by Joseph Guthrie  

“Patriotism ruins history,” Johann Wolfgang van Goethe once famously quipped and whether you agree or not, it is at the very least the penultimate tool that many people utilise in order to extrapolate their sense of superiority over the rest of humanity. It has been used  to “justify” atrocities from the genocide of First Nation people in the United States to the continued persecution of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Whilst patriotism is a rallying cry for some, it is an ominous siren for others, and has enabled an asinine form of entitlement that some nationals will leverage when they find themselves outside of their comfort zone, both figuratively and physically.

A form of nationalism, patriotism refers to the emotional connection between a person and their homeland. Of course, this isn’t limited to wherever one may have been born. It can also include the national pride felt for a place that you descend from or have adopted as your homeland, by virtue of immigration or even via being a descendant of someone who was born in a certain place. Seems benign enough until said pride is used as justification for colonisation, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, and war; the latter being a key feature in the former three. Now you might call the aforementioned, extreme symptoms, which is a reasonable point to make but it overlooks a couple of key things:

  1. How pervasive patriotism is and how the rhetoric permeates a nation’s conscience
  2. The tenets that uphold patriotism, if not further it altogether, are rooted in some form of nationalism and/or supremacy. Supremacy in particular is an extremist ideology in and of itself.
  3. Wars don’t spawn in a vacuum and neither does the patriotism that has fuelled quite a few of those wars.

In 1963, political scientist J. David Singer began the project Correlates of War, a study that analysed the history of warfare and what causes wars to occur. Separating the data into four categories the results found some correlation between patriotism and the propensity for confrontation. The project is still continued today, headed by Zeev Maoz, and further details how the emotional attachment driving patriotism is a decisive factor behind the decision to go to battle.

Patriotism has even become a massive influence behind what it is that we buy and with whom we do business. Mahesh N. Shankarmahesh in his 2006 academic paper expertly specifies the direct and indirect results of consumer ethnocentrism and how patriotism was harnessed by both the state and the private sector in their marketing strategies, tapping into things like demographics, the socio-psychological, the political, and economic precursors.

Colin Kaepernick – quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers – recently began a silent protest by either remaining seated or taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. He plans to continue until the double standards and racial inequality in the USA – particularly around the rampant issue of extrajudicial homicides and police brutality – are finally addressed. The backlash wasn’t unexpected (even Kaepernick admitted as much before he took the decision) but it was swift and largely misguided. The same people who charged Kaepernick with “disrespecting the military” and “being un-American” went to great lengths to show their contempt for Kaepernick’s protest. Some went as far as to issue death threats but most manifested in the form of racial abuse.

Those that attacked him in such a way either had no idea or purposely overlooked the fact that the National Football League (NFL) was paid $5.4 million by the US Department of Defence over four years in order to have patriotic displays at football games. Records show that Kaepernick’s own team was one of 14 NFL sides to take payments from the DoD (a one-time payment of $125,000) and the Atlanta Falcons received $1,049,500 over five payments, the most out of any of the teams to have taken US DoD cash. Further, the McCain/Flake report found that the DoD spent $53 million for patriotic exhibitions at sporting events in leagues across the country. Taking this and Shankarmahesh’s study into account, these revelations present two major lines of questioning:

  1. What merit does patriotism have if people can be coerced into being patriotic via monetary transactions and/or propaganda?
  2. How truly patriotic are so-called patriots if one’s passion for one’s homeland – adopted or not – is predominately measured by how much someone spends and who they buy it from?

There’s a transatlantic – if not transnational – parallel one can draw considering how similar the influence is on sports fans and the propaganda they consume.

Here in the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day is a big deal and one of the biggest forms of political and patriotic grandstanding. Held annually on the second Sunday in November “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts,” people pay their respects in various ways and one of these ways is to wear a poppy on your person in plain sight. Some opt for the traditional paper poppy while others go for a more decorative measure but regardless, there is a similar unspoken “rule” that anyone in a public-facing position of any profile isn’t allowed to opt out of wearing one lest they be subjected to a considerable amount of abuse. Enter Irish-born footballer James McClean, who in 2014 wrote an open letter to Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan to discuss why he wouldn’t be wearing a poppy, highlighting that it “would be a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.”

Unsurprisingly, the move was met with contempt from the general public through to members of Parliament. Citing familar reasons as to why McClean should be obligated to wear one: that people died for his freedom to not wear a poppy and the least he could do was show some respect to those who sacrificed. Some even went as far as to suggest that McClean should be left out of the team for not participating in the patriotic displays, just as some had suggested that TV presenters should be sacked for doing the same.

The reasoning behind McClean’s and Kaepernick’s respective protestations are markedly different but there is a common denominator in the response: the undermining of the same principle each respective nation claims to stand for: freedom.

Consider Jesse “The Body” Ventura – an Armed Forces veteran and former governor of the state of Minnesota – comments in defence of Kaepernick: “When I was governor of Minnesota, the Dems and Repubs tried to nail me. You know what they did? They passed a law requiring the Pledge of Allegiance for all public school children. I immediately vetoed it. You know why? Because governments should not mandate patriotism. Governments earn patriotism. You earn that. Who mandated patriotism? The Germans in the 1930s. They mandated patriotism. That’s what we wanna be? We wanna build walls now and be East Berlin? That’s the direction of the United States today? I salute Colin Kaepernick for having courage, a man of his convictions, and he’s also putting a million dollars; putting his money where his stance is. Good for him.”

Ventura, someone I seldom agree with, really hit the nail on the head with that defence. What kind of country are you cultivating socio-politically if people are obliged to be patriotic? I personally can’t see the point in critiquing or even outright slandering despotic heads of state like Kim Jong-Un or Vladimir Putin when nations like the UK and the US have a demonstrable history of strong-arming their respective populations into being passionate about one’s nationality and usually do so via the advent and furthering of the military industrial complex. To me, it’s entirely irrelevant whether you think someone opting out of any patriotic action is uncouth or worthy of praise. Surely we should be free to either participate or not and more importantly, one’s love for one’s nation/nationality should not be limited to blind loyalty.

James Baldwin said it best: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” If the populist sentiment implores you to “support the troops” in the “war on terror” then I reserve the right to question and criticize those that would use human lives to disingenuously pursue their ideological aims. If one love’s their country, then be first in line to admonish said country when it does something wrong, lest patriotism be used as a vehicle to ruin history and countless lives yet again.

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josepghcolumn500‘Black On Both Sides Of The Pond’ is a new bi-monthly column by Joseph Guthrie An analytical critique of pop culture & the intersections therein by a guy who has lived in both the USA and the UK

Joseph Guthrie is a UK based musician, and writer.  Originally from south London, most of his education was set in central Florida (United States). His nomadic life has seen him return to the UK in 2010 and when he’s not tending to the IT infrastructure of a major printing company, he’s the lead vocalist for the band Ships Down and is Nothing Ain’t Nice recording artist. He also contributes to music blog Sampleface.

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