Patriotism, said the science fiction writer and polymath, Issac Asimov, is the last refuge of scoundrels. It was a theme that popped up frequently in his books and essays, good people versus the patriots, the best and the worst of a nation or society. For some, Asimov probably went a little overboard. After all, what's wrong with feeling good when your country does well in sport, or is praised by someone famous or respectable. Nothing at all. But I'm with Asimov on his main point. The assertive patriotism of people inside and outside our own countries should make us suspicious and sceptical. Especially when they attack others to build national feeling at home.
The Irish put it best, as they often do. They used to refer to the war of terror against British forces in their island as "the patriot game". In a brilliant folk song of that name, a young man named O'Hanlan tells of the allure of patriotism-how he'd learned all his life through that cruel England was to blame for his woes, so he played out his part in the patriot game. The last stanza has young O'Hanlan dying from a British bullet, a victim of the game. As his life ebbs away, he reflects on the futility of a patriotism that sanctions violence, abuse of the innocent and meaningless death.
In the 1960s, the American establishment demonstrated the witless extremes of patriotism as the youth of the nation revolted against the Vietnam war and a system that left them alienated and angry. The Stars and Stripes frequently flew over anti-government demonstrations as the young showed that they too valued their country. It was just that they wanted to change it. The American flag popped up elsewhere too. On T-shirts and rucksacks, on tattoos and infamously, on the seat of a pair of jeans belonging to a young man from Florida. I was in the American south at the time, and the story was all over the local news. The fellow in question was getting into his car when the police spotted Old Glory on the backside of his trousers. He drove off and officers gave chase. The young man had reason to flee, he was carrying a tiny amount of marijuana, then part of the whole livery of rebellion in America. He drove faster and faster as more police cruisers joined the chase. Inevitably, the pursued vehicle ran off the road and into a forest, killing the young man with the flag on his behind. "An insult to the flag" was the justification of the pursuing officers, and illegal to boot. Perhaps, but was it really worth a meaningless death.
We spend but a short time on the face of this planet. Our notions, nations and self-definitions are fleeting and momentary whether you believe in eternity or not. Flags and national dress will be bits of mouldy thread in some archaeologist's sieve one day. All that patriots hold dear will surely pass, just as they themselves will. Symbols of nationhood, a proud history, simply being from a certain place, these are nothing to be proud of in isolation. As a Canadian, I suppose I'm proud of the qualities of tolerance, equality and redress of historic wrongs that are supposed to lie at the heart of our nationalism. Perhaps they don't, but there are plenty of people- journalists, activists, even politicians-making sure that they remain topics of constant debate.
In fact, I believe many of the strengths of liberal societies are partially because there is no single definition of patriotism. There are no topics too sacred to be left undebated. Anything can change if it improves peoples' lives and makes the country a better place to live. You can't use flags for shelter or eat your national dress when the crops fail. As the nation-states of the world surge forward or fall back, it's never wrong to question what it means to be a citizen. Mind you, I do wish the Canadians would do a little better at sport so I can be a scoundrel at least once in my life.