Damp Little Ideas
|Phwoar, look at the imperialist symbolism on that!|
That bit in ‘The Empty Child’ when the Doctor talks about the “damp little island” standing alone against Hitler… when I first saw that I hurled a coat-hanger I happened to be holding at my television.
Okay, so: patriotism as progressive, yeah? “Don’t forget the Welfare State” or whatever he says.
Hmm. You will unsurprised to learn that I have doubts.
There is sometimes an unwarranted elision of the idea of ‘patriotism’ with the idea of ‘loving one’s home’. This is an elision that many left-wingers have been guilty of, from Orwell to Billy Bragg. But it confuses distinct concepts. Moreover, it acquiesces in the ideological project of confusing these concepts, a project of immense utility to ruling classes going back to the very birth of the state. Patriotism isn’t just a cynical scheme of the rulers… though it is that, amongst other things. The point here is that it is an ideological construction and a form of social practice which cannot be simplistically overlaid upon personal affection for one’s origins and surroundings.
I love London. In order to get sentimentally misty-eyed about this, I’d have to forget that the city is a concentrated site of racial discrimination, police repression, social cleansing, centralised state bureaucracy, drastic inequality; that it’s the hub of the organisation and enforcement (physical and ideological) of a neoliberal and neo-imperialist power, strewn with monuments to one of the most savagely aggressive colonial empires in modern history. And on and on and on.
The love of one’s home is one thing. ‘Patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ are both, finally, ideological notions mapped-onto it. They both immediately elide the flexible and contextual concept of ‘home’ with the political category of ‘country’. Even the term ‘homeland’ starts to do this. We should never let ourselves become deaf to the shades of meaning imported by extra syllables.
The idea that patriotism can be a ‘way in’ to a larger feeling of social involvement is similarly dubious. To the extent that patriotism makes the individual feel connected to something larger than him-or-herself, the connection is a masochistic one. It is the sublimation of oneself into a dominating framework, not the integration of oneself into a genuinely collective endeavour, whatever the rhetoric.
Besides, this sublime idea of ecstatic sublimation is not only unduly R/romantic, but is also so vague, and so applicable as a description of so many varied and mutually-exclusive things, that it loses all substantive content. It can refer to mysticism, chauvinism, trade union activity, identity politics, family, etc. Richard Dawkins feels ‘part of something greater than himself’; so does the Pope. For the idea of personal integration into wider structures to be meaningful, it must be individuated… whereupon we start to see patriotism as a distinct phenomenon, quite separate from, say, social work or progressive activism. The mooted connection collapses.
Ideas of ‘national community’ are largely ideological constructions which artificially smooth-out hugely contradictory social arrangements riddled with class antagonisms. The idea that ‘the nation’ is a space where we can work for ‘the public good’ is similarly panglossian. In societies divided into social groups of mutually-exclusive interests that are constantly in material conflict, is there such a thing as a ‘public good’? Any concept of ‘public good’ is always, consciously or unconsciously, an expression of class interest, because it always ends up being an assertion that the interests of one class are synonymous with the interests of all classes. This is simply impossible, barring something extreme like the immediate threat of a massive nuclear explosion. Given that even imminent environmental catastrophe has not been enough to convince the bourgeoisie that they share a common interest with humanity as a whole, it’s fair to say that ‘the public good’ is a last, temporary and remote possibility… at best.
The heart of capitalism is the antagonism between the interests of those who produce surplus value and those who pocket it. That makes me very suspicious of ‘the nation’, which in its modern form, is an integral part of global capitalism. Patriotism, similarly, is an ideological buttress of this system. It is also intimately bound up with imperialism rather than just being an unfortunate side-effect. Patriotism has always been linked to the competition of states. Viz the rise of patriotism alongside the rise of the modern state in Early Modern Europe, viz the patriotism of Roman senators, etc, etc.
