Patriotism beyond parochialism

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
1 Feb 2010

My passport describes me as a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a fact I acknowledge as a necessary administrative formality. But when asked my nationality, I call myself an Englishwoman.

The response is instinctive and emotional. This is where I was born and this is the land which imprinted itself upon my senses from infancy . The process has similarities with the experience of a newly hatched duckling which will form an unbreakable attachment to the first living thing it sees on emerging from the egg. The landscapes, weather, literature, music, history and distinctive peculiarities of England are dear to me because I have always known them and they have been instrumental in forming my sensibilities, tastes and beliefs.

I do not think it insular to record that Elgar and Shakespeare quicken my pulse not only by their genius, but because there is an indefinable, though instantly recognisable spirit in their art which draws on and communicates a common understanding of place and custom. Neither do I consider it to be evidence of romantic flag-waving to record that in the unlikely event of a middle-aged female Quaker being required to make some corner of a foreign field forever England, it would probably be an image of the purple shadows of clouds racing across Skiddaw that would sustain me at the last.

Because patriotism has always been associated with conservatism, progressives are often uncomfortable about owning to its nourishing and enlarging qualities. Anxious to avoid any hint of jingoism, the left has historically preferred to emphasise the concepts of internationalism and
universal brotherhood. Unfortunately, these noble sentiments are easily parodied as the vapourings of ideologues who are often accused of despising their own country.

Without the countervailing argument that love of country is in fact the best engine of true fraternity, the calumny will continue to find a receptive audience amongst those who hold an uncritical view of their own country's superiority and are consequently myopic over that which is common to us all.

This mindset provides fertile ground for groups such as the BNP and the English Defence League to sow hatred and division by exploiting an impoverished view of the real potential of deeply felt national identity. For just as the knowledge of both love and suffering teaches empathy, so should a love of country inoculate against nationalism, xenophobia and racism.

To imagine that those who look on different landscapes and read other histories could hold their experiences of place and identity less dear, is arrogant and unintelligent. Love of country is only dangerous when it becomes self-congratulatory and exclusive. My allegiance to England is cultural and topographical. It neither deceives me into believing that an accident of birth bestows superiority nor does it blind me to the shortcomings of the country I love.

GK Chesterton perfectly delineated the sin of nationalism when he wrote that “ my country right or wrong” is on the same moral level as “my mother drunk or sober”.

As borders become more porous and the need for multi-national co-operation in the face of climate change and terrorism grows, a constructive and progressive approach to genuine internationalism is essential. That is unlikely to develop if understanding is not grounded in the particular and the local. Reference to real and transferable experience stands a far better chance of changing attitudes than do lofty abstractions.

The furore over the publicity-seeking antics of Islam4UK might give us pause for thought in this area. By threatening to march through the streets of Wootton Basset with empty coffins representing the Muslim dead of Afghanistan, this extremist organisation touched a raw and inward nerve in our sensibilities.

In the difficult interface between public respect, private grief, and that partial understanding of patriotism which finds its expression in military ceremonial, the troublemaking intent of a minority has make it difficult for us to see a truth behind the malice. Despite the provocative choice of location, the emotion felt at the return of the British army dead may not be claimed as unique and if honestly examined, our own deepest experiences should help us to acknowledge that.

Every Afghan killed in the current conflict, whether they be insurgents, children, civilians or police, rose from their beds on the morning of their deaths surrounded by landscapes, sounds, symbols and people that were familiar and dear. Their loss devastates families and communities which may appear strange and distant to us, but whose emotional and spiritual lives are to be counted in the same tally of meaning, motivation and relationship as our own connection to such things as the union flag covering a young man's coffin or the sound of church bells drifting over snowy fields.

This is a sentiment which, at its simplest and most direct, should serve to remind us that the substance of human experience is common, however different its externals may be. Deficient as we so often are in loving our neighbours, empathy with far away people and their cultures may seem beyond us. But to consider the possibility that whatever we cherish in our own environment, legends and customs, could have a parallel in the hearts of others, is to begin to mix the mortar that may bind us in solidarity.

This article first appeared as an opinion piece in the Church Times and is reproduced with acknowledgment - http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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