Prime Minister John Howard’s recent suggestion that schools should do more to promote patriotism by displaying the national flag has provoked two different kinds of response. The first revives longstanding debates about the flag itself. If the current flag reflects Australia’s colonial past, rather than its present and future as an independent country, how can its display be the best way to express and encourage patriotism?
The second response wonders about patriotism itself. Is patriotism clearly, and without qualification, a good thing? Should schools be asked to promote it? And even if the answer is yes, is making schools fly the flag the best way of doing so?
The first question doesn’t invite a simple “yes” or “no” reply. There are different kinds of patriotism. Those who adhere to an uncompromising cosmopolitanism — who think of themselves as citizens of the world, rather than of a particular nation — reject patriotism of any kind. But very many, possibly the majority, feel at home in a single country, and abroad whenever they leave it. They love the country they call home, are proud of it, and are willing to work and make sacrifices for its well-being. They are patriots.
All patriots think their country special and have a special concern for its well-being and that of their compatriots. But they differ in the way they love their country and seek to promote its interests, and in the way they relate to people not “their own”.
One type of patriotism — the widespread, popular type — can be termed extreme. It has received much moral criticism. Not every country deserves the love and pride of its citizens, a special concern on their part for its interests, their efforts and sacrifices on its behalf. And even when the country’s cause is morally unobjectionable, it shouldn’t be promoted by any, but only by morally legitimate means. Yet the extreme patriot says “My country, right or wrong”: he stands by his country whatever its moral record, and will do whatever it takes, right or wrong, to help achieve its aims. He has little time for people not “his own”; for him charity not only begins but also ends at home.
Not only is extreme patriotism incompatible with universal moral considerations of justice and human solidarity; its historical record is dismal. It has encouraged dislike of and hostility towards other countries and peoples, stimulated militarism, and generated international misunderstandings, tensions, and conflicts. Tolstoy went so far as to portray patriotism as “the root of war”, and to claim that if we want to live in peace, we must get rid of it.
An exaggeration, perhaps, but this type of patriotism does emphasise military service as the most appropriate, and most important, kind of service a patriot can render the patria. The flag and the uniform are its most prominent images. American Catholic theologian James Gaffney writes:
Occasions of internal cooperation and solidarity, or of individual heroism, have never seemed to count as patriotic unless they served purposes arising from hostility towards foreigners. Even national undertakings of generous assistance to other nations never earn praise as patriotism unless they are military. We are eager to wave our flags over military draftees, but who has ever dreamed of doing so over Peace Corps volunteers? Our fighting men and women parade down Main Street while the cameras turn, but our relief workers, however heroic and however successful, make their way home unobtrusively.
While Tolstoy and others see cosmopolitanism as the sole alternative, some philosophers have recently advanced a different, moderate version of love of country. A critical and therefore conditional patriotism, it demands that the country deserve the love and loyalty of its citizens by living up to certain moral standards. The country’s laws and institutions must be just, its domestic and international policies humane. A moderate patriot will seek to promote her country’s interests, but only by morally acceptable means. She will have a special concern for her country and compatriots but will also exhibit a decent degree of concern for human beings in general, however distant and different they might be. Finally, moderate patriotism isn’t expressed in militarism, and doesn’t make for international tension and conflict.
Now “My country, right or wrong”, obviously, can’t be right, morally speaking. Only moderate patriotism has moral legitimacy, while extreme patriotism is morally indefensible — a partiality to a place and people that should be under constant scrutiny but is put beyond such scrutiny and allowed to override demands of justice and requirements of compassion. Yet it is this popular, simple, even visceral type of patriotism that is readily expressed and reinforced by “symbols [that are] plain before our eyes and stirring of our spirit” , as John Hirst put it in The Australian on 24 June. It is this type of patriotism that is so much in vogue in the US today. One is constantly reminded of it by the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes on buildings public and private, and even on people’s lapels.
It is this type of patriotism that is likely to be expressed and promoted in Australia, too, if we adopt a US-style worship of the flag and pledging allegiance to it. Moderate patriotism, which is more reflective and critical, can’t be taught by such simple methods. It can’t be “taught” at all. It can only be encouraged and sustained — among adults and youth — by continuous and vigorous public debate about the rights and wrongs of the country’s laws, institutions, and policies. The flag may have its use in that debate, too. But it can have only a limited, subsidiary, not a central, decisive role.