Patriotism: the acceptable face of nationalism?

Saturday 2 November, 17:3018:45, Pit TheatreIdentity politics


Patriotism is the feeling of love, devotion and attachment to a homeland and a sense of fellow feeling with other citizens who share the same sentiment. This can involve a shared ethnicity, but is just as often about culture, history and language, or even something less rooted, from politics to sport, that can include recent immigrants. Patriotism is closely related to nationalism, but traditionally it has been seen as more emotional and instinctive, and less political and ideological. For that reason, it has also been considered less dangerous, and many who are wary of nationalism are more comfortable describing themselves as patriotic.

Nevertheless, even patriotism seems increasingly out of kilter with modern attitudes. In an age of ‘identity politics’, the identities that are celebrated tend to be those of groups that have been historically oppressed or disadvantaged. These can include nations, but while national pride has often been a crucial rallying point for anti-colonial and liberation movements, patriotism within powerful, developed countries, typically colonisers rather than colonised, is consequently viewed with cynicism or even disgust by many on the left. After all, while patriotism might unite those who identify with a nation, it can also exclude those who are not considered to belong. So is patriotism any more than a softer, less loaded term for a phenomenon that carries all the same sinister undertones and political dangers as nationalism?

In the past, the nation state was viewed more positively. For the Enlightenment thinkers of 18th-century Europe, loyalty to the nation was chiefly considered in contrast to loyalty to the aristocratic and transnational ancien regime. One of the most influential proponents of this classical notion of patriotism was the French liberal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau, patriotism was grounded in a love of civic virtues, of creating a common belonging based on shared rights and freedoms. American political culture also developed a patriotism based on a love of liberal values enshrined by the nation state. A belief in democracy and the protection of natural rights in the US constitution is entwined with a patriotic love of the American homeland and fellow Americans.

Yet patriotism can also engender feelings of shame, with many critics of everything from slavery to the Vietnam war to the current president declaring that, far from being anti-American, these things make them feel ashamed precisely because they love their country. Other patriotisms have similar ambiguities.

Ultimately, does patriotism always blur into xenophobia and exclusion? Or can it play a part in cohering an open society with liberal, inclusive values? When, if ever, should patriotism be viewed as progressive?