Georgia O'Keefe Flag

This essay, on nationalism, patriotism and civic pride, was my Observer column this week.   (The column included also a short piece on academics publishing controversial ideas anonymously). It was published in the Observer, 18 November 2018, under the headline ‘Patriotism is meaningless if it doesn’t embrace acts of defiance’.

Nationalism, the French president Emmanuel Macron suggested at last week’s Armistice commemoration in Paris, ‘is a betrayal of patriotism’. The phrase made the headlines, not least because it was seen as a rebuke to Donald Trump, who was also attending the ceremony. It caught the imagination, too, because it spoke to a contemporary dilemma: how to assuage the widespread sense that societies are becoming more incohesive without encouraging nationalist fervour.

For Macron, nationalism is exclusive, aggressive, ideological. Patriotism is a felt sentiment of love and decency, of attachment to a place or tradition. It’s a distinction that George Orwell would have appreciated. Patriotism, he suggested in his Notes on Nationalism, expresses ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people’. It is ‘defensive, both militarily and culturally’. Nationalism, on the other hand, ‘is inseparable from the desire for power’.

Neither the concepts of nationalism and patriotism, nor the relationship between the two, is, however, as simple as Orwell or Macron describe.

Nationalism has always been double-edged. It has helped undermine more parochial divisions, allowing people to identify with a collectivity beyond the narrow confines of their immediate community, and establishing institutions that embed democracy. It has also helped institutionalise the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, entrenching chauvinist ideologies and fostering the idea of homogenous national cultures. Nationalism can be progressive in certain contexts, regressive in others.

Equally, patriotism cannot be reduced to a simple sense of attachment to a place or tradition. It is a deeply politicised sentiment and wielded often in divisive ways.

Consider, for instance, the US controversy over Colin Kaepernick, and other NFL players, ‘taking the knee’ – kneeling, not standing – for the national anthem, in protest at police killings of African Americans.

There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’, wrote Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem renaissance, in Let America be America Again:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

Kaepernick’s actions echo Hughes’s words, both demanding that America lives up to its professed ideals. Many would view that as a patriotic stance. For critics, however, including Trump, Kaepernick’s protest, and no doubt Hughes’s poem if they knew of it, disrespect America, dishonour the flag and are profoundly unpatriotic.

Or take the furore in France over Macron’s decision to celebrate Philippe Pétain for his ‘greatness’ during the First World War, despite having later led the pro-Nazi Vichy regime after German occupation in 1940. Patriotism may be about honouring the past. But how one honours the past, and whom one honours, can be divisive questions.

If patriotism is politicised, so is anti-patriotism. ‘That’s unpatriotic’ has long been a cry to silence dissent, formally through laws, informally through social pressure. Presenting patriotism as an apolitical sentiment infused with devotion to a place or tradition only makes such silencing easier.

Some would question this as a misperception. A Place for Pride, a report published in 2011 by the thinktank Demos, showed, for most people, national pride was embodied less in history or institutions than in simple everyday actions, such as volunteering and helping out in one’s community. What people most valued, and felt pride in, were other people, and their actions.

It is this sense of quiet pride that Orwell and Macron see as flowing into patriotism. People are ‘highly dubious’, the Demos report observed, ‘of efforts to politicise their everyday, felt patriotic sentiments and they deeply distrust efforts to intellectualise their pride in their country’.

Civic pride is an important building block of society. One of the reasons societies feel fragmented today is the erosion of civil society, of the organisations that help foster such pride. To conflate civic pride and patriotism is, however, to denude both of meaning.

In many parts of Britain, people have set up food banks, or created community libraries, in response to government cuts. This is civic pride at work. At its heart is undoubtedly a sense of love towards a place and its people. But these are also political acts, even acts of defiance. To describe them as the building blocks of patriotism is to diminish their significance, and, indeed, the political significance of community-building. As Langston Hughes insisted:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath.


The painting is ‘Flag’ by Georgia O’Keeffe.

One comment

  1. damon

    “Kaepernick’s actions echo Hughes’s words …”

    But I would say that during the national anthem before a nationally televised football game was the wrong place to protest injustice. Because it was so divisive and set people against each other. It also pressurised other players to either do the same, or just as obviously, not do the same. It put a lot of football players in an uncomfortable position. Even away from the football field, many black players have been reluctant to talk about the Kaepernick situation. Because they can be damned whatever they say.

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