Does patriotism ever do any good? Well, as far as I can see, only when it’s bound up with other ideas that actually conflict with it (which happens, of course). The great post-war national liberation struggles against European colonial domination, for example… something Orwell never lived to see, leading him to rather simplistically seperate patriotism (good) from nationalism (bad). Back ‘home’, many crusading socialists who laid the groundwork for the Welfare State, many Chartists etc., stressed the common welfare of ‘the people’ of ‘the nation’. Left-wingers such as Michael Parenti still assert that they are the real patriots for opposing America’s wars in favour of social programs to benefit ordinary Americans. This is a widespread strategy. But it rings hollow.
We can’t put the credit for the British Welfare State onto ‘Britain’ because it was a product of currents within the British polity (i.e. the labour movement, socialism, reformism, and yes even aspects of liberalism, etc) which had to fight long and bitter struggles against other groups in order to achieve any such gains. (Now, of course, patriotic we’reallinthistogetherness is used to justfiy the wanton dismantling of these gains… which only goes to demonstrate that the patriotic idea is, at best, a tool that can be used by both sides… rather like a blunt instrument that can be snatched back and forth between mugger and muggee… except that the mugger brought it with him and knows how to use it.)
That the NHS happened is no reason to be proud of ‘the nation’, no more than one person’s beauty is reason to praise the attractiveness of everyone on the bus… especially if a significant portion of the people on the bus are actively trying to disfigure the pretty one with knives. (This is without pushing the analogy further by pointing out that ‘beauty’ is subjective, means different things to different people, and that praising it is by no means obviously a proper thing to do. Apart from anything else, praising the beauty of strangers on buses would usually be tantamount to sexual harassment. Something of the same combination of self-serving motives, arrogant presumption and abuse of privilege – all lurking beneath ostensible nobility – is usually to be found in patriotic waffle. Even putting this aside, patriotism is an inherently dubious idea, not just because it relies upon a spurious lumping together of hugely disparate groups with hugely disparate interests, not just because it is bound up with the ideological hegemony of powerful interests, but also because it relies upon lazy assumptions that certain things are always positive, always worthy of public pride.)
As ever, we end up with the problem of ‘we’. Is there any word more abused in political discourse than ‘we’? It is abused by all sides, by David Cameron and Tony Benn. ‘We’ bomb Pakistan. ‘We’ created the Welfare State. ‘We’ had an empire. ‘We’ produced Shakespeare. What obfuscatory nonsense this rests on. A lot of those national liberation struggles I mentioned were waged against my very own ‘damp little island’. That this island has wildlife, literature, theatre culture and BBC sci-fi shows that I love, as well as an inspiring history of working class resistance, doesn’t make it any less an imperial culture soaked in blood. If we go along with the essentially patriotic idea of the island as a community, the idea that the material nature of the island creates a meaningful ‘national identity’ or something like that, then we end up with the dubious idea that, for instance, ‘we’ unleashed terror and torture against the Mau Mau rebellion. This is the flipside of saying that ‘we’ fought Hitler. If the first isn’t fair or true, neither is the second.
The only way to efface this is to simply not mention one side or the other. In the interests of the patriotic mainstream, we never mention the Mau Mau. This is the time-honoured and constant technique of capitalist media culture, ‘The Empty Child’ not-excepted: what cannot be said within the confines of mainstream ideological discourse must be passed over in silence… and because it always is passed over in silence, it stays forever out of the hegemonic mainstream discourse, that discourse being composed of only those notions which can be spoken about without any awareness of breaching the ‘common sense’ consensus. A self-perpetuating echo chamber which endures because it has, in many ways, won a kind of Darwinian battle of methods for containing discourse in capitalist societies, winning out over both extreme censorship and over genuine freedom of speech.
