‘Tis the Season for Patriotism

Patriotism does have significance and value in society today. But are we getting carried away by it? And should we be worried?

Patriotism comes in a few different flavors. The mild classic variety blends imagery and sounds to induce goosebumps and other feel good effects. The flag fluttering gently in the morning breeze.  Bhimsen Joshi and other Indian music greats performing a stirring rendition of the national anthem. The saffron, white and green palette of Independence Day celebrations.

But when some external element threatens our sense of security, it turns darker and stronger. The decibel levels of speech aimed at this enemy go up. With our borders under threat, we stand ready to demonstrate our support for those protecting them at every step of the way.

Then there are all the ways we humanize our country. It’s the motherland – generous, accepting and nurturing to a fault. We are upset by any perceived injury to her image. Nothing draws swifter and stronger condemnation than a news flash about a flag burning incident in some sidelined section of the country. Even if this act were not a punishable offense under the law, we would still run the culprit to the ground with our collective anger unleashed through social media.

The emotions evoked by such incidents are so strong that they raise an important question: Are we letting patriotism get the better of us?

Close to a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore was concerned enough about this tendency in order to pen an eloquent argument against it.

“When this idea of the Nation”, he wrote “tries to pass off the cult of collective selfishness as a moral duty, it attacks the very vitals of humanity”.

Strong words but Tagore was, in essence, trying to warn against what he believed to be blind patriotism. In his view, it was a delusional force created by governments to push self-serving agendas that were incompatible with the goals of humanity. Yet, Tagore was also a strong supporter of and participant in the freedom struggle against
the British.

The idea of globalism as an antidote to frenzied nationalism is something that has been promoted in many songs over the decades. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is perhaps the most popular of these, its lilting piano chords drawing us into a utopia without religion or countries.

Setting aside cynicism and idealism for a minute, we have to acknowledge that patriotism still has a role and value in our world. For one, it makes for powerful storytelling, something that filmmakers have exploited to the fullest. There are many excellent and adrenaline-pumping movies about war, daring rescue operations and the like that largely ride on patriotic sentiment. From Argo to Airlift and beyond, few of us are immune to the highs of seeing ‘our side’ triumph in these plots. Bollywood veteran Manoj Kumar built a large part of his acting reputation on the nation-loving characters he played in movies such as ‘Mere Desh ki Dharti’ and ‘Purab aur Paschim’, again proving that patriotism can be a profitable pursuit.

Competitive sport is another area that thrives on unshakeable loyalty to country teams. And that is why when athletes choose to thumb their noses at their homeland, the backlash is fierce. When quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began his sit-out of the national anthem to protest against racism in the US, his defiance, coming from a successful sportsperson of color, was roundly condemned as both unpatriotic and ungrateful.

But the idea that a person cannot speak for a marginalized or minority group of which they are a member, since they owe their own success to the country, is a flawed one. This brings to mind Tagore again as well as writer journalist William Blum who is believed to have said: “If love is blind, then patriotism has lost all five senses.”

There are a few movies, however, that attempt a deeper kind of questioning. ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ takes aim at the American government’s decisions and motivations in Vietnam, for example. Another classic in this tradition is “A Few Good Men”, a movie that explores the brutal subculture of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Although Indian filmmakers have relentlessly attacked social ills through their work, they have been less willing to challenge the actions of the Indian state, particularly near our borders. There have been a few notable exceptions, however. ‘Haider’ courted controversy in 2014 by probing human rights abuses in Kashmir and a 2003 documentary called ‘Jung aur Aman’ (War and Peace) by Director Anand Patwardhan takes a clear-eyed look at the human costs of sub-continental politics and jingoism.

As long as such questioning and voices exist, there is hope that our world won’t be overrun by belligerent, black-and-white patriotism. To paraphrase the incomparable Tagore again: “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way…into that heaven of freedom, let’s hope our country awakes.”

Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and editor who would like to ‘imagine’ a better world with fewer divisions.