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A Very Unnationalistic Patriotism

Why the Flag Should Not Blind Us

by John C. McDowell

Immediately preceding and during the Second Gulf War, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair spoke with ease of “freedom” and “democracy,” and further of the war as one of “liberation” for the Iraqi people (what is the significance for this rhetoric that the Iraqis themselves tend not see things in this way?). Undoubtedly they were admirably desiring their own states to be free from the fear of further terrorist atrocities and for Iraq to be free from a political dictatorship that massacres its opposition. But there was more going on here than either that or a powerful emotive response to terrorism. A particular ideal of what patriotic commitment involves was and still is being sold, which comes at a high cost.

At least three significant implications may be mentioned:

  • the unilateral decision for a preemptive strike, breaking with UN deliberations, raises worrying questions about the nature of public accountability;
  • the silencing of dissension through government calls for patriotism suggests that ‘free' dissent to public policy is unpatriotic; and
  • the (deliberate?) focus of the war's build-up and progression on the questions of the conflict's morality (the disease) mislaid necessary attention to the much richer, more disturbing, disruptive, and indeed complex, matter of how we arrived at this place with its limited set of options (the symptoms).  

So, even if being covered by the flag should give us a certain protection from the chill of the winter of national crisis, it should not obscure our view of what has been going on underneath its covers.

U.S. and British citizens should seriously consider how they allowed themselves to be led, even if any deception was largely unconscious (even for Bush and Blair?). So even if we can find someone to blame, we are not yet off the hook.

“Evil Men” and Our Complicity in Evil

The aftermath of Lord Hutton's inquiry into Dr. David Kelly's death should not merely raise again concerns about deliberate governmental misleading over the seriousness of Saddam's military threat, and the question of weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, U.S. and British citizens should seriously consider how they allowed themselves to be led, even if any deception was largely unconscious (even for Bush and Blair?). So even if we can find someone to blame, we are not yet off the hook.

The impact of such potentially painful self-questioning is blunted by self-flattery and self-congratulations, such as that expressed in the Bush's emotive flag-waving and patriotism-inspiring rhetoric identifying the motivations for 9/11's terrorist attacks: the terrorists' hatred of American freedoms – worship, speech, and political system. His jingoistic naïveté (or perfectly conscious manipulating?) is demonstrated by a later claim: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. . . That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness.   And the darkness has not overcome it.”

This ideology functions in unwittingly similar ways to a psychological “self-reinforcing delusion,” projecting “evils” and deflecting attention away from ourselves. Any critique of the (or rather, his ) USA could be dismissed as unenlightened, the perspective of those who dwell in the darkness. Consequently, the terrorists' deep grievances, born in frustration and despair, and our own complex role in creating them, will never be addressed except through an exercise of power and the coercive establishment of our authority over them .

According to the terrorists, U.S. and U.K. citizens are guilty for their complying with and even actively supporting policies conducive to Muslim suffering – through economic sanctions, and the assault on Islamic values through American economic power and entertainment industry. Although we need to carefully differentiate between degrees of guilt there is a fine and difficult-to-spot line between the innocent and guilty here. We need only to remember U.S. history with, for example, its westward colonial expansionism destroying indigenous nations, or its double-nuclear attack on Japanese cities (likewise, the British carpet-bombing strategy which made a practical link between the involvement of combatants and the complicity of noncombatants). So while there is no inherited guilt from the sins of our fathers, so to speak, we can – yet frequently do not do anything to – reverse the effects of the impact of their sins, and indeed even unwittingly co-operate in them .

Of course, the matter is more complex and difficult than Bush's simplistic rhetoric could ever suggest, and no amount of ranting against unpatriotic thoughts, lazy liberalism, or appeasement of terrorism will change that fact. Even if most people rightly understand the terrorism as an entirely illegitimate, even “evil,” way of expressing those grievances, at least adequately understanding those grievances is vital to producing a serious and reasonable policy of response that might actually change things .

Washing the Flag as Symbol of Patriotic Dissent

One of the main problems with any war's post-mortem is that – in the words of a protester when Mr. Blair arrived to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry last August – “It's too late!” It is now too late to prevent the deaths of many thousands of Iraqis and numerous allied troops. It is now too late to prevent support cementing for Islamic terrorism – we may well have seen evidence of that with the Spain's terrible “3/11.” Not only has the anti-terror “war” not made the world safer, it would seem to have had the contrary effect. It may even be too late for Bush and Blair to save their jobs come the next round of elections.  

Dissent, debate, interrogation, and the like are strategies designed to at least attempt to locate the mechanisms producing deceit, to keep us honest – honest not so much to who we think we are (because, of course, we can be all-too-easily deceived about ourselves), but about what constitutes the truth of the matter at hand. Perhaps it can pre-empt its happening again, and implement the moral transformation required by the Remembrance-Day injunction “never forget.” Thus, there is good reason, then, to argue that dissent is not a luxury for the quiet times, but a responsibility during the busy times.  

Many Hebrew prophets were censured by their monarchs for denying the moral legitimacy of governmental actions – Elijah is a classic, but by no means unique, example of this. Good government for these prophets is that which faithfully participates in God's covenantal rule, existing before God for the well-being of God's chosen people.

