If you’ve been overseas in the past few years, I think I can guess what you said when you arrived home: “Best place on earth. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?”
That’s what most people say when they return to wherever their homeland happens to be. Australians, Belgians, Russians, Canadians, Mexicans, Danes, Spaniards, Germans, Dutch … we all say the same thing. Whether it’s our homeland by birth or adoption, ‘my country’ has a special place in our heart.
There are even millions of Syrians aching to return to their homeland, though we have seen on our TV screens the piles of rubble that will greet them if they ever manage to reach some of the towns and villages they once called home.
Most of us are patriots, even when we sometimes have to face some rather challenging facts about our nation’s deficiencies. In Australia’s case, those deficiencies currently include our failure to achieve true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the cruel and unconscionable way we treat people who come to us, by whatever means, seeking refuge or asylum; our failure to close the widening gap between our most privileged and our most disadvantaged schools; the growing chasm of wealth and income inequality (the top 20 percent of Australian households are now 100 times wealthier than the bottom 20 percent).
We also have an alarmingly high rate of sexual assault, too much homelessness and too much household debt. We’re sleep deprived; we’re overweight; two million of us are unemployed or underemployed; three million of us live in poverty (including 16 percent of Australians kids who lack reliable access to safe and nutritious food). And we’re suffering an epidemic of anxiety and depression.
Information like that should temper any tendency to excessive patriotic zeal, even though there’s plenty to be proud of, too: our brilliant success at creating a harmonious society out of extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity; our inventiveness; our many breakthroughs in medical and scientific research; our cultural institutions like the ABC and our vast network of public libraries; our wonderful volunteer services, ranging from surf lifesaving to bushfire-fighting.
But patriotism can easily get out of hand. We over-reach whenever, for example, we try to claim the values of any liberal democratic society as if they are uniquely ours. Too often, we hear leaders talking about the fair go, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech, freedom of belief, respect for the rule of law, ‘mateship’, tolerance, care for the disadvantaged and marginalised as if these are distinctively Australian qualities rather than the characteristics of any civil society.
Do we really imagine that Canadians would be less concerned about the marginalised than we are? Or that Italians wouldn’t help each other out in the wake of a natural disaster? Or that the French would be less committed to liberte, egalite, fraternite than we are?
Even worse, we sometimes fail to acknowledge that our finest, noblest qualities spring from our humanity, not our nationality. Altruism; kindness to strangers; a willingness to help those less fortunate than ourselves…these are examples of how human beings in any society behave when they are being true to their destiny as social beings who need each other. Since our very survival as a species depends on our willingness to co-operate, surely kindness, compassion and mutual respect should be characteristic of our way of life, wherever we live.
I’m a staunch patriot myself–aren’t you?–but let’s make sure our patriotism never shines so brightly that it casts that dark and ugly shadow called nationalism. As the English writer Richard Aldington once put it: ‘Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility. Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill.’