There’s been a few articles in the paper recently about patriotism. In particular, some people have suggested that we should be trying to increase the sense of patriotism in the young by flying the national flag at schools and encouraging the singing of the national anthem. I find this issue interesting because these arguments completely leapfrog two important questions:

  • Is patriotism good and should we be encouraging it?
  • Will flying the national flag and singing the national anthem instill patriotic feeling?

Is Patriotism Good?

As is normal in these arguments I’d like to draw a distinction between pride and patriotism. The New Zealand nation is a construct that we are all working on, and I believe that we can feel pride in what we have achieved together and the general success of the project to date.

But the word patriotism doesn’t make me think of this simple pride, instead it brings to mind jingoism, war, stereotyping and the division of people based on trivialities such as birthplace and location. Patriotism is a negative emotion that should be discouraged, and trying to promote it makes as much sense to me as promoting hate or violence.

But even being charitable and accepting that “simple pride” is the meaning that people are talking about when they say they want to encourage patriotism, what does it mean to promote it? Is it the state’s place to promote emotions such as love and pride? What other emotions and attitudes should we be genuflecting towards, should schoolchildren also sing odes to the greater glory of the family or motherhood? I think that we should be letting people decide for themselves and not compel them to indulge in nationalistic rituals at school.

The Effectiveness of Nationalist Symbols

Then we come to the second question, the effectiveness of using anthems and flags to promote patriotism, something to which I am opposed to on philosophical, aesthetic and practical grounds.

Firstly, flag-waving and the singing of national anthems seems far closer to the negative jingoistic version of patriotism. I know it’s a simple-minded comparison but they conjur up the Nazi’s use of imagery and ceremony to bind people together into barbaric fascism. (I find it interesting to note that the modern democracy I most associate with flag-waving and patriotic feeling is also the one that seems to be flirting with fascism.)

Secondly, while I don’t want to refight the flag issue in depth, I find the current flag to be ugly, obsolete, and too close to the Australian flag to be an effective symbol for the nation. And the national anthem is a dreadful dirge with a strong religious element that is innappropriate for our secular society.

Thirdly, would venerating the flag and singing the national anthem actually build feelings of patriotism? My Nazi example above obviously implies that I believe it can be effective, but that was in the context of a society dedicated to reinventing itself and I don’t think this applies here. Rather I suspect that it will just another meaningless ritual that we force children to suffer because it makes a few people feel good about themselves. I’d prefer that the time be spent learning about New Zealand history (the good and the bad) and letting them make their own minds up about how they feel towards the country.