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Left wing patriotism

November 29th, 2002

A very brief ‘linking’ post has produced a fascinating discussion of patriotism, internationalism and whether it is possible to have a left wing version of patriotism. (To get full value, follow the link and read the comments thread, then come back to this post).

Interestingly, Samuel Johnson’s aphorism ‘Patriotism, sir, is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ refers to radical ‘patriots’ like John Wilkes, so called because they advocated government by and for the nation as a whole against the monarchist claims of Tories like Johnson. (There’s a discussion of this contested term here )Boswell’s Life of Johnson contains an amusing story, in which Boswell inveigles Johnson into dining with Wilkes and the two get on famously.

I suggest that patriotism is the benign version of nationalism, perfectly consistent with internationalism. It’s essentially a statement of membership of, and pride in, a community rather than an aggressive assertion of claims against others. I no more expect citizens of other countries to agree that ‘Australia is the best country in the world’ than I expect other people to share my feeling that mine is the best family in the world.

As an Australian, I can take pride in our success in building a tolerant and prosperous community with an egalitarian ethos, and can appeal to our egalitarian traditions as a particularly Australian reason for resisting growing inequality.

But, as Martin Krygier 1997 Boyer Lectures with pride goes shame in our collective failures, mistakes and crimes. John Howard wants us to take pride in the Anzacs, but disclaims responsibility for the stolen generation because he wasn’t there and didn’t do anything. Well, he wasn’t at Anzac Cove in 1915 either. In this respect, and more recently with respect to asylum seekers, Howard’s positiion is one of chauvinism rather than patriotism.

To end on a patriotic note, I’ll observe that Howard may not be perfect, but he has his strong points and, in any case, we elected him. One of our great blessings, which I hope will extend to the entire world before long, is that we get a chance to change our minds every three years.

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