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Patriotism and Xenophobia

December 9, 2013

“Hating America would be as silly as loving it. It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me … I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies … I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, in Mother Night

Would you ever say that you’re proud to be white?

Now, I have no clue whether or not you are white. If you’re not, you probably won’t be able to answer that question effectively. If you are, your answer will almost certainly be “No!”

It would make you uncomfortable to say you were proud to be white, because this generation isn’t accustomed to claiming pride for such a thing. Perhaps, like me, you think it’s a bit of a non-thing. Once upon a time it was just the default, then it was “superior”, and now we all feel terrible about that so are hastily retracting the idea and instantly balk at the idea of talking about pride about whiteness because it makes you sound like a neo Nazi. You see, inherent in the claim of pride of your whiteness is the suggestion that there is something wrong with alternative. If you can be “proud” to be white, then there must be something good about it. And of course, there isn’t anything good about it. It’s just colour. It is, in theory, neutral.

This is the issue I have with “patriotism”, or the pride of being a member of a particular country. Every so often, at a national sporting event or Royal affair, I have to watch the rather stomach churning site of thousands of people, some of whom are children who don’t understand the significance of it, wave little plastic flags and paints their faces the colours of the nation… Apparently. Personally I don’t know any blue people, but there’s always time.

I think of nationality and race as being like; they are not, on their own, significant to your sense of self or your achievements. To claim that one is a part of your culture and the other isn’t is arbitrary and shows the inconsistencies in our ideas about identity and culture. OK, so white people thinking that being white is not a part of their culture is misguided, but that is not to say that it is more correct to think of nationality as being the deciding factor in your sense of cultural identity.

First, what is a country? It’s a land mass (at the moment – underwater countries are coming) that runs under one government. While it’s true that what government you are under will affect your culture – as will the language you speak, if only because it will create a closer cultural exchange between your country and another – it does not in itself define culture. It is just a system of policies and legislates. You are free to disagree with them and will come to your own conclusions about them. They cannot define your culture because if they did, we would all agree on them and we do not. That divide is attributable to other factors.

The problem with the word “culture” is that we’re talking about a circle with an uncertain diameter. My circle could be around England, Britain or the UK, or it could be around Surrey and London. Indeed, I often switch it up in accordance to which one I think is having a more notable impact on the way I’m behaving; the middle class stuff will get attributed to Surrey, the eclectic stuff will be associated with London and the quirky stuff to Britain. England doesn’t feature anywhere, it being a word that I associate with boorish football chants and endearingly callow American tourists.

Country is an inadequate way to define culture. Ask me where I live and my first thought is of my home, my house number. This house, with all my family in it, could be picked up and plopped in another country and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to me – temperature providing – as long as I never set foot outside my door. I stay inside unless I have somewhere to be and when I do, I pay little attention to the events in my street and my town. It is sleepy South-England suburb which I don’t really identify with. I couldn’t care less if I wake up tomorrow and all the semi-detached were placed with miniature Taj Mahals.

Similarly, if London transported itself to the middle of Germany, I doubt I’d care or notice the difference, since I leave the Greater London area very infrequently and have seen little outside of it that I would especially desire to see again. I think its usual to be completely unaware of the plus points of your own country, which pushes patriotic feeling over into irony – you can’t say you love a country when 2/3rds of it is alien to you, or actively sneered at. In any case, its not my country that is defining my culture, it’s my home and city respectively.

I consider this significant because we don’t take factors of home life, class, age or wealth into account as much as we should. I consider that I have more in common with a middle class American who has moved within my educational circle than with someone from “middle England” as we call it. Amazingly enough, we live in a world where it is not only possible but actually reasonably likely that my education and that of a person raised several thousand miles away from me will be based on the same ideas, same sources and constructed by the same people.

With the internet, this becomes even more prevalent because the information is not culturally filtered; the majority of websites and opinions blogs I read are written by people living in the States. So it comes as no surprise to me when we all find we have similar ideas and perspectives. I find it more surprising that, in the Internet age, anybody thinks that space still contributes significantly more to their culture – more so say, than time.

Even from people on the other side of the world, with completely different cultures and languages, I can see that the traditional values of people of my grandparents generation are going extinct. Media sharing has made our ideas more similar. Not only am I more similar to someone my age living in Japan than I might have been had I lived 70 years ago, but they may now be more similar to me than they are their own parents, depending on how traditional they are.

Those ideas about politeness and courtesy to your elders translate internationally, but they do not seem to travel intergenerationally; I wonder if we have ever lived in an age where the older generation consider the younger generation to be equally as polite as they were at that age. This may be a fault in their memory and perception, or equally it may simply be that when language and colloquialisms change, the foreign nature of them is alienating and seems like discourtesy when it is not.

When culture is so fragile, it is odd to insist that is somehow a solid, fixed thing. In the above example, its perfectly possible that it was the older generation’s culture that had changed, because it was not the changing of the calendar years that changed society – it was the passing of their own. The act of getting old will change the way people think.

That, at least, is consistent and predictable Even at my young age, I can feel my perceptions shifting to become more in line with people who once spoke a different language to me. I didn’t have to move country or city for this to happen; there was enough exposure to life and all its variety in just few small sections of a large city to foster this change. I could never consider my nationality to be the biggest deciding factor in my growth.

