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If patriotism is, as Samuel Johnson put it, “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” then there are a lot of unsavory characters in politics these days. So, is it time to declare peak patriotism?
Maybe not. Despite the misuse of his words by generations of pundits, the 18th-century English essayist actually admired patriots — he saved his scorn for those he described as false patriots.
Johnson praised the patriot “whose publick (sic) conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country.” Such a person, he wrote in 1774, “sounds no alarm, when there is no enemy … Still less does the true patriot circulate opinions which he knows to be false.”
Perish the thought that any of our current world leaders should do that. Judging by the volume of jingoism in U.K. and U.S. politics in particular, it seems nobody has realized that patriotic slogans and a warlike demeanor alone can’t stop a virus — let alone solve the economic, social, racial and cultural divisions that have surfaced so painfully in 2020.
But politicians and commentators across the divide, in the U.K., mainland Europe and the U.S., argue that there is room — even a need — for a more genuine form of patriotism. They argue that love of country, when not cloaked in chauvinism, can be the glue that holds a nation together when tossed on the waves of the 21st century.
The trick, then, is to know the difference.
So, how do you spot phony patriots? Look out for those who are making the most noise, said 19th-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When a whole nation is roaring patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart.”
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is something of a specialist in patriotic bluster, trotting it out when he’s in a tight spot.
Asked in the House of Commons why countries such as Italy and Germany have performed better than Britain in fighting the virus, Johnson said: “There is a difference between our country and others. Ours is a freedom-loving country.”
Not content with insulting two European allies, the prime minister continued: “If you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years, virtually every advance from free speech to democracy has come from this country.” (Italian President Sergio Mattarella responded with admirable restraint that his compatriots “love freedom, but we also care about seriousness.”)
Johnson and his ministers incessantly refer to the U.K.’s faltering response to the coronavirus as “world-beating” — whether it be the hard-working but overstretched National Health Service (“the envy of the world”), or the glitchy “test, track and trace” system.
For the American-British historian Gerard Jan De Groot at the University of St Andrews, it is clear that “Boris Johnson is intentionally imitating Donald Trump with that high-octane populism driven by faux patriotism.”
His inspiration across the Atlantic capitalizes his patriotism, in case social media has any doubt: “GREAT PATRIOTS,” the U.S. president tweeted about his supporters when they mobilized in late August against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, whom he dismissed as “agitators and thugs.”
Trump’s own patriotism was cast into doubt by a report in the Atlantic that he had described Americans who died in World War I as “losers.” He dismissed the story as “fake news.” In his Constitution Day speech a few weeks later, he called for a reform of the curriculum to promote “patriotic education” and to push back against “lies” that the United States has a problem with racism.
De Groot believes the specific leadership challenges of the coronavirus — requiring a grasp of detail, thorough analysis and clear communication — mean “both Trump and Johnson are headed for a fall, for the simple reason that populists are hopeless in dealing with crises.”
“We might be headed for a reassessment of the value of patriotism, or at least a lower profile for it in politics,” he said.
On the right and on the left, politicians and commentators in Western democracies are calling for a renewal of patriotic values. The left wants to wrest from the conservatives their perceived monopoly on patriotism. The right fears losing ground to nationalist identitarians.
Patriotism seems to come naturally to U.K. Conservatives. It “emanates from the average Tory MP like heat from a radiator,” wrote James Bloodworth in the Critic.
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Take the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, a former army captain and bona fide hero who tried to resuscitate a dying police officer after a 2017 terrorist attack on Westminster. During the summer row over whether to play “Rule Britannia” at the Royal Albert Hall — the latest skirmish in the “culture wars” that have divided Britain since the Brexit campaign — he simply tweeted: “Nothing wrong with patriotism.” Job done.
The opposition Labour Party, however, is weighed down by the legacy of its former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who professed his patriotism but struggled to project it, refusing on occasion to sing the national anthem and hesitating to blame Russia for the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, who made the case for a patriotic revival alongside new leader Keir Starmer at the recent party conference, acknowledges that the public sometimes got the impression that “when it came to the crunch, Labour was on somebody’s side other than their own.”
“There is a need for Labour to repair some of that damage and show people very clearly that we stand up for this country,” Nandy told POLITICO.
She accused Johnson’s government of trying “to start a culture war” over the symbols of patriotism, such as flags and statues, and said her own constituency in the northern town of Wigan had historically shown there was no contradiction between full-throated patriotism and internationalist values.
Nandy cited the way her own mixed heritage from India and Lancashire came together 80 years ago when local cotton workers sided with Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement.
“The only national story that has been told in recent years has been the story of Britain standing alone against Europe or the Britain of 100 years ago — a story that doesn’t have anything to say about who we are now or where we fit into the future,” she said by phone from Wigan. “I strongly believe that patriotism is a left-wing value.”
