Patriotism – is it stupid and immoral?

This question, because that’s what the Russian novelist and thinker Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) believed.

According to him –

Patriotism is stupid because every patriot holds his own country to be the best of all whereas, obviously, only one country can qualify. It is immoral because it enjoins us to promote our country’s interests at the expense of all other countries and by any means, including war, and is thus at odds with the most basic rule of morality, which tells us not to do to others what we would not want them to do to us.

He is not alone.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940), a popular anarchist said – “Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those born within this little spot consider themselves superior, nobler, more esteemed and more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is therefore the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose superiority upon all others. The inhabitants outside that little spot reason in the same manner, of course”.

Not just historical philosophers or anarchists.

The present-day American political theorist George Kateb argues that patriotism is “a mistake twice over; it is typically a grave moral error and its source is typically a state of mental confusion”. He believes that a country “is not a discernible collection of discernible individuals”; it is rather “an abstraction… a compound of a few actual and many imaginary ingredients”. Therefore patriotism is “a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction… for what is largely a figment of the imagination”.

Some of these arguments can be easily countered. Some of these arguments may not stand the test of time. One can possibly be patriotic about his own country and still respect all other countries. One can possibly be patriotic about his own country and still not engage in wars. Patriotism may yield in humans more good than bad. But, Tolstoy and others have a point. A point which is worth discussing even today.

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘patriot’ as “one who disinterestedly or self-sacrificingly exerts himself to promote the well-being of his country”.

Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, Boston and the author of the book – ‘Patriotism, morality, and peace‘, defined patriotism as involving:

  1. Special affection for one’s own country
  2. A sense of personal identification with the country
  3. Special concern for the well-being of the country
  4. Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good

Standford’s study on ‘Patriotism’ lists five types of Patriotism, (i) extreme, (ii) robust, (iii) moderate, (iv) deflated and (v) ethical. Though the degree of attachment to the ‘notion of patriotism‘ may vary in these types, all of them generally arise out of any of the four ingredients that Nathason has described.

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Patriotism is a notion.

Probably one of the most successful and powerful man-made notion. It is so successful that if you challenge the notion, you may even be treated as a traitor.

We are advised to love our country as fatherland and mother country. Such usage seems to indicate that we should love our country as we love our parents. Although children are not usually asked to die for their parents, and most parents wouldn’t accept the offer if it were made, some imagine the country as a super-parent that may ask its children to die for it. We are even told not to ask what our country has done for us; but to ask what we have done for our country.

This arises out of gratitude. That we will not exist if not for the country. That we won’t be what we are if not for the country.

Kateb retaliates this view. He says, “I do not literally owe to my country my coming into existence. It’s true that I could not go on if I didn’t live in some society, but my genes are not politically identifiable; a country is not a biological entity. My parents could have moved after I was born; my country could have lost the territory in which I was born; I could have been abducted and raised elsewhere. My parents are one thing, my country another, altogether different”.

He emphasizes, “A country would not exist without its people; the reverse is literally false and appears true only by metaphorical distortion”.

Patriotism is a notion. A notion which is subject to challenge. A notion which is subject to change.

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Patriotism works just like religion. Arguably.

Country is the god. Its leaders and senior military officers a priesthood. Patriotism, as it is with most of the religions, has its extreme sensitiveness and fanatical intolerance. It has its periodical rituals. It has symbols, anthems, beliefs, flags. Maybe the God is real. Maybe the religions are pure. But that’s not the point here.

Gustave Herve (1871-1944)a French politician, went a step ahead and called patriotism “a superstition, one far more injurious, brutal and inhumane than religion”.

After all, there is a widespread belief that ‘obedience to patriotism’ has killed just as many people as (if not more) ‘obedience to religion’ has killed. Though one would ideally like to see the actual numbers. It may not be morally acceptable to fight and kill for religion (though there are plenty of exceptions even today). However it is perfectly acceptable to fight and kill for patriotism.

What one fails to understand is this – in a war, countries do not attack each other. Country is not a person.

A bunch of idiots in one country decide to kill humans from the other country because they belong to the other country and a thousands of patriots execute the plan. The larger citizens of a country may have nothing to do with the war they’re fighting for or the war they’re subjected to. If that larger citizens of a country support the war because of patriotism, the bunch of idiots have succeeded. Patriotism is a tool that few people successfully used to get what they wanted. Pride, power, money.

As Samuel Johnson puts it, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

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Quite obviously, there are contrary arguments.

Patriotism can be good. It is rather good. It teaches solidarity with others, concern for land and its resources, shared goals and visions, etc. It helps the society to involve in a healthy competition. But then, the notion of being-grateful-for-born-in-a-particular-territory will do more good if it extends to the global arena.

People also have special affection for their own town or city or village. There is a sense of personal identification with the place. But there is no patriotism. There are disputes, but not wars. The difference is the degree of attachment to the notion. Regionalism in its extreme is stupid irrespective of the size of the territory. Town, State or a Country.

One may love his country and countrymen. He may serve his country and countrymen. But to have a sense of belief that his country’s interests have to be promoted at the expense of all other countries and by any means is stupid. Embrace your religion. Respect other religions. And allow some space for atheists too.

Thousands of years back, one Tamil poet, Kaniyan Poongundranar had said it in so many words:

“யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்”

(“To us all towns are one, all men our kin”)

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Bibliography

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