The phrase “Slava Ukraini!” has become a potent expression of Ukraine’s patriotic spirit. Defiant Ukrainians, young and old, scrawl it on placards and shout it at protests. Meanwhile President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the embodiment of patriotic leadership. His powerful speeches and determination to defend his country have turned him into a war-time hero. This man is fighting for Ukraine’s freedom. He is ready to die for it.
Ukrainian patriotism has drawn admiration from people around the world. But for some in the UK, such outward displays of patriotism can seem alien. The majority of Britons are uncomfortable with declaring love for their country. Patriotism is largely a Right-wing sentiment: according to 2020 data, only 17% of those on the British Left are proud of Britain, compared to 58% of people on the Right.
However, patriotism is arguably a misunderstood concept. It is too often confused with nationalism, or dismissed as foolish. But patriotism has plenty of advantages. It can neutralise sinister nationalistic tendencies, as George Orwell — a lifelong man of the Left — once argued. And as we see daily on the news, drawing on a wellspring of patriotism can benefit a country in wartime, when morale needs to be at its strongest.
Historically, philosophy has shown little interest in patriotism. Instead, it’s been left to literature’s most famous names to come up with a definition. In the late 19th century, Leo Tolstoy stated that patriotism “is merely the preference of one’s own country or nation above the country or nation of anyone else”. But if everyone thinks their country is “the best”, then who is actually right? That line of reasoning led Tolstoy to dismiss patriots as fools.
George Orwell was more forgiving of patriotism and sought to distinguish it from nationalism. In his Notes on Nationalism (1945) Orwell argued that, unlike nationalism, patriotism doesn’t seek to impose itself on other countries. He called patriotism a devotion to a certain place and way of life, “which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people”.
In the last few decades, philosophers have developed a stronger interest in these ideas. The American political philosopher Stephen Nathanson has offered a useful definition of patriotism, consisting of four criteria:
1. Special affection for one’s own country.
2. A sense of personal identification with the country.
3. Special concern for the well-being of the country.
4. Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.
A patriot holds a special affection for his or her country and strongly identifies with its history and culture. Patriotism also involves concern for a country’s well-being and a willingness to make sacrifices to protect that country (note that sacrifice does not necessarily mean dying in battle). Tolstoy was critical of patriotism because he believed that patriotism was a love of one’s country above every other country. However, it’s possible to feel all four of the sentiments defined by Nathanson without also feeling a sense of superiority over other nations. A belief in something’s superiority is not necessary in order to love it, and love of one’s country is no exception.
The definition above seems harmless enough. So why has patriotism long been an object of suspicion? Given the horrors of Nazi Germany or Soviet and other dictatorships, it’s difficult to ignore the historic links between fervent loyalty to one’s country and violent oppression. However, point three of Nathanson’s definition helps to differentiate patriotism from nationalist aggression. Having concern for a country’s well-being means having to be completely honest about its flaws in order to keep improving society as a whole. A good patriot should be able to analyse a country’s legacy, warts and all, then form ideas about the best way for it to exist in the future.
Nationalists, on the other hand, are convinced that their country is superior to all others while ignoring its flaws. Throughout history, nationalist movements have blindly trumpeted their country’s superiority. That belief has led to abominable acts of violence, such as invading supposedly “inferior” nations or colonising poorer countries. Nazi Germany is a perfect example of this type of aggression. The British Empire is, for some people, another. Ukraine gained independence in 1991 because its people voted to rule themselves, rather than be led by a Russian government in Moscow. Ukraine did not then seek to impose its sovereignty over Russia with guns and bloodshed. It wanted to be left alone to build its own future.
Indeed, one of the biggest advantages to patriotism might well be its defensive nature, which prioritises indulging love for one’s country, rather than asserting a country’s superiority. Writing amid the horrors of World War Two, Orwell believed that patriotism could act as a good “inoculation” against nationalism. Patriotism provides citizens with a peaceful outlet to express love for their country. When a country finds itself under attack, a society which has nurtured patriotism will be able to call on citizens ready and willing to sacrifice. We have seen this in Ukraine.
However, history has shown that humans often struggle to love their country without looking across its borders and sneering at what they see abroad. The Ancient Greeks used to refer to all other non-Greek races as “barbarians”. Language also shows how nations tend to place themselves at the heart of civilisation above all other countries. China means “central country” in Mandarin while Japan defines itself as “the land of the rising sun”. A good patriot has a responsibility to keep their special affection under control. This responsibility can be easily squandered and melt into nationalist aggression when the wrong kind of leader comes into power.
Niccolò Machiavelli showed how leaders can use patriotism to justify appalling violence. He advises rulers whose country’s safety is threatened that “no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty, or to its being praiseworthy or ignominious.” In other words, defend the country you love no matter what others might think of your actions. A “willingness to sacrifice for your country” could mean sacrificing distinctions between right and wrong. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. He has justified his actions with baseless claims that Russia must be defended from a genocidal Nazi Ukrainian government. Meanwhile the torture and rape of civilians by Russian soldiers abounds.
Despite widespread admiration for the Ukrainian spirit, some of us in the UK might still be tempted to recoil at patriotism. But a healthy dose of patriotism is nothing to be feared. It can help us to improve our country’s future and celebrate its achievements. It allows us to indulge a special affection for our way of life. As long as we don’t allow that same affection to blind us to our own country’s flaws, of course. Therein lies something much darker.
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