Fake patriots, real opportunitsts

July 07, 2022 10:45
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Reuters)

These days, it pays a lot to be a patriot. From influence to privilege, from wealth to an abundance of media limelight. From office to non-office, from rent to ownership, it’s all about the credentials, and credentials pegged to patriotism, at that.

I am paraphrasing Shashi Tharoor – a wonderful statesman and thinker – here, but it’s indubitably true that patriotism can be a force for good: one that is not rooted in the desire to express territorial claims, for one; one that is not fixated over policing the boundaries of citizenship, for another. Yet it is when patriotism morphs into nationalism – with its innately exclusionary and all-subsuming tendencies: that is when we should be most alarmed by the visceral and vitriolic substance that is carried by the dominant undercurrents within the sentiments and movement.

Unfortunately, I would submit that patriotism transmogrifying into nationalism is by no means the sole danger we have to worry about these days. There’s also the perennial peril – now amplified by the advent of political opportunitism and social media-fuelled populism – of fake patriotism. “Patriots” claiming to fight for their country, when in practice the first thing they’d do is to run away in face of adversities and genuine threats. “Patriots” feigning loyalty by badgering and haranguing those who are deemed not “loyal” enough – only to score brownie points that would allow them to get ahead in the rat race. “Patriots” clambering to clobber a dead man, only because lynching that man metaphorically could allow them to virtue-signal (or vice-signal?) their sycophantic loyalty to their imagined, perceived higher powers.

I’ve spent a decade teaching debaters and public speakers how to articulate with seeming passion, conviction, and integrity ideas in which they ultimately do not believe. I’ve seen the best of human creativity and talent when it comes to repackaging disingenuous ideas as rhetorically powerful and emphatically persuasive soundbites that sell well amongst gullible audiences. I’ve also seen the worst – the depravity and depths to which folks would sink. After all, BoJo’s defence of his dying premiership seems to be centered around a pitch for stability and character; I wonder how much of that’s left in the aftermath of the devastating scandals that have rocked the Tories over the past week. So I know what a good argument is when I see one. And I know what a truthful statement is – and what isn’t – from two miles out.

Fake patriots don’t believe in their country. Nor do they care for their country. They turn instead to worshipping the false Gods of individual financial and monetary gains, at the expense of the collective. They turn to praising the country and whitewashing its many faults and defects, all in name of upholding national interests – but the last thing a struggling, albeit potentially powerful and ascendant, country needs is those who refuse to tell it as it is, who refuse to seek truth from facts, who refuse to engage with pragmatism and take on the many challenges that could only be resolved through acknowledging the problems, as opposed to silencing them. You can love your country without being naïve. Indeed, if you love your country, you probably shouldn’t be naïve, and definitely shouldn’t intentionally render your followers and audience unquestioning lemmings.

Fake patriots are dangerous for three reasons. Firstly, they render it the case that patriotism is equated with individuals who are out-of-touch with reality, who fundamentally view their political careers and independent pursuits as being of higher and more substantial value than their society’s interests. Citizens come to eschew and despise patriotism, not because the latter is inherently faulty, but because the latter stands for the kind of uncouth and inauthentic fabrication that fills the rank and file of ‘patriotic’ apologists – those who can see no ills, and thus fix no ills, in their own country.

Secondly, fake patriots drown out the voices of real patriots – those who see both the good and the bad, the virtues and the vices of their country; and who take the interests of their fellow citizens to heart, as opposed to wearing them on the sleeve and exploiting them on the fly. It is imperative that real patriots are given the breathing room and opportunity to make a difference: this, alas, cannot be the case when the core measurements of patriotism are reduced to the number of vocal and vociferous rallies one rocks up to, or, indeed, the volume of money one throws at a luscious and extravagant performance. It’s not about the looks, it’s about the heart that counts. Character ought to matter more than persona – in practice, it’s the other way round.

Finally, fake patriots stifle the prospects for national unity. Their careers are built off the backs of demonising the Other, of stirring up unnecessary conflicts and instigating undue strife – all in the name of preserving national order. Napoleon also claimed to be a democrat. Those engaged in frenetic large-scale movements propagated by authoritarian leaders are often deluded into thinking that they’re serving a greater cause, a higher purpose. But as the Chinese saying goes, when the water recedes, the rocks will reveal themselves.

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HKEJ contributor