To breach this silence is to become political or ‘controversial’ (while the political valences of those things which *can* be said are not noticed… they simply become the ideological equivalent of wallpaper). We forget the imperial crimes of Britain and leave it at saying ‘we fought Hitler’… but again, the spurious ‘we’ does its work. ‘We’ fought Hitler. My grandad, Beaverbrook, Churchill, RAB Butler, Edward and Mrs Simpson… all in it together. It’s obvious what’s wrong with that, I’d hope. Large swathes of the British ruling class were sympathetic to the fascists as bulwarks against communism. Unlike Churchill, my grandad ended up with shrapnel in his body for the rest of his life. It might be objected that ‘we’ often means ‘we the people’… but, as I said, we mustn’t be deaf to the syllables. Even the ones that pointedly aren’t there. And even if we are talking about ‘the people’… who are they? How do you get to be part of ‘the people’. Our latterday English narodniks indulge in this kind of vagueness at best; at worst they indulge in fascist sentimentalism. The EDL talk about ‘the people’. There’s nothing in the term to stop them. As Walter Benjamin realised, cultural artefacts should be unusable by fascists if they are to be relied upon.
On this subject… I flat-out disbelieve that ‘national culture’ entails respect for diversity, given the sustained assaults upon diversity that are utterly mainstream in British culture. We’re always hearing about how ‘British values’ (presumably what is meant are not those values which permit Britain to bomb the shit out of civillians in the Middle East) are under threat from multiculturalism, Islam, etc. On the ground, some people cling to fictions like ‘British fair play’ as a way of expressing tolerance and democracy, but at least as often (far more often, I suspect) such notions are employed by xenophobes, ressentimental Tories, Dailymailistas, and those fascist sentimentalists already mentioned). I don’t even think that the aggregation ‘national culture’ is actually possible. Such aggregations are highly selective ideological fictions. But even if it were true, it leaves us with the problem of respect for diversity *outside* the artificially/ideologically-constructed idea of ‘the nation’. This is especially problematic when the nation being talked about/celebrated is also an empire, or a former empire, or run by ‘humanitarian interventionists’.
Of course, in the mainstream, all this isn’t even a blip. In the near-constant drip-drip-drip of popular culture, Britain is a collective hero (a crusty John Bull, flawed and old-fashioned, but coming-out-swinging for freedom) fighting evil German imperialism. Our own imperialism is effaced, eternally. In this context, the true history of the British ruling class’ role in tolerating fascism, comforting fascism, enabling fascism, and finally fighting fascism only when their own imperial hegemony was threatened, must be left out because it strays out of the mainstream ‘common sense’ and into the ‘political’ or ‘controversial’. And so we end up with the Doctor praising the damp little island. Somebody pass me a sick bag.
Another favourite example of mine is in Agatha Christie’s Poirot , in an adaptation of ‘The Clocks’. Poirot is confronted by a German spy motivated by appeaser-sympathies who sneers at “weak, liberal England”. Poirot angrily retorts that “weak, liberal England” gave him a home when the Germans overran Belgium during the First World War. What isn’t mentioned, amidst all this moving drama about standing up to tyranny, is the teensy-weensy little business of Belgium’s utterly murderous and racist imperial domination of the Congo, which King Leopold initiated in order to compete with the imperialism of other European powers such as Britain, and which was immensely profitable because of trade with Britain, amongst other countries.
‘We’ all know about German imperialism… well, about bits of it. As has been said elsewhere, the real problem with German imperialism (the problem that makes it exceptionally memorable) is that they tried standard European methods of violent colonial landgrabbing, repression and racial mass-murder in mainland Europe rather than in Africa… after all, nobody in mainstream media-culture remembers the Kaiser’s genocide of the Hereros and Namaquas in Namibia. ‘We’ also remember German imperialism for another reason: it is the imperialism that excuses, effaces, blots out our own. The writer of the Poirot episode knew that Nazi Germany was bad, and that Britain ‘stood against it’. He knew Poirot was the hero, and so had to give voice to these uncontroversial notions. He probably didn’t know much about the Belgian Congo, about Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy , about Tintin in the Congo… after all, we don’t get morality plays about how dreadful Belgian imperialism was rammed down our throats in constant TV/film dramas. Nothing in it to make ‘us’ brits feel good about ‘our’ heroism.
This is not, by itself, a huge problem within the confines of a TV show… and, indeed, The Empty Child is probably Moffat’s best work precisely because it manages a certain scepticism towards the idea of an untroubled national community, albeit mediating its issues with this notion through the free-floating conduit of sexual repression. The last refuge of the scoundrel, however, leaves a nasty taste in my mouth when it makes its appearance in a quite good piece of work like ‘Empty Child’.
