To love one’s country candidly and sincerely

March 23, 2024 00:32

I’m a firm believer that the more you love something, the more you must be honest about it.

A citizen’s devotion to their country could take many forms. Some are genuinely devoted – they see the interests of their co-nationals, of their imagined communities, and, perhaps more controversially, the actors in charge of representing and acting on behalf of these individuals (i.e. the state, or relevant para-state institutions), as a core dimension of their own. Peronists didn’t just embrace the eponymous cult of personality, but also the notion of a strong, vibrant, and unified Argentinian nation-state – one forged through decades of civil strife and war, emergent from Spanish colonialism. French nationalists who sought to revive a sovereign and independent France during World War 2, opted to reject the Vichy regime that had collaborated with the Nazis, and instead aligned themselves firmly with the Free France government-in-exile under the inimitable and venerable De Gaulle.

Then there are those who find nationalism a relic of the past. They would identify themselves squarely and fairly as global citizens, taking pride in the political fact of their utter rootlessness. The dissolution of borders and the termination of national identities are, in their view, part and parcel of a logical and inevitable progression towards a global commons – one that may or may not be led by a world government. Alternatively, more realistic and pragmatic members amongst this group would opt for a world where states remain governed by separate governments – yet such separation is defended and justified through invoking contingent, prudential reasons.

For instance, the upsides of having two governments, instead of one, administering two territorial polities, rest in the benign competition this instills between the two peoples, as well as a heightened sense of accountability, motivation (through top-down-constructed and bottom-up-devised narratives of solidarity), and, indeed, more customisation of both social rituals and formal laws in accordance with the needs and sensitivities of those on the ground. A terrain that gives rise to nomadic lifestyle (e.g. steppes and the desert) is likely to have very different ‘demands’ from a terrain that is predominantly coastal and maritime-oriented. Hence there are realistic limits – imposed by both feasibility and utilitarian concerns – to the extent to which we could in fact live in a ‘post-nation-state’ world.

Finally, there are individuals who view patriotism as a conducive, careerist move. They rhetorically assert and tritely plead their fealty and devotion to the nation-state, only for this to be used as a Shibboleth, as a default response to a mundane test of supposed loyalty. Such loyalists would invoke their nation’s name in justifying and defending their own actions – even if their behaviours in fact undermine and compromise the interests of the nation at large. Take, for instance, the military-industrial complex in the US, who insists upon an ever-expansive American presence overseas, resting upon empirically dubious and normatively questionable premises. There are many in the complex who are true patriots (at least, they would like to see themselves as such, and are broadly motivated by what they view as America’s best interests); yet there are also many who would cite their devotion to the country as a purported justification for the continuous investment into R and D of lethal weaponry, as well as sales of such weapons to foreign powers who are tentatively aligned with America’s geopolitical interests.

A true patriot – in the context of America – should be unafraid of calling out lies, half-truths, and post-truths. There is reason why the Jan 6th rioters drew such ire from a significant plurality (and perhaps simple majority) of the American public, including moderate Republicans and anti-Democrat independents. And that was because they put their own party – their own faction of the party, to be more precise – above their country. Opportunistic leaders at the top of the MAGA Movement leveraged the incensed Trump crowd, as well as the uniquely emotive and emphatic resonance associated with “the country” as projected and narrated by Trump, to lure guileless individuals filled with incandescent rage into a trap – a trap that turned them into anti-democracy fanatics and zealots.

To love one’s country is no crime. Indeed, it provides us with the healthy basis of a functional, mutually reinforcing and supportive, and robustly perseverant polity. Countries that are unloved by their citizens cannot thrive – it is akin to a collective action problem: the more a state is reviled by its members, the weaker it is internationally, and the less likely it is that the state can secure the core, presumptive benefits to which all individuals are entitled within a political community.

Yet in order for such love to be effective, to be transformative, it must come with candid, constructive criticisms (or critique) and a level of introspective sincerity – both of which are sadly and sorely lacking across the world at present. Constructive critics who make helpful suggestions are castigated by both trenchant, impetuous opponents of the regimes, who believe in an all-or-nothing, zero-sum logic; as well as those who are unreservedly and uncaveatedly in favour of the entrenched way of doing things. Innovation is decried as blasphemous. Truth-telling is blasted as hideous. And amidst the war sirens and battle cries of the sparring crowds, commonsense in hence lost.

A true patriot should not be afraid to speak their mind. If they are sincere about wanting the very best for their compatriots, they must seek truth from facts, and provide well-reasoned, well-substantiated, and constructively buttressed suggestions that can and must in fact be implemented, in order to help their country progress, grow, and rise to the benign maximum of its potential. Lies and sycophancy would only hold back the country, and hold back its people.

Assistant Professor, HKU