Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel?

Patriotism.

It's an issue of growing concern, as it waxes in strength across the West, threatening the hard-won cooperation of the EU and America, threatening in the latter to tip into full-blown Nationalism. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: The quality of being patriotic; vigorous support for one's country, I have to say I am not a patriot. Or at least I don't consider myself to be one. In the UK it is a word that is too often associated with the far right of politics, with skinheads and racists. The chant of 'two world wars and one world cup' sums up the attitude of many people and a lot of them are the sort who ask non-white citizens 'when are you going home' rather than accepting multicultural values. I feel it's an unthinking, unreasoning thing, that we're expected to adopt without considering what we're actually supporting. It speaks of exceptionalism, often held in the most myopic terms, wilfully ignoring the work done elsewhere in the world that may be of equal or even better quality. Like the appeals to a British character, it ignores things in order to make its point and spread throughout the population, relying on stereotypes. We might be proud of the British sense of humour, but what nation would admit to being a bunch of humourless idiots? Appeals to science and literature will be met with responses of other countries' achievements and they are right to do so. Shakespeare may be seen as the father of British literature, but he is simply one of many such literary giants (and it could be argued that the UK invests too much in his oeuvre to the detriment of other playwrights and poets). Of course, his canonisation as a sort of secular saint was in itself an act of patriotism, as the 18th Century country sought to create clear blue water between itself and the Papist continent. There was a rejection of Catholic values and at the same time a sort of demonisation of the 'un-English' way of life the mainland espoused. This can be seen in many of the novels that comprise the Gothic, and even in later works like Dracula, where Europeans come in two forms, positively strange or rakish and sex obsessed (even if that is through the medium of blood).

I don't see how anyone, living in the modern age, can be entirely patriotic, indeed I would argue that patriotism is not a desirable trait unless it is harnessed to a keen analytical brain that seeks to make things better for the people of the country. If that will is lacking, it is simply a desire to maintain the status quo, acting a way to shore identity up. Things might be bad here, but at least we're not French, or whatever. Consequently, aside from the Loyal Opposition version of the impulse, I am forced to agree with the idea that it is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Where I do find pride in my country's achievements it is almost always in the past, rather than as a reflection of our current character (most of which I believe to have been hijacked by international capitalism and repackaged and sold back to us in the form of tat). Even so, I feel you have to take things with a pinch of salt, so much of the history that children are taught is a form of propaganda, a way to explain how the nation arrives at the present day without paying too much attention to detail. I often find myself wondering how many patriots know about Britain's invention of the concentration camp, the Indian Mutiny, Khartoum, and the worst excesses of our Empire (which you could argue we acquired because of a mix of racism and the East India Company running up massive debts from their constant wars). 

This being said, there are things I am proud of about my homeland - it isn't all doom and gloom. Here are five of them:

1) Goth and Punk. Britain has a good habit of taking American art and reinventing it. The two subcultures of Goth and Punk are very much examples of this. The Ramones' sound crossed the Atlantic and was seized upon by disaffected youth, transformed into Punk (which in the UK was as much about class warfare, anger at elders and a desire to reject 'normal' behaviour as anything else), and that grew into Goth, which took the same energy and turned it inwards, focusing on a sartorial, graceful rebellion. They are both beautiful, wild, flowers, full of promise and cynical fervor. I consider them one of the truest expressions of Britishness. 

2) The British Invasion of Comics. In the 1980s a wave of British writers started working at DC Comics and transformed the form. They brought a hard bitten, mature tone that was a world away from the funny suits and escaping villains taht had dominated the genre before. It gave us work lilke Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, Watchmen and Sandman, and paved the way for Transmetropolitan, Lucifer and the Invisibles.

3) Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage/ A pair of visionaries who committed to building the first computer, the Difference Engine. They laboured for many years and ultimately failed, the Difference Engine waas a disaster. But the fact remains they had the foresight to try and pioneered the field for later generations.

4) Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man. The second book of British poltiical theory, The Rights of Man lays out the tenets of classic Liberalism as a creed, and is a book of philosophy dedicated to combating the totalitarian state envisaged by Conservates at the time. As such it is a tonic and a good reminder of what the ideology stood for. I don't agree with all of it (I've never met a rational human being, but bless Liberals for trying to push that as an idea). 

5) Britain's History of Dissent. I have a fondness for underdogs, and for the awkward, eccentric people of the country who go their own way. But I'm proud of the nation's history of dissent, of campaigning, from the Peasant's Revolt onwards. I like that we're a nation that keeps trying and which holds our leaders to account. The Borgeious perspective of an ordered society where there's a place for everyone and everyone is in their place, holds no lustre to me, any more than the stage-managed nature of politics does - I like debate, dissent, exploration of ideas. Anything that allows that is good, in my opinion and I believe we must never stop dreaming of a better way of doing things, and trying to make the world a better place.