would entertain for a moment.

He argues that:
When confronted with a conflict between the interests of your country and those of another, patriotism, by definition, demands that you choose those of your own.
I am not convinced that your country's interests lie at the heart of patriotism. And even if they do, liberals and conservatives take divergent views of where those interests lie often enough for a liberal and a conservative patriotism to be very different animals.

So, though Monbiot writes:
To the extent that the invasion of Iraq motivated the terrorists, and patriotism made Britain's participation in the invasion possible, it was patriotism that got us into this mess.
it is equally true to say that it was patriotism that took many people on to the streets of London to protest against the war.

As George Orwell knew, patriotism is too important to be surrendered to the Tories. Monbiot acknowledges his view, but then argues that because Orwell said this during the Second World War it applied only in wartime conditions and we can ignore it now. I find this argument very unconvincing.

He does penetrate to the heart of the subject when he writes:
I don't hate Britain, and I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I don't, and the same goes for everywhere else I've visited.
Patriotism is about love, and love is irrational. You do not love your partner or your children because you have been shown logically compelling reasons for doing so. You either feel that love or you do not.

He is right that love for one's country can be a destructive force and lead one to do wrong. But then so can any form of love. It is hard to see why patriotism should be seen as illegitimate purely on these grounds.

What interests me more, however, is the psychological cost of a position like Monbiot's. He writes:
To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others. It is impossible to reconcile this with either the evidence of your own eyes or a belief in the equality of humankind.

Again this seems wrong to me: it is possible to love your country while seeing much wrong with it and accepting that they order these things better abroad.

More importantly, I suspect that there is a lot of lying to oneself amongst those who have schooled themselves not to be patriotic. They feel the stirrings of illicit love but deny that love because it makes them feel ashamed.

I am reminded of a passage by Christopher Lasch which I quoted on my anthology blog Serendib. It runs in part:

Rootless men and women take no more interest in the future than they take in the past; but instead of reminding us of the need for roots, many advocates of disarmament and environmental conservation, understandably eager to associate their cause with the survival of the planet as a whole, deplore the local associations and attachments that impede the development of a "planetary consciousness" but also make it possible for people to think constructively about the future instead of lapsing into cosmic panic and futuristic desperation.

This seems to me exactly right and neatly ties together Monbiot's dismissal of patriotism with the apocalyptic strain that has come to dominate green politics.

Just as it hard to believe someone who professes to love mankind when he shows no sign of loving any individual person, so it is hard to believe someone who says he loves the world when he shows no affection for any individual part of it.


Anonymous said...

Well argued Mr Calder!

Anonymous said...

Spot on.

"I have no idea why I should love my parents more than anyone else. There are some things I like about them and some things I don't, and the same goes for everyone else I've met."

Tom Barney said...

While I agree that "There are some things I like about [Britain] and some things I don't, and the same goes for everywhere else I've visited", the things I don't like enrage me more than those of any other country, and they do so precisely because of feelings of patriotism.

Incidentally, although I have no experience of this, it must surely be possible to have feelings of patriotism for more than one country just as it is possible to be bilingual.

Simon Titley said...

There is a risk in this debate of forcing a division between cosmopolitanism and patriotism (in Jonathan's healthy sense of the word, as opposed to the jingoistic variety).

We all benefit from having roots and a sense of belonging, but there is no reason why this should preclude an appreciation of, or curiosity about, the wider world. The two should complement one another. The French have a very good expression for this - "racines et ailes" = roots and wings.

This theme is explored in the German TV drama Heimat (recently released on DVD). Despite being 15 hours long, it is one of the finest TV dramas ever made and I can strongly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

There is an alternative take on the patriotism debate on the Apollo Project (linked from this blog)