Listening to the Prime Minister this week put me in mind of Oscar Wilde.
As famous for his witticisms as his prose, Wilde once said, “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”.
I don’t suspect Malcolm Turnbull was seeking to be especially vicious when he exhorted us to show pride in the privilege of being Australian, to commit to the “values that define us … that unite us”.
But he does raise important questions about what exactly it is to be patriotic. What is this thing “nation”?
One seeks to embolden the other — patriotism is presented as the glue that binds the nation.
But Wilde was on to something when he spoke of it as “vicious”.
Is patriotism a virtue?
In 1984, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrestled with this issue in a lecture at the University of Kansas where he asked: “Is Patriotism a Virtue?”
I have returned to his words again this week. MacIntyre saw patriotism as a “kind of loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that particular nationality can exhibit”.
As he pointed out, it can mask a multitude of sins.
German philosopher Max Weber claimed that in World War I, imperial Germany should be supported because it was “the cause of the kultur“.
Macintyre questioned whether patriotism could in fact be moral.
Patriotism may mean putting aside individual morality to act in the interests of the nation (eg a soldier at war).
In the competition for scarce resources, acting in the interests of one’s nation against another could also mean suspending a personal moral view to achieve the survival of the group.
In many ways, said MacIntyre, “the liberal moral standpoint and the patriotic standpoint are radically at odds”.
But it is not enough to say morality and patriotism are incompatible.
MacIntyre said an individual’s morality may indeed arise out of the nation or community to which he or she belongs.
Morality may be universal, but it can also be shaped or interpreted by the traditions or history of a given society.
In MacIntyre’s words: “I can only be a moral agent because we are moral agents.”
Our patriotic duty is to question patriotism
Patriotism arises out of a loyalty to the nation that ensures our social good.
This is Turnbull’s appeal: to belong to Australia its values must be your values.
But what if I find myself at odds with those values? Where is the place for critical patriotism?
So many political issues today are presented as a test of values. Political patriotism lies at the core of the culture wars.
Terrorism, security, immigration, refugee detention, even the current debate over energy policy are posited as a test of our values.
To oppose the policy of the day is to risk being derided as “un-Australian”.
Take the proposed tightening of citizenship rules. Turnbull has targeted the Labor Opposition, calling on them to stand up for Australian values.
Patriotism can be a powerful tool in trying to silence debate. But as MacIntyre made clear in his 1984 lecture, questioning patriotism is “the essence of the morality of liberalism”.
“No institution, no practice, no loyalty can be immune from being put in question and perhaps rejected,” he said.
According to this reasoning, a flag-burning protester could be acting out of a fierce sense of patriotism, morally and politically challenging a nation the protester believes is failing its citizens.
The Great Australian Silence
I haven’t felt a need to burn a flag but I admit to feeling the pangs of patriotism. As an Indigenous person I confront the realities of a nation forged on the invasion and colonisation of my ancestors.
Politically, Indigenous peoples continue to seek proper recognition of our rights and place in this country.
I am grateful for and have benefited from Australia’s many virtues, but there is serious unfinished business. It leaves me and many Indigenous people asking how we can be loyal to the Turnbull ideas of patriotism.
Indigenous people confront the realities of our history, a history often denied or ignored, part of what anthropologist WEH Stanner in the 1960s called “The Great Australian Silence”.
This is the narrative of our nation. MacIntyre said, “each one of us … understands his or her life as an enacted narrative”.
He questioned how patriotism could exist where a nation “systematically disowned its own true history or substituted a largely fictitious history”.
In such circumstances, he said, “patriotism would be — from any point of view — an irrational attitude”.
Yet, there can be no greater acts of patriotism than to hold our own nation to account.
Generations of Indigenous leaders have sought to make good Australia’s promise of a “fair go”.
They continue to make Australia better.
Nations – imagined communities?
As I said earlier, Malcolm Turnbull’s appeal to patriotism seeks to embolden nation.
Again this week, he has used language as a measure of acceptance.
English language, he sees, is the cornerstone of the nation. In saying that, let’s not forget that hundreds of Indigenous languages have been silenced — often forcibly — for English to reign.
Turnbull though is right; language is essential to nationhood. Indeed, it has been the cornerstone of nation.
Political scientist Benedict Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, what he saw as a “deep horizontal comradeship”.
These nations emerged out of 18th century Europe, a secular transformation, Anderson argued, forged around common language groups as “old sacred languages were gradually fragmented, pluralised, and territorialised”.
Anderson wrote that these “imagined communities” took flight on the “novel and the newspaper”.
The printing press hundreds of years earlier had already put information into the hands of ordinary people, literacy improved and people began to align themselves around common stories.
It created a potent sense of shared destiny, that trumped what we may have had in common with our fellow humans.
“One can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words,” Anderson wrote.
Patriotism in a globalised world
Sami Shah, Ishma Alvi and their daughter Anya Shah at an Australian citizenship ceremony. (ABC News: Alkira Reinfrank)
But the old ideas of nation, and its sibling patriotism, are being challenged by a globalised world of porous borders.
When we can speak multiple languages and trade with strangers, what binds us now?
Immigration has become a lightning rod for feelings of insecurity. A new and potent populism — the Trumps and Brexits — has emerged out of these new political fault lines.
Journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria says culture and values are critical. There is an older generation, he says, who are traumatised by what they see as an assault on the civilisation they have been raised in.
They have lost their jobs and now they feel they are losing their countries.
Around the world politicians of all persuasions are grappling with this new reality.
Political scientist Yuval Levin has called his own country, the United States, “The Fractured Republic”. Progressives and Conservatives, he says, are conflicted.
Political life now, he writes, is blinded by nostalgia — “it is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics right now”.
Turnbull’s appeal to patriotism is nostalgic. It is a response to the global trauma that indeed threatens his own political survival.
Voters are restless and in the absence of policy there is always the temptation to appeal to an unquestioning patriotism.
Oscar Wilde may have been too harsh proclaiming patriotism the virtue of the vicious, but we would do well to remember the words of a great American patriot, George Washington.
“Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”