Can there be a progressive patriotism?

The left must find a way to incorporate love of country into a new political vision.   

Harry Blain
3 July 2017

Credit: By Alex Thomson from Seattle, United States of America (Patriotism), CC BY- SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although many people have criticised blind devotion to a country or a nation, few have done so as sharply as Bob Dylan. “When God’s on your side,” he observed, “you don’t count the dead” and “you never ask questions.”

In Dylan’s critique, the annihilation of Native Americans becomes a footnote from “when the country was young;” the dropping of nuclear bombs is accepted through necessity (“If fire them we’re forced to/Then fire them we must”); and all you remember from the conquest of other countries are “the names of the heroes/I’s made to memorise.”

Whatever the slogan—‘American exceptionalism,’ ‘Rule Britannia,’ or ‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s country’—the essence is the same. Patriotism is “a conviction,” in George Bernard Shaw’s words, that “a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” Shaw’s definition places the concept firmly in the category of the irrational, tribal, or even barbarous. From this perspective, love of one’s country comes at the expense, not only of love for other countries, but also of individual reason, critical thinking, class solidarity and a sense of common humanity.

Rosa Luxemburg saw patriotism as part of the “bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers” and “the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas;” Bertrand Russell bristled at its teaching in schools as “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons;” and Frantz Fanon powerfully articulated how “national consciousness” could be turned into a “cruel and fragile travesty” by a self-serving “national middle class.”

Recent history seems to support this view. Why else would a resident of New York City create an “Order of the Star Spangled Banner” to defend the ‘homeland’ from foreigners? How could any US president celebrate the nation’s “pride” days after incinerating retreating soldiers in the desert?

It is hard to argue with the sense that—expressed in these terms—patriotism is irrational, but is it inherently regressive? Intense attachment to the concept of a ‘nation’ has always had the potential to frustrate social and economic progress. However, patriotism is not only a widespread and unavoidable political force; its unique combination of myth, history and emotion can also be central to the task of building a progressive vision that appeals to both our reason and our passions. Shaping this vision requires a fresh and critical assessment of our past in ways that speak to current struggles against racial injustice, inequality and militarism.

Although concrete, material interests cut across borders, they are rarely acted on as fiercely as perceived ‘national’ interests. As George Orwell observed, the British working class “watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled” from 1936 to 1939, “and never aided them by even a single strike.” But when “Anthony Eden appealed over the radio for Local Defence Volunteers” in preparation for a possible German invasion in 1940, “he got a quarter of a million men in the first twenty-four hours.” Allegiance to the flag made working men and women leap to the defence of a country run by and for their class enemies.

A more common contemporary puzzle—particularly for political pundits—is the tendency of low-income people to seemingly ignore their economic interests and vote instead for abstract commitments to defending or strengthening their country. Whether it’s  a vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has called for privatising the National Health Service and reducing corporation tax, or a Republican Party offering up tax cuts for the rich and the de-funding of public services, the response is often: ‘How can people be that stupid?’ It’s like ‘turkeys voting for Christmas,’ or even “Voters are making a mess of democracy.”

Yet the basic fact is that all of us frequently act on emotion, impulse and gut instincts as much as rational calculation. Put another way, “Human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”    

This puts progressive thinking in a difficult position, wedged between deeply material commitments and the need to answer highly emotive questions: how will we defend our country’s way of life? What does it mean to be ‘British’ or ‘American?’ What symbols and stories define our national culture?

It’s a dilemma that can be navigated relatively well in countries like Britain (at least in theory), where the National Health Service consistently tops polls that ask people “what makes them proud to be British.”

In the United States, however, the situation is more complicated. Even the relatively modest health care reforms and public spending increases of the Obama Administration led to accusations of “a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” Much of the traditional progressive programme—including wealth redistribution, labour regulations, public ownership and industrial policy—is essentially seen as foreign. This perception is further fuelled when the leading torch-bearer of the U.S. progressive movement, Bernie Sanders, looks to small Scandinavian countries as models of his “democratic socialism.”

The need to take ideas from other countries to cure America’s problems is also the central theme of Michael Moore’s 2016 documentary Where to Invade Next?—decent school meals from France, free university tuition from Slovenia, generous holiday pay from Italy, health-care from Britain, and criminal justice reform from Norway. Instead of invading foreign lands, Moore suggests, America should learn from them.

This is, of course, sensible enough, particularly given how badly the U.S. compares on social measures with, say, Denmark or Germany. But the average American can be forgiven for thinking that even if European-style social policies look better than a capitalist jungle, they are still, at root, alien to their country.

And yet, as James Baldwin pointed out, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”—and popular struggle is central to this story. At its core  is the conviction that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” based not on love  of government or army, but of the American “roughness and spirit of defiance” praised by Walt Whitman. This tradition stands in sharp opposition to ideas which trace the nation’s achievements to enlightened—and even divinely inspired—“Founding  Fathers.”

Instead, it acknowledges that rights and liberties are “the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labour leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.”

Alongside these struggles there has been an underlying opposition to entrenched privilege— a sharp contrast to a country like Britain. From Tom Paine’s denunciation of “oppression,” “avarice,” “kings” and “subjects,” to Fanny Wright’s attacks on the “corruption” and “degradation” of “hereditary nobility,” this radical sentiment is far from marginal in American history. Instead, anti-elitism is central to the political culture of a nation shaped so much by millions of immigrants shunned by their homelands.

Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty capture this feeling eloquently—“keep ancient lands your storied pomp”—and  their author stands in a long line of immigrants who have built the modern progressive movement in the USA. Of course, as with any country’s founding stories, this is more an article of faith than objective fact. While the U. S. is indeed a country where men have gone from back country log cabins to Pennsylvania Avenue, it has also given root to an aristocracy of its own, as exemplified in the mansions of Scott Fitzgerald’s West Egg, the robber barons of the gilded age, or the Bushes and the Clintons.

However, at least as an aspiration, the idea of a new nation uniquely opposed to pomp and privilege has persisted. Take, for example, the language of A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget, emphatically described by its architect as a “feasible”, “concrete” and “specific” plan to revolutionise “the workings of our economy [that] so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society.” “The ‘Freedom Budget,’” Randolph wrote in October 1966, “is not a call for a handout,” but “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America; a call to those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.”  

The language of American “freedom”—now  so often associated with the rants of right-wing radio hosts and seen by many progressives as a delusion—was  also famously used in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, where he expanded well beyond the “negative freedom” of the original Constitution to embrace freedom from want and basic economic protection.  

There’s always a temptation to say that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.” But, as the historian Eric Foner wrote in a 2015 letter to Bernie Sanders, “the rich heritage of American radicalism” is a powerful resource that could be placed at the core of a future progressive vision. The challenge is to present both calculated common sense and an appeal to an often irrational love of ‘the nation’ as part of one, coherent and compelling story.

As Orwell put it during World War II, “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again.” Progressives cannot transcend the reality of emotive, patriotic politics, but they can—and must—redefine it. 

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