I had a minor and pointless online squabble with an American lady this morning about her belief that a person’s nationality ought to be considered a ‘gift’ or ‘blessing’. It got me to thinking about patriotism, and how curious a concept it actually is.
What is it? What does it mean to be American, or English, French or Guatemalan? I genuinely don’t think it really means anything at all, personally. Why should I feel PROUD about something that is in no way an achievement? That is, quite literally, an accident of birth?
If there is a reason why should I take some sort of credit for a nation’s past glories and achievements because I was born in the place, I really don’t know what that reason might be. If I'm going to be proud of England's achievements, I'd have to be ashamed of its faults, and the only faults I can be held responsible for are my own. I don't see why I should take responsibility for a nation's past mistakes, given that they were acts perpetrated by other people. I personally no more raped and pillaged in Scotland in the 1300s than I bought and sold African slaves (talking of which, Tony Blair stopping short of an apology for Britain's part in eighteenth century slavery was entirely understandable, given that he hasn't apologised for 21st Century Iraq and Afghanistan). Nor do I blame others for their nation's past: I don't mutter 'Auschwitz' like a peculiar Tourettes sufferer whenever I meet anyone from Hamburg, for example (I do have an inexplicably poor record with the Swiss, but let us draw a veil over that).
Would I feel more impressed with Alfred Einstein if he was English? Conversely, would it be expected of me to feel more ashamed of Hitler if I had happened to have been born in Austria?
If I had joined a Russian family as a baby, would that make me Russian? Or would I be intrinsically English and only superficially Russian? And if it is our sincere wish to consider ourselves multicultural and multifaith societies, doesn’t that mean that anyone living in England is English and anyone in France becomes French (even if they’re Somalian or Australian by birth)? Or would that make people, say, Somalian first, French second? And if so, where does that leave their patriotic ‘loyalty’?
Do you see how this becomes an unworkable absurdity when you try and unravel it?
On a purely practical level, I’d much rather live in England than in sub-Saharan Africa (if I was the latter, I’d have a 79% chance of having HIV, which is clearly far from ideal), and I wouldn’t like to be living in Baghdad at the moment, cos I’m not particularly partial to being kidnapped, shot or bombed, but that’s really all there is to it. I don’t think there’s anything fabulous about me because I was born in England. Just as there’s nothing admirable about being from anywhere. So why do people wave a national flag around as a symbol of pride for something they haven’t actually achieved?
Patriotism is adding yet another layer of social differentiation to people’s lives that we could really do without. I simply don’t understand it, I really don’t.