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.…