The idiocy of patriotism

The sentiment of patriotism evokes great emotion in us, a fact that is cleverly exploited by political leaders the world over to manipulate people

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The events of the past few months have made me wonder about the relevance of patriotism in today’s context. Unlike in the pre-independence era, where patriotism stood for the struggle for home rule, today it is reduced to a jingoistic show of loyalty and blind love for the nation. What’s worse, the fact that the sentiment of patriotism evokes great emotion in us has always been cleverly exploited by political leaders the world over to manipulate the unassuming masses who rarely stop to think about issues deeply. And these days the sentiment is also being exploited by TV channels to garner TRPs.

I have begun to view patriotism as a shallow ideal and, I am happy to report, my views find resonance in the thoughts of some of the greatest and most respected minds to have graced this planet. Oscar Wilde called patriotism “the virtue of the vicious”. Albert Einstein said, “This disgrace to civilisation should be done away with at once; heroism on command, senseless violence and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism.” George Bernard Shaw didn’t think highly of patriotism either, labelling it as a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy. He also said, “You’ll never have a quiet world until you knock the patriotism out of the human race.” And Leo Tolstoy said, “To abolish war it is necessary to abolish patriotism, and to abolish patriotism it is necessary first to understand that it is an evil. Tell people that patriotism is bad and most will reply, ‘Yes, bad patriotism is bad, but mine is good patriotism.’”

George Bernard Shaw didn’t think highly of patriotism, labelling it as a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy

Tolstoy knew that patriotism can never be noble as it necessitates taking sides, which is absurd considering we live on a round planet. Patriotism tends to make enemies of designated others and assumes that the geographical area I call my country is greater, better and superior than others simply because I was born in it. It pretends to be the highest ideal, even higher than love, peace and joy. To nationalists and patriots, democracy too is a lower ideal and can be sacrificed in the name of blind devotion to one’s country.

But, does love and devotion for one’s motherland have to mean contempt for other nations? In fact, if I truly love and respect my country, I would respect all others who have similar sentiments towards their own countries.

I love India but I don’t confuse my love with patriotism, which only polarises people, and promotes hatred and violence. Moreover, in my opinion, India is much more than its geography—after all, borders are drawn by those in power. India lives in me, no matter where I live on the planet. That’s because a country is known by the values and principles that its inhabitants cherish and nourish. To me, India’s strength lies in its pluralism, its greatness in its resilience, its power in its diversity and its glory in its rich spirituality. But no country is perfect and there’s wisdom in accepting this truth. My love for my nation shouldn’t make me turn a blind eye towards all its flaws, for doing so harms much more than it helps.

If I truly love and respect my country, I would respect all others who have similar sentiments towards their own motherlands

Now, if I find that a fellow citizen has become disillusioned by the values and principles that define India, I need not react emotionally, lambast him, tell him to leave the country, or worse, resort to hostility, no matter what the provocation. I don’t have to label him as “anti-national” and punish him. Instead, I must try to find out what makes him believe what he does and see if there’s any way I can change his views. I must also look at the issues that he brings up—may be there’s merit in what he’s saying. If so, I should find out how to address those concerns. There is always a peaceful solution and there’s always an opportunity to be kind to fellow human beings—if I choose so.

Coming back to patriotism, Rabindranath Tagore, who penned India's national anthem, sums up my feelings: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”


A version of this blog was first published in the March 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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