Samuel Johnson said it was “the last resort of scoundrels“; Emma Goldman, a menace to liberty. Leo Tolstoy said it “as a feeling is bad and harmful, and as a doctrine is stupid“. Patriotism, at least in its usual sense of love of one’s country over others, veneration of the virtue of its people over others, and adoration of its flag, is awful, irrational nonsense.

How on earth one can deduce moral values, or even a positive emotional response, from a geographic entity — indeed, such powerful emotions as to move men to war (yes, usually men) — has always eluded me.

It may be that there may be various administrative reasons to divide a geographical area (like the earth, or a continent) into official or legal sub-regions (like countries, or states).

More importantly, it may be that, for one born in a land oppressed by a colonist, an occupier, or other oppressor, the natural solidarity among those oppressed peoples in their legitimate resistance may be expressed in the language of patriotism.

And it may be that there can be good, even uniquely good, things about a nation’s culture, and that it is worth recalling them occasionally — though there will equally be bad, even uniquely bad aspects also. One must never forget that people everywhere are roughly equally good and equally bad.

It may also be that countries may have sporting teams, or the like, and it can be fun to barrack for them.

Beyond that, there is nothing positive to say about patriotism.

Even if a country is physically beautiful, others are too. Even if a country’s culture or people are wonderful, others are too. There are wonderful people and wonderful ideas everywhere, just as there are horrible people everywhere. Venerating only those nearby, to the exclusion of others, is insular, narcissistic, and leads naturally to racism, chauvinism, and xenophobia.

Even if the highly dubious conceit of orthodox patriotism is true for a country — that this nation is great and to be preferred over others, despite all the other ones believing the same — it does not follow that that one ought to venerate this nation: if one wants to venerate something, one should venerate good things and good people, whether here, there or anywhere.

(Incredibly, orthodox patriotism means that vast numbers people in every land can believe precisely this, despite those elsewhere thinking the same. They cannot all be right, but they can all be wrong — living “in a gross and harmful delusion“. It is the same with all religions claiming to be the one true religion, of course. It discloses something deep, and deeply worrisome, about the human condition, that vast numbers of people are capable of this conceit.)

What matters are universal moral values, equity, justice, freedom, and so on; not the country in which they are expressed. One’s specific birthplace or homeland or nation is irrelevant.

This is kindergarten level morals; except that the corresponding kindergarten situation, of a group of children each boasting they are the best, will be resolved by a game or by a distraction, rather than by oppression, detention archipelagos, or war.

Perhaps the worst aspect of patriotism is in the cultural realm. It creates mythologies, with deep and powerful emotions latent within its manufactured communities. These emotions, fueled also by resentment of outsiders, can be manipulated by regressive political forces to reinforce inequalities, persecute outsiders, and stoke wars.

These mythologies are created when a nation’s history is recounted as virtuous, dramatic and heroic. But it is the same with other nations; and if retelling the story of one nation excludes other peoples and nations (or worse, disparages or invokes hatred of them), then it leads in the direction of, at best, insularity and stagnation, and at worst, militarism, oppression and war.

Then there is Australia.

Here, the magnitude of the artifice required to tell the nation’s history as a virtuous story is itself heroic. The result is an increasingly viciously enforced cultural orthodoxy, together with a crushing cultural cringe.

An island continent, home to hundreds of Indigenous nations, until colonised by an imperial power to create an antipodean jail; the original inhabitants and rightful owners dispossessed by the accumulation of property and capital and microbes, by genocidal policy, and by over a century of smouldering frontier war; no galvanizing wars fought for independence, only complicity in the motherland’s imperial ambitions, and a standard role in humanity’s propensity for worldwide violence; with all the bravery, heroism, obedience, murder and atrocity that entails. The overall arc of post-settlement history must be twisted beyond recognition to confect an orthodox patriotic mythology.

There are plenty of heroic Australians, to be sure; just as there are plenty of villains, and everything in between. And there are plenty of legitimate sources of pride in that nation’s achievements, just as there are plenty of horrific sources of shame.

Nothing more and nothing less; special in some ways and not in others; which is precisely the negation of every orthodox patriotic myth.

The last resort of scoundrels

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