We might ask why it was possible to do a WWII Who story in 1989 that did not embrace the concepts of patriotism or ‘the nation’ uncritically, but it no longer seemed possible in 2005. The degeneration of our ‘national’ political discourse since 1989 surely has a fair bit to do with it. Maybe Moffat shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. Thanks be to many, but perhaps especially to Blair.
August 20, 2013 @ 5:35 am
Good stuff – I'm glad you reminded me, whenever I hear the phrase "don't you want to be part of something bigger" or words to that effect, either in life or in culture I always think "no, I want to be bigger".
August 20, 2013 @ 10:16 am
What always annoyed me about the line was the idea that a damp little island… which still has a massive world-spanning empire it has brought into the war with it, as well as allies like Canada and Australia which turned out not to be as separated from that empire as some may have thought, (and those are the sorts of places we don't tend to forget have real people in them, for another inaccurate use of 'we') — could possibly be described as "alone". Probably because I was once under the illusion that the UK was the only country in that side of the war at the time, and it's now teaching that illusion to a new generation of children.
Taking credit for the English Channel is irritating as well. "We're more admirable than the French because the Germans ran into a formidable natural barrier and had to stop."
More pertinently, there's something in here where I find it bafflingly difficult to put my principles into practice, and that's sport. Even though I explicitly reject nationalism and patriotism, the idea that I should be any more concerned about someone who lives 50 miles from me than someone who lives 5000 miles away being obviously ridiculous, I somehow find the appeal of 'supporting' English and British sportspeople and teams impossible to resist. It's probably just some instinct towards communality, so it's not unduly troubling, but caring more about British sportspeople than foreign sportspeople is uncomfortably similar to, say, caring more when comparatively small numbers of British or American people get blown up than when huge numbers of Iraqi or Afghan people get blown up. Maybe I can just afford to behave in a completely daft way when it's over sporting results which are so completely bereft of real meaning.
August 21, 2013 @ 3:18 am
There is something mawkish and saccharine about modern patriotism.
I get a bit nauseated by some of the charitable concerns aimed at the British army like 'Help the Heroes.' Those gestures seem to want to avoid endorsing the missions that the armed forces are on, while at the same time using the language of 'heroes' in a way that avoids criticism of the missions.
It is as though the British armed forces have been turned into another set of victims, the objects of charity and compassion, rather than either the agents of justice and British values or as the agents of a capitalist imperialistic agenda.
August 22, 2013 @ 2:10 pm
Some of your best work, Jack, and compelling enough for me to recant whatever I previously said to defend the notion of patriotism in the first place.
August 22, 2013 @ 2:27 pm
re: "caring more about British sportspeople"
It's always easier to care about people you know than people you don't know. Also, it's quite likely that the way our brains evolved and are organized plays a large role in determining our affectational responses. We evolved to deal with the particulars of day-to-day life; while reason dictates that the lives of a thousand strangers carry greater weight than a dozen acquaintances, our emotions themselves are generated primarily by concrete experience, not generalized abstractions.
But one should not feel discomfort for supporting any particular sporting group. Unlike the competition for material goods and power in the real world, which is virtually compulsory, participation in sport — beyond the hegemony of childhood academic institutions — is almost always voluntary. Athletes are well aware that losing is a part of the game, and necessarily have to accept that construct as part of their participation. Whether it's truly meaningful to engage in sport, directly or vicariously, is another matter.
August 22, 2013 @ 5:23 pm
Ah, you guessed the origins of this post. It began, as you have spotted, as a response to what you said in the comments under the Empty Child post at the Eruditorum, but firstly it grew too long to be a comment, and secondly I deliberately removed it from that context and held it back for a while in case it came over as aggressive towards you (which I'd hate). 🙂
April 24, 2015 @ 7:30 pm
Americans are really proud of their country. They take more pride I think then Canadians.