Mon, 10 Feb 2003

Patriotism and xenophobia

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto Guardian News Service London

Patriotism is a virtue. It is altruistic: It puts community -- the patriot's state or nation -- above self. It is progressive, because citizens who want to make their country the best strive to make it better. And yet, if you are patriotic, you shouldn't be. I don't mean that patriotism is a bad thing, but that it is surprising in the materialist, atomized, mutable world we inhabit.

Globalization and Europeanisation submerge patriotism, migrations wash over it, devolution re-channels it. Chauvinism and xenophobia embarrass its true adherents and give it a bad name. It seems incredible that patriotism can survive national self-reinvention. Cool Britannia is something you can only be lukewarm about.

Yet patriotism is still around. Focus groups tell Prime Minister Tony Blair so. Politicians appeal to it, especially when they want to justify wars. Historic parallels show how robust it can be when all around it changes.

Robespierre's France, Lenin's Russia, Mao's China all discarded traditional identities with amazing speed and zeal; but patriotism survived. So what keeps patriotism going in times which ought to quench it? And can it last much longer?

One theory is that patriotism is conditional -- a deal you make with the state. States can kid people into patriotism, like any other shuckster, or they can buy it from their citizens at the price of political rights and social welfare. But historically patriotism doesn't seem to be proportionate to the beneficence of the state.

More convincing is the view that patriotism is cultural allegiance. But what about when the culture changes? In Britain, the stiff upper lip has gone wobbly. Emotional self-indulgence has replaced British reserve. The food has gone foreign. The class system has yielded to the "celeb system". The workshop of the world has been sold off.

The Britain my father wrote about -- as a foreign visitor in the 1940s -- is barely recognizable today. We have liberal, humane, universal values -- but you can't erect patriotism, which is an exclusive sentiment, on the basis of universal values. So what's left to be patriotic about?

The problem is particularly acute because we are facing the prospect of war, which will galvanize some people's patriotism and dissolve that of others. It could be patriotic to oppose the war, on the grounds that it would be incompatible with British people's traditionally self-ascribed virtues of fairness, patience and decency.

The government, on the other hand, will represent support for "our boys" as a patriotic obligation. The war lobby's cry sounds uncomfortably like "My country right or wrong". But if you pick and choose the values and traditions to which you attach, and adhere to them in defiance of your country, can you call that patriotism?

Meanwhile, devolution, Europeanization and immigration mean we are living in a country of multiplying loyalties. If historical precedent is anything to go by, Islam and other recently arrived cultural traditions will develop in distinctively British ways and become as British as the House of Windsor.

But what happens in the meantime? Some people might like an environment of perpetual renegotiation of their allegiances; it may enhance their sense of freedom. This sort of sentiment could, perhaps, replace patriotism. But it can hardly be patriotism. The British lion can't become a chameleon.

As we grow up, we don't reject stereotypes of "alterity" which we acquire in childhood; we multiply them. We classify someone as stereotypically British, foreign, working class, Muslim, public school or whatever. Stereotypes function by giving us supposed predictors of the way the people we meet will behave.

We are psychologically programmed to form allegiances directed against the different. This is why so much residual patriotism gets polluted by nationalism and xenophobia. Is it just an ugly mask, behind which all the real features of patriotism have rotted away? I feel this when I encounter English louts abroad -- people who know so little of their own country that they are aware of nothing to be genuinely proud of: Hatred of foreigners is the closest they can get to patriotism.

Perhaps it is true, patriotism will survive if we don't think about it too much, for this is a field in which scrutiny leads to skepticism. Perhaps there are abiding values, concealed at present, which may re- emerge, as they did in Russia, France and China after the revolutions.

Patriotism will change because the meaning of Britishness is changing. In the course of change, however, it may disappear. It may fragment into regional patriotisms, dissolve amid renegotiation, or vanish into some broader patriotism in a future superstate. For as long as it lasts, it will surely be abused. I suspect it will go on surprising us by its durability: An attachment that has clung to so little for so long clearly has amazing powers of adhesion.