It feels sometimes like the world is playing hopscotch on all our old certainties.
The state and speed of the current flux feels different to what came before. Old Cold War Europe was largely broken but in ways we understood. The two superpowers squared off across the Iron Curtain but their antagonism trickled down familiar tributaries into remote corners of the globe. The Middle East was still considered the premiere trouble spot but it was Iran in 1979 that brought revolutionary fundamentalism to the fore. Meanwhile the wars that happened were the kinds that were remote. Russia in Afghanistan and the US (in covert ways) in Central America. The British fought the smallest of wars off the coast of Argentina and a bigger war at home against the IRA. They had consequences for the people living in their shadow but, from the point of view of people outside the conflicts, they didn’t seem to directly impact our lives.
Central to many people’s insularity was the notion of the stable nation state. My own ‘nation’ I took for granted in a slightly detached ironic way. Filtered through my post-punk sensibility, patriotism looked like its pastiche and I would never forget Samuel Johnson’s famous bon mot once I’d heard it. Patriotism would always be the last refuge of a scoundrel.
I largely think the same today whenever I see politicians draped in a flag, though not so when a sports star does the same. I feel pride when I see the flag on the arm of a solider but not on the backdrop to a party conference. One seems to say ‘I do this for you’. The other says ‘we do this in the name of your country’.
That difference is real and an important distinction between the patriotism that George Orwell admired and the nationalism he abhorred.
‘By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.[…]Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’ (George Orwell, ‘Notes on Nationalism’)
Thankfully, it is patriotism and not nationalism that lies at the root of our current anxieties. What’s more, it’s a beneficial form of patriotism, rooted in a defence of the known. Being reactionary is programmed into human DNA, a kind of natural conservatism that admits change slowly. Civilisation could not exist were it any other way. Racism, intolerance, hatred of the Other: the accusations usually thrown from the political left don’t help advance the immigration debate because the argument isn’t about any of those things. It’s really just the old fear that a way of life will disappear.
At the moment, it’s Syrian refugees who are seen as a threat to ‘our values’ and the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western Europe. It’s true that Europe is largely built upon the civilisations produced by those two religions. Many of the things that define us are remnants of the schism of Protestantism and Catholicism; the Enlightenment, given political form in the French Revolution of 1789; and the Industrial Revolution.
We cannot begin to estimate the benefits that heritage gave us just as we can barely understand how difficult it would be to recreate them afresh should we lose them. This is nowhere more evident than in the fabric of Britain’s Houses of Parliament where Augustus Pugin’s gothic detail is so elaborate that we now face the reality that it’s become impossible to maintain the Mother of all Parliaments despite our supposed superiority over the Victorians. The debate about the restoration of the building symbolic of the wider debate that surrounds many British institutions. Whether it’s the Union between England and Scotland, or the UK’s place in Europe, the choice, it seems, is to embrace the future but only by discarding the past.
Yet, in truth, we do this all the time. Very little is settled or set. Even important concepts such as ‘freedom’ are renewed over time. Thomas Paine’s notion of freedom would differ somewhat to that of a modern libertarian. Languages change and so do nations. Europe is the product of shifting borders. Some nations have a greater or lesser sense of their identity than others. The ‘us’ of Western Europe begins to look less singular once you begin to dissect nationhood. Accept that national identity is a parsable object that we can divide into discrete elements, some modern and some exceedingly old, and you realise that national identity is more fluid than it is defined. Germans currently feel more European than they do German. The British, we’re told, hardly feel European at all whilst those on the island of Malta feel very connected to the mainland.
In the not so distant past, the rate of cultural change was dictated by transport and communications. In Medieval times, it was the will of God. Today we accept change if not by the day, then certainly by the year. In a global market individuals change their identity quite regularly within certain sub groups. Some are localised, some are global. Some are gender based, others according to class, income, or education. We are all, effectively, cultural refugees searching for a home. Nationhood has become little more than a brand. The American Dream. The British Way of Life. La dolce vita. Scandinavian living.
If nations portray themselves as brands, it’s unsurprising that many people buy into the marketing. Indeed, it’s important that they do so. Immigration is a key factor that
enables patriotism to endure. You only have to look at the clothes worn by refugees to see that they are prospective patriots, already wearing sweatshop imitations of Western brands, supporting European football teams, and believing in Western democratic capitalism more than many who live under it. They are seeking a connection to the liberty promised by those countries.
This is perhaps the greatest irony. As markets merge and technology improves, people feel less connected to their country and patriotism begins to decline. Without something to restore a nation’s pride in itself, we tend to see a rise in nationalism which has always been the hardline response to the loss of national identity. You see this wherever a nation feels insecure about itself: Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, again in the 1930s, or the Middle East now where ISIS are effectively crypto-nationalists in search of a nation. If patriotism is love of what exists, nationalism is the love of what you wish to exist, even if that means forcibly redrawing borders.
As paradoxical as it sounds: patriotism and immigration are not always incompatible. Rather, when done properly, they are vital. They are the very ways we protect ourselves from something much worse waiting within our borders.