Some Conservatives are chortling as they watch Labour trying to inject some real flavor into the decaffeinated “progressive patriotism” that helped them lose “Red Wall” constituencies to the Tories in last December’s election.
“It is genuinely fascinating watching Labour moderates having to justify and explain why patriotism isn’t a bad thing,” tweeted Nick Timothy, who was co-chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May.
“National identity and patriotism are embarrassing topics of conversation for most ultra-liberals,” wrote Timothy in his book “Remaking One Nation,” published in March. “They are often associated in public debate with racism or chauvinism.”
Other Tories, however, think Labour is on to something.
“There is a strong place for patriotism in politics,” said William Hague, the former Conservative Party leader and foreign secretary, arguing that people need “a collective sense of identity” and to feel that they “belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Hague told POLITICO he thought Starmer was on the right track, especially since “his predecessor was really not associated with patriotism at all, which as we know did him a great deal of damage. So from the point of view of the leader of the opposition, it is absolutely the right thing to do.”
Some political commentators argue that even nationalism shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative U.S. magazine National Review, argued in his 2019 book “The Case for Nationalism” that it is wrong to assume nationalism is “an inherently nefarious force.”
While it is prone to abuse “for illiberal ends … the basic impetus for it — for a self-governing people to occupy a distinct territory — is elemental.”
Pitched against that is the argument that nationalism should be “reclaimed for liberals.” The chief proponent is political scientist Yascha Mounk, who wrote about feeling alienated as a Jew in modern Germany in his 2015 book “Stranger in My Own Country.”
Mounck called nationalism a “half-domesticated beast that needs to be tamed.” The “tame” version would be inclusive and “not depend on ethnic origin, skin color or religious beliefs.”
But the late German President Johannes Rau drew a clear line between patriotism and nationalism, saying in 1999: “A patriot is someone who loves his own fatherland. A nationalist is someone who despises the fatherlands of others.”
Rau came from a country that, more than any other Western nation, know the risks inherent in nationalism. The vast majority of Germans reject the xenophobia and Islamophobia of the far right. Their bulwark against it in the post-war period has been the “constitutional patriotism” described by historian Jürgen Habermas, among others, which channels national pride into the Grundgesetz (Basic Law, or constitution).
In a study by the d|part think tank from 2019 called “The Fading Taboo of Germany’s National Pride,” respondents said the national attribute they were most proud of was the constitution — more than the welfare state, their cultural heritage or Germany’s economic might.
During the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, caution about showing national pride and waving the flag has partly relaxed — to the point where a prominent young politician like Jens Spahn, Merkel’s health minister and sometimes mentioned as a future leader of her Christian Democrats (CDU), felt the need to make the case for more patriotism in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on October 1.
Spahn and his co-author Düzen Tekka, a director, writer and CDU member of Kurdish-Yazidi descent, prescribed a “weltoffenen Patriotismus” (patriotism that is open to the world) that responds to the diverse modern Germany’s “need for a values-based sense of community” — and is founded on the Basic Law.
“Let us deliver this connecting narrative or others will,” they warned, in an apparent reference to far-right, anti-immigrant groups such as Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Elsewhere in continental Europe, some countries embrace patriotism and their flags without such a complex: In Sweden, which likes to project itself on the world stage as a “humanitarian superpower,” many houses have a flagpole in the garden where the national blue-and-yellow flag flies on festive occasions, including family birthdays. IKEA even sticks the Swedish flag in your meatballs.
The French, too, are passionate in their patriotism and love of the flag, though left and right have very different views about the history of colonialism and bourgeois capitalism. The Revolution bequeathed a patriotism that is as fierce as it is critical, as if constantly poised to bring down the sovereign of the day.
In democratic countries where patriotism is a choice rather than an obligation, it’s also worth asking what happens when patriotism is absent.
If false patriotism is used as a fig leaf to cover up politicians’ inadequacies, or as a blindfold to injustice, an absence of patriotism could just lead to hopelessness and inertia.
Writing in the U.S. student paper the Harvard Crimson last month, 19-year-old sophomore Joseph McDonough cited past protests such as the American civil rights movement that rallied behind the flag.
“Patriotism cannot solve our nation’s problems,” McDonough wrote. “It cannot fix a wage gap. It cannot stop unjust killings. It cannot abolish injustice. But we cannot realize the sublime idea of America without patriotic hope. Otherwise all we have is American inferiority’s nihilistic vision of a stumbling nation.”
“Without patriotism,” he added, “we will lose America, for we will have given up on the idea.”
Jack Blanchard contributed to this article.