My country right or wrong?

US Navy commander Stephen Decatur, originator of the phrase “My country right or wrong”

By Geoffrey Heller“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” wrote the English novelist E. M. Forster, “I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.” When I first came across this statement some years ago, I thought it reflected a great deal of geopolitical naiveté; and even today I think Forster’s dichotomy is somewhat oversimplistic. After all, the majority of our friends are quite likely to be our compatriots as well, so betraying the one automatically means betraying the other. But the more I read and observe of the world around me, the more convinced I become that Forster had the right idea. Whether you call it patriotism, nationalism, or just plain flag-waving, blind loyalty to one’s country — to ANY country — is intellectually indefensible, morally questionable, and responsible for the greatest crimes committed by humanity over the past three centuries.

Nationalism is, in the first instance, inherently irrational, because countries themselves have no eternal or completely objective reality. Of the nearly two hundred sovereign states existing today, none — NONE — were in existence two thousand years ago, and there’s no guarantee any of them will be around two thousand years hence. So why devote one’s body and soul to something that is a merely a product of historical circumstances, circumstances that may — and often do — change from one generation to the next. Nor does it make any sense to pledge loyalty to a place just because we happen to have been born there. If the Germans, Italians, and Japanese who fought in the Second World War had grown up in one of the countries they attacked, they would have recognized the absolute absurdity of hating someone just for being Polish or French or Chinese. And the fact that we can change our country of residence almost at will — can move from living in, say, America to living in China, and vice versa — further illustrates the utter subjectivity of “national identification.” What we term “national identity” is not an objective product of reality but an artificial construct imposed upon us by diverse elements of our surroundings — parents, schools, the media, government. If you grow up in a household where everyone wears black all the time, does that mean the only acceptable or most desirable colour of clothing is black? Loyalty to a single flag or anthem or strip of territory has equally little to commend itself to any thinking person.

Regrettably, most people don’t think — at least about their own identity. It’s so much easier simply to accept whatever labels others bestow upon us. When people ask ME if I’m American, I reply, “I’m from America” — not because I hate the country of my birth, but because I simply don’t identify with it; I don’t identify wholly with ANY country. To most people my answer is not so much wrong as incomprehensible, for “the nation” is such a key part of their own identity, the single largest, most powerful group to which they belong — always provided, naturally, that everyone else in the group agrees to let them in.

No national grouping, of course, can be large enough to encompass all of humanity, and it is this deficiency which transforms blind patriotic fervour from an individual character flaw to a grievous international scourge. Behind the assertion, “I’m American,” “I’m French,” “I’m German,” “I’m Japanese,” “I’m Chinese” lies the corresponding conviction, “You’re NOT American,” “You’re NOT French,” “You’re NOT German,” “You’re NOT Japanese,” “You’re NOT Chinese.” And from such denial of others’ similarity to ourselves it is but a short step — a VERY short step — to denying that others have the same rights as us, including, ultimately, the right to live. For nationalism spares us the trouble of having to make moral judgments for ourselves. That which we might heartily condemn in the abstract becomes acceptable, indeed downright admirable, when perpetrated by members of the group to which we so proudly proclaim our unqualified allegiance. A look at any reasonably thorough account of human behaviour during the last hundred years will bear out my claim time and time and time again.

It was a nineteenth-century American admiral who coined the phrase, “My country right or wrong” — a sentiment nowadays as prevalent in Beijing and Bogota and Budapest as it is in Washington. An uglier slogan in ANY language is hard to imagine. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice gave eloquent expression four centuries ago to our common humanity, to the hopes and fears and desires that all of us share simply by virtue of being human. Nationalism denies that common humanity. One may legitimately respect and admire certain ideas or principles or customs which pervade a particular country and seek to extend the same elsewhere. But to make the country itself an object of unconditional veneration is to sanction thoughts and deeds as vicious as they are stupid. Better by far to confine our affections to those we know personally. Do such firsthand acquaintances always merit our affection? No, not always. But delusions about a friend usually hurt none but ourselves.

This article is based on a speech given by Geoffrey Heller to a local branch of Toastmasters International in Beijing. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. April 2005.

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