Patriotism has always been a foreign concept to me. Patriotism is the thing that makes you celebrate the achievements of people that have absolutely nothing to do with you. You can care loosely about strangers, but when their nationality makes a difference to you, a part of your reason is lost. I’m more interested in a person’s skill, style, outlook and personal characteristics. I see more of me in that random woman from Romania that I do that random man from West Byfleet. And why not? They’re both people, aren’t they? They have personalities, they go through their own challenges. Frankly, the attitude of some of “our” top sports people disgusts me so much that I even if I was patriotic, I couldn’t consider their nationality to be a mitigating factor.

What do I give a tinkers toot what country they’re representing? I’m not sure I’d consider “representing” to be the right word, anyway. I don’t know what sports achievements are representing; the fact that we “have” someone with fine, muscly calves. Well, go us, I guess. Not that it cheapens someone’s achievement, or anything, to claim it as your own even though you had nothing to do with it. Not that it cheapens it by suggesting that it has something to do with what broken piece of tectonic plate they happen to have been on when they were forcibly squeezed out of their mother’s uterus.

All I share with them is the name of a home. Just the name. If you never met them, you didn’t share their home. You didn’t move in their inner circle, their most direct influences were never yours. It may appeal to the ego to think you had something to do with the achievements of the bright young stars of your country, but I don’t feel pride over random strangers for it because I consider their country an irrelevant factor in their achievements (and indeed, their talents an irrelevant part of my life, much of the time). It must be, unless you think there is some natural ability born of being British, as if British is a species independent of social and economic change. To suggest ones own superiority based on nationality I’d say is the tail end of xenophobia.

You may not necessarily think it has to do with biology, but rather our growth as a community. Of course, to be part of this country with all its opportunities will play its part in securing some kind of a victory – not that I think its a matter of pride that people lucky enough to be born in this country are sometimes exposed to an absurd amount of privilege (I say “sometimes”, because once again, this is class dependent. If I talk about how lucky I am to be here, I may be talking a completely different language to a single parents with two young children working a job they don’t like a minimum wage for long hours on an oppressive social housing estate.)

In any case, I am not responsible for this country’s wealth or opportunities; I’m too young and I can’t see that anything I’ve done has had a great effect. Later down the line, this may change, but I will be a drop in the ocean and to feel pride for the nation based on the fact that I’ve lived as a citizen is stretching the definition of “achievement”.

I suppose some people think it is more empathetic to be patriotic, that to care what happens in your back yard shows that you care about people. I’m inclined to disagree. I hear the P word used in all sorts of cringe-worthy situations, including discussions over war. To my mind, it couldn’t be more inappropriate to talk of patriotism and “our boys” when talking about a group of people who are hired to end the lives of people elsewhere in the world.

I don’t blame the infantry for the things they must do in their jobs, but I’m very nervous of civilians who sit in their houses and get teary-eyed over the prospect of brave British heroes, ignoring the fact that what we are talking about in reality is the death of other human beings. It is almost as if, if they are not British, they don’t matter. I’m sure that’s not the thought that drives the speech – I’m more certain that the person speaking simply has not thought, at all.

The darker side of patriotism is wide reaching. It’s a fundamentally flawed concept because its based on and Us/Them mentality. People like to use their nationality to pre-modify positive attributes, as if the nationality itself is a one of them, or as if the nationality somehow elevates them. Imagine someone who talks about “decent, hard-working Americans” or “the British tax-payer”. What you’re really talking about is decent, hard-working people, or people who pay their taxes. If you introduces the irrelevant concept of the nationality of that person, it negates the contribution of people outside of that group, even if their contribution is considerable.

It isn’t more empathetic or humanitarian to systematically rank human beings in accordance to how much they have in common with you, as if their closeness to you on superficial aspects denotes their usefulness as a whole. It makes social justice something which only occurs to us in isolated pockets, rather than being permanently embedded in our consciousness; we all care about poverty and death in the 3rd World come comic relief, and sometimes on the train to work when charity adverts leer at you from the ceiling, but most of the time we protect our own back yard. Some of us, with a shotgun.

Patriotism is a notion for politicians. It’s an easy word for them to use to symbolise You, the listener, and it is a lazy one. You can’t please or serve all British people (/ American / German / Luxembourgian / change as applicable) but you can pretend to be on their side as a collective by churning out empty rhetoric about the “British public” time and time again, or by saying “God bless America” at the start or end of every speech (listen to them cheer when Obama does it! Anyone would think he’d offered them all lengthily oral sex).

It is in a politician’s best interest to have the public think of themselves of one unit who can all be pleased and well served by one set of policies, when it is far from the case. Class, colour and gender have much more to do with it, but when you offer something to those groups you offer nothing to everyone else.

When you offer to “our country”, you offer very little to everyone and spread it thin. Everyone likes hearing patriotic support because it is automatically inclusive, but just exclusive enough to feel like its something special; I cant remember the last time a world leader said they was going to their best for human kind. I think we would think they were suffering from delusions of grandeur.

The dangerous side of this comes when we use it to justify military intervention. You can talk about “threat to national security” but it has a more potent effect when you talk about “a threat to British people” or, indeed “the American people”… Look where that rhetoric took us.

It’s a form of manipulation that at worst starts wars and at best wins elections for no good reason. All too often, party politics becomes a petty contest to prove which one of the candidates loves us most. It would be sycophantic if it were remotely personal. Meanwhile, we’re the ones that suffer, because we run around in circles of terrified fretting that our country isn’t safe, that it won’t be our country any more and that it will somehow devalue us as people if we share our neighbourhoods will people who speak Korean or wear a burqa. And I’m supposed to be convinced that this is not xenophobia, just because someone asserts it? Piss off.

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