27 August 2009

What is patriotism?

This is the anchored and nuanced community patriotism that springs from the central paradox of human freedom, which is, according to Durant, that it can arise only out of the rule of law. Civilisation is the contract with fellow citizens that sets us free (within parameters)....

It was the Law that gave us our high estate via the idiosyncratic Brits and complete accident. The Lessons of History suggest that our soceity will thrive only to the extent that we show each other respect, are slow to judge and confine our arguments to the cool terms of our collective common good.

Clearly I related to this peice, then, which you can hear here.

A young Australian academic wants to redefine Australian patriotism and he's approached the subject from the point of view of Australia's most recent arrivals.

Tim Soutphommasane is 26. His parents were Chinese and Laotian, he was born in Paris, and he grew up in Sydney's southwest suburbs. He's just spent three years at Oxford, doing a PhD, and his book, Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation Building for Progressives, is published next week.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Patriotism doesn't have to be about cultural superiority. It doesn't have to be about racism. It can be a very positive sentiment that binds citizens together and motivates them for improving their community.

MARK COLVIN: So how do you distinguish these two types of patriotism?

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Well that's the challenge I think. I think progressives or liberals in Australia in recent years have been content to sit back and allow conservatives and reactionaries to claim the language of national values and I think progressives and liberals really sold themselves short there.

They never actually tried to articulate and alternative to what I see as the two strands of patriotism that have emerged in recent years and they are 1) the narcissistic strand of patriotism that is associated for instance with tattooing your body with the southern cross or draping yourself in the national flag and 2) the neo-conservative strand of patriotism that you see for example on the right when they belief that patriotism has to involve a missionary pursuit of Judeo-Christian values.

MARK COLVIN: Why do you associate it with the right? I mean, it was Dr Johnson who was high Tory of the 18th century who said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Feelings of patriotism in Australia haven't always been associated with the right. I think there's a very long left-wing tradition for instance of radical nationalism. Don't forget values of egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go have always been tinged with a very left-wing nationalistic flavour, until recently.

I think John Howard was very effective in seizing this territory from the traditional left during his prime ministership with his form of Anzac nationalism so I don't think it's always been that case, the case that patriotism has been of the right, but it certainly is the state of play at the moment.

MARK COLVIN: All right but we are a multicultural society and inevitably that means that you've got some people who call themselves Australian but who barrack for the English cricket team or still count themselves a bit Greek when it comes to the soccer or, you know, people have dual-allegiances. How are you going to ask them to suddenly be patriotic?

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Well I think there is room for difference within patriotic sense of national identity and that's a nuance that hasn't always been articulated convincingly. Where I start is civic values.

I think when people think of patriotism, they think that you have to love meat pies, you have to drink VB, you have to love sport. But they're very superficial things. They're lifestyle components of Australia.

But I want to focus on civic values and I guess being Australian in my view means taking very seriously things like the fair go, egalitarianism and mateship and those values don't just exit in vacuum but exit in a context of a very discrete, national history.

I think Australians tell stories very well but we don't get our civic stories right all the time. Our civic history might not have the same flair or flamboyance as the Americans say. We weren't born of a revolution but I think there's a very distinguished and sober record of democracy as well that's worth celebrating and I want to shift the emphasis back on those aspects of the national history and the national story.

MARK COLVIN: There are some people in this country who have come here really to get away from nationalism. I think about people from the Balkans for instance. What wouldn't they be suspicious of any project that says, "let's be more nationalistic".

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Well I think their suspicions are quite often very well grounded. I think the mistake is to think however, that a love of humanity or that cosmopolitanism will be enough. Stories and communities still count, not least national ones and I always say to people we don't for example see our politicians speaking to us in Esperanto but they speak to us in a national language appealing to a discrete national history in order to motivate citizens

The real challenge is really to get the balance right and I think there is a possibility of a moderate, liberal patriotism or national pride that we can celebrate. But I certainly don't want to deny that there are instances such as the Balkans where nationalistic excess have ended in bloodshed. That's not the kind of nationalism I would like to defend.

MARK COLVIN: From the peace movement to the globalisation supporters, from left to right, there is a stream of thought that says that nations themselves are, should vanish away, that we are international, that we are a world community.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: What do I think of that? Well I think that yes, there has been a movement towards globalisation but that doesn't mean that the nation state has already been superseded. We still live in a world of nation states. The big decisions affecting us are made primarily by national governments. Our democracy takes a national flavour. We can't run away from that and I think there is a need for a dose of sociological realism if you will in these debates.

MARK COLVIN: So this is about civic virtue for you? Where do you start to build that in the society?

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Well a lot I think depends on getting the language of leadership right. I think liberals and progressives in Australia have a great opportunity at the moment to build a new social contract for the 21st century. But that requires a consensus for reform.

I think Kevin Rudd has shown us that he's a very philosophically engaged leader but I think there's an opportunity for him here to engage in a new cultural narrative and to articulate a vision of citizenship.

MARK COLVIN: Surely you just can't do this with politics though?

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: Well of course not but I think...

MARK COLVIN: If you're talking about patriotism, it's got to imbue the society or it won't mean anything.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE: No indeed. But the starting point I think must rest in politics. Language and debates percolate from the top down I think. But I think with a dose of cultural leadership, we will see a more diffuse debate at large among Australians.

I think this really is a debate that Australians have wanted to have for a long time and it's a debate that isn't stuck I think in the old paradigm of left and right. I think we're talking really about a new generational debate here.

MARK COLVIN: Tim Soutphommasane whose book, Reclaiming Patriotism, Nation Building for Progressives is published next week.

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