A true patriot wouldn’t be a sycophant

March 01, 2021 10:10
Photo: Reuters

Patriotism – love of one’s country, love of one’s land, love of one’s origins and roots. Brilliant stuff – in theory.

We should take patriotism to be perfectly benign and eminently harmless. Benign, in that it lends a natural form of credibility and gravitas to statements, declarations, proclamations that individuals make in a functioning polity – means to overcoming collective action problems. Patriotism, imbued with the appropriate level of compassion and sacrificial collectivism, could make a country ‘great again’ – it is harmless if its exuberance could be harnessed for sociopolitical progress and change. It is the nation, not the dollar, that keeps individuals toiling away at times of great catastrophes and national crises. It is also patriotism, as opposed to narrow-minded rationalism, that fuels sacrifice.

Yet patriotism – just as Bitcoin’s founder – is elusive. It’s comparable, in many ways, to tortoises and hares; we may think we’ve seen a tortoise (it’s in fact a turtle), or a hare (a rabbit); telling these items apart from one another, is just as difficult as identifying and scouting for true patriots. Hence patriotism is reduced into ideological zealotry and sloganistic fanfare – bells and whistles with the finesse of a bulldozer. The louder it is, the more ‘obvious’ it is, the greater the ensuing rewards.

Patriotism has become a performative ritual – a necessary evil – in the contemporary era. For some, it’s about waving the national flags and serenading the daunted public with high-pitched screeches in a sing-song manner; for others, just as Trump protesters rallying around ‘the flag’ on Capitol Hill, it’s a matter of life and death – between a nation’s continued survival, and its perishing in the hands of the disloyal. Practitioners of such ‘patriotism’ are ubiquitous, for their actions tend to ‘sell well’ – if one is struggling to get by, or, indeed, straining to govern properly, patriotic rhetoric offers the logical go-to, as a means of currying favours with at least the bloc within one’s society that possesses and enshrines nationalistic sentiments.

And there’s indeed a voluptuous demand for such gestures, for they prop up and maintain the continued support for entrenched dogma, they delegitimise any and all opposition, and, above all, they’re “contagious” – the logic of performative patriotism requires instantiation and repetition in order to uphold the holistic ‘aura’ or ‘social fabric’, in order to police the attitudes and actions of dissenters and naysayers.

I believe firmly in the normative value of patriotism; though the extent by which this therefore makes me, or anyone, a patriot – remains dubious. Yet I believe patriotism must and should always remain a dispositional and comprehensive outlook – i.e. one is a patriot if one approaches a question through the lenses of one’s nation’s interests. If true and genuine words must be said in enabling the nation’s progress, let these words be said – ideally, they should neither be nihilistic and packed to the brim with emotional, sentimentalist rhetoric, nor destructive in prescribing unrealisable solutions. Alternatively, if there are actions that uphold the long-term interests and wellbeing of one’s fellow citizens, let these acts be undertaken by the valiant – but not wielded by the disingenuous as means of climbing the greasy political ladder.

A true patriot should be open-minded about others’ patriotism – including the patriotic ideals and passions of those who hold other nationalities. They should also recognise that in order for their ideals of patriotism to universalise in a way that is morally justified and warranted, they must first learn to respect the nation as a differentiated concept – one that varies from person to person, agent to agent. There is no ‘monolithic way’ of loving one’s country – a Mancunian Brexiteer’s conception of Britain is unlikely to resemble that of a 22-year-old millennial living in Camden or Shoreditch, and that’s entirely alright. Imposing a ‘standard’ conception of the nation, of one’s candid love for the nation, and of one’s identity as a member of the nation… over a heterogeneous, creative mass of active citizens, would only spell “Disaster!” for those who inhabit the particular polity. One can be a patriot without being a bigot. One could also be patriotic without foregoing commitments to universal, basic, unifying values – decency, respect, and equality.

Finally, a true patriot wouldn’t be a sycophant. Sycophancy – what is it? ‘tis the hushed whispers by the ears of the powerful; ‘tis the gospel of the blasphemous; ‘tis the lies told by subordinates to their superiors as a means of self-promotional gains; ‘tis the murky lines transgressed and oft-crossed for the sake of personal convenience. Sycophancy breeds mendacity, and mendacity can paralyse a country from within – through destabilising the very metrics of truth and competence, which should, under ordinary circumstances, undergird governance. Sycophancy encourages public servants to say one thing to the public, and to say another in private. It also sows political divides, as sycophants and lackeys for both sides of a conflict turn to ramping up their vitriolic discourse as a means of justifying their continued support and existence.

If you love your country, you should tell no lies about it, speak no undue ills about it, and love it in a way that is pragmatic, outcome-driven, and conducive towards a better tomorrow for all.

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HKEJ contributor