Jews and Christians, among others, have very good reasons to be suspicious of this fundamentalist (with its strict policing of the boundaries of its delineated orthodoxy) form of patriotism and its resultant war-theology. Many Hebrew prophets were censured by their monarchs for denying the moral legitimacy of governmental actions – Elijah is a classic, but by no means unique, example of this. Good government for these prophets is that which faithfully participates in God's covenantal rule, existing before God for the well-being of God's chosen people. And while a pluralistic society with secular public values will resist the pressure of such theological thoughts, the point remains that being patriotic frequently requires serious dissent, what may look like an apparently “unpatriotic” gesture for the greater well-being of the nation one loves, but has come to despair of the values of.

Theodore Roosevelt in 1918 articulated a patriotism that demands difficult self-critique :   unquestioning obedience to the president “is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” It is, of course, unsurprising that those in positions of authority imagine that criticism of their policies is subversive, even treasonous. But without dissent, the critical challenge to their moral accountability will be muted – dangerously so. It is difficult to resist drawing certain parallels between the American-British “spin”-machine and modern totalitarian use of propaganda. Herrman Goering's comments at the Nuremburg trials are haunting:

Of course the people don't want war. But after all, . . . [v]oice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

To deny the link with some unquestioning loyalty, or with a frequently voiced post-9/11, but nonetheless superficial, response of “we're victims” and so “we're right” is to seriously run the risk of identifying us groundlessly and idolatrously with the Good and True – with God's own ways. Bush himself has advocated such a simplistic portrayal of the “might-is-right” doctrine (“either you're with us and those of us who love freedom, or you're with the enemy”). But, to be pro-humanity is not to necessarily adhere unquestioningly to any particular version of what it should look like.

The Globality of the “Human”

Our national governments understandably seek to protect their people's interests – after all, they about winning another term in office. But what globalisation in trade and communications systems can remind, in its more benign moments, is that our humanity is more common and shared than our encounters with those living within our state could otherwise suggest. Even at its worst, globalisation entails that suffering in one region is connected with action in another. The humanity we are responsible for and to may just well now (as if it did not before!) have to take on global proportions . And yet nationalism invariably tends to forget the ties that bind nations together, and frequently articulates itself in narrow, partisan, opportunistic, and jingoistic ways, resulting in the exclusion of those who are defined as “other,” “not like us,” “not our kind of people.” Instead, in order to protect the ideals of justice and equality we would do better to return to “the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world. . . [This would provide] a more international basis for political emotion and concern” [Prof. Martha Craven Nussbaum]. A true patriotism, then, would have to be, at the very least, an enlightened internationalism.

Testifying to global responsibility for the shape of human being is at least what Christians assert when they proclaim the universal relevance of the humanity of Jesus Christ – the One who represents not what we identify as our best interests and desires but our very well-being itself, and that means that claims to love the world God created has to be richer and more expansive than anything our particular nation's theories can bear. Otherwise we will merely transcribe all our particularities, with their built-in self-protection systems, into a divine idiom – and that would both be to refuse the universality of grace and continue propagating the darkening that this world dwells in (John 1:5). What does the One identified as the Light of the world bring? Not some private consolation of reward or eternal peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) – in other words, the strongest form of resistance to the darkness that we are otherwise blinded by and cling on to. This is the resistance of peacefulness, of peace-making with all those beings that are declared “creatures,” and therefore “good,” by the divine creativity. And this requires, nay urgently demands , that we find better ways of resolving issues and working together than having to resort to simplifying the options to either war or open-ended negotiation (which for many is nothing more than a cowardly turning-a-blind-eye).

Sitting lightly to our own particular nationalisms may be an option in a globalised world, but sitting lightly to responsibility for the multiplicity of life declared “creaturely” is certainly not. It is a matter of knowing when patriotism is not enough, or better, when a certain brand of it is distorting.

The 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke once claimed that “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Now here is a challenge to our agency's shape, our hearts' desires, and our thoughts' produce – at least if it is rewritten in the form “To make our country lovely, we ought to be loving.” Sitting lightly to our own particular nationalisms may be an option in a globalised world, but sitting lightly to responsibility for the multiplicity of life declared “creaturely” is certainly not. It is a matter of knowing when patriotism is not enough, or better, when a certain brand of it is distorting. But perhaps it is even more than that. Why does our love have to stop at geographical borders, and what does love of our country mean especially when the destructive actions taken in defence of that love may well create the very conditions that result in there being no country left to love? What we need, at the very least , is an expansive patriotism, a yea-saying to the earth and its densely articulatable life. We need to speak thickly in our descriptions of the human in a way that transcends the arbitrariness of geographical, as well as racial and gender differences while acknowledging their role in making us the particular people we are, and which does all this without any sentimental appeal to the “loveliness of the other.”

Are we likely to deny the difficult burden of our national and global responsibilities by superficially reading Paul's injunction to obey one's rulers in everything, for instance (Romans 13)? That, of course, as Paul's apparent martyrdom at the hands of the imperial government (64 C.E.) suggests, he was not prepared to take literally.  

The weapons of mass deception are buried very deeply indeed. Are we to idly remain blinded to the possibility that the “It's too late!” will become the epitaph of our generation?  

 

Dr. John C. McDowell is the Meldrum Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a member of the Church of Scotland's Panel of Doctrine. As a Northern Irishman he has seen first hand something of what nationalism can do to excluded groups, how it can blind one to the injustice of a geographically circumscribed god's jealousy, and how Christian churches themselves can become all too complicit in this process. He is the author of several academic journal articles; of Hope in Barth's Eschatology: Interrogations and Transformations Beyond Tragedy (Ashgate, 2000); and, with Mike A. Higton, of Conversing With Barth (Ashgate, 2004). He may be reached by email at mcdowell@div.ed.ac.uk .

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Read "Faith and Patriotism," the March 2002 issues of The Witness magazine