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What does modern patriotism mean?


Between waste recycling and bravery marked on a forehead

Maciej Gorazdowski, University of Warsaw

The notion’s varieties pop up far and wide as densely as champignons in a damp grove. The constitution, allegedly being a primary source of societal unity, expresses itself clearly – an obligation bestowed upon the Republic’s citizen is to care for the common good. However, slim is the consensus as to where that national good lies and its discoverers always seem to shift the direction of searches. 


Among the middle-class city dwellers, the cosmopolitan and universal views dominate. We are all free and equal and we have erected the state so that it protects our rights and freedom. As long as the state does not contravene our freedom, our duty is to support it. The scale of this support limits itself to ordinary decisions of workaday life – glass bottles jump straight into the green container, a validator’s sound signifies the charge of a contactless bus pass card and a tax form glows, filled in neatly and lawfully. A minimal standard for everyone to follow enables the country to work just right.


Elsewhere the notion of patriotism coincides with ostentatious religious practice and sometimes nationalism – as opposed to cosmopolitanism. A French journalist once noted that Catholic identification is an element of good manners throughout the country. The Catholic Church remains one of the most important fora for public debate on any social topic. The authority providing advice on being a moral person easily produces additional norms on being an ‘honest’ Pole. Roots of such standing of the clergy can be traced back to the communist times of solidarity among the people out of the party establishment [Read more here]. 


Nationalistic patriotism does not equal the religious one. It seems to be rather more expressive and emotion-based. Its distinctive trait is that of having a defined hostile element towards which a negative attitude is built. To be a patriot is to take up arms against that enemy, be it the Union or any foreign institutionalised entity. Occasionally, when an LGBT rally is targeted as an enemy, like in Białystok in 2019, nationalistic rhetoric accompanies inflicting bone injuries on bystanders.


Many other understandings of patriotism fluctuate in between the two sketched out. The liberal-national axis of division is not the only active one. The cosmopolitan model includes a significant space for civic activity of which I often took advantage. During 2016 protests over justice reform in front of the Senate, a thought came to mind. This collective tumult, I wondered, has to put an end to bad governance in the coming weeks. Or, at least, eventually. Another protest followed and so did many on multiple occasions. A sincere patriot wishing to combine an ordinary life with civic activity can only attend so many. A feeling of futility and powerlessness arrives soon after. Enthusiasm chilled as days passed. Curiously, not only the nationalistic patriotism has been found to induce a striking emotional charge. Surely no assemblies are scheduled anytime soon due to the sanitary situation, yet I still have a handy plastic horn down in the closet.


Instinctively, the response would be simply ‘nationalism’

Sophy James, Lancaster University Graduate

Patriotism can be expressed through celebrating the birthdays and weddings of the Royal family, wearing poppies to commemorate WWI, and flying Union Jacks from one’s window. To many, these are harmless acts, serving no purpose other than demonstrating one’s love for Britain, its institutions, and its history.


For myself, however, patriotism has become conflated with nationalism, and even benign acts such as the aforementioned are easily tarred by concepts of exclusion and individualism. The Royal family evokes the imperialist and colonial history that built this nation whilst exploiting others. The red poppies adorned to show respect for fallen soldiers serve as a reminder that many believe Britain’s historical ‘victories’ should still be reflected, if not ‘rewarded,’ in global and continental politics. The Union Jack serves as a visual reminder that many believe, due to being British, that they are superior to others. Brexit, from this view, is the apotheosis of the view that Britain is better alone.  


It is hardly surprising that patriotism is becoming confounded with nationalism in common discourse. The British alt-right has deliberately, and repeatedly, co-opted patriotism to suggest that their pursuits are based purely on pride, and in no way related to xenophobia or racism. The United Kingdom Independence Party, for example, a party that strongly advocated for the Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, describes itself as ‘patriots together’ alongside Britain First, an openly fascist organisation. The notorious Tommy Robinson founded the UK equivalent of a German anti-immigration movement, titled Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident. In 2017, two Britain First members were charged with religiously aggravated harassment, with others quickly organising a ‘Persecuted Patriots Rally’ to show their support for the behaviour that saw them prosecuted.


Self-proclaiming as a patriot is thus complicated. When asked by non-Britons what I think of current events, or ‘my’ culture, the first reaction is to quip about how non-existent or fraudulent British pride is. I have never related to loving my country so intensely, nay, loving it at all, and thus do not feel a supposed birthright to exclude others from it. I have never regarded Britain as an object that I own, and that is at risk of being tarnished or corrupted by outsiders. 


It would be false to say that I am not proud of some aspects of Britain, however. I, for one, have fallen frequently into the safety net of our universal healthcare system, and cannot deny how distinctly British the NHS is. There are many areas of advocacy besides healthcare - refugees and migration, environment, disability, to name a few - that people, including myself, are involved in out of a feeling of responsibility towards improving Britain. A faint form of patriotism that takes a position of humility, acknowledging the nation’s problematic past and using it’s vast resources to improve itself and it’s institutions. Rather than view Britain as superior to other nations, and superior purely because it is Britain, I derive a sense of pride from bettering our system. 


Modern patriotism can exist as an entity separate from nationalism, but, like many others, I have continually entwined them, to the degree that ‘patriotism’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Modern patriotism can and should be based on the belief that Britain can be for anyone, and support what is right domestically and abroad - rather than the unwavering belief that Britain ‘is for the British.’ 

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