“A world full of patriots may be a world full of strife,” wrote Bertrand Russell in his book Why Men Fight. Patriotism assumes that one’s own country is superior to others. Patriotism is like religion, Russell goes on to say. Apart from the sense of superiority, it is also founded on a sense of self-righteousness. The patriot believes that his country possesses the ultimate truths. There are a few bloggers who have shot to prominence in the last few months – after nationalism became a pet theme in India – who vindicate Russell’s arguments. There is no truth outside the Gita, there is no epic greater than the Mahabharata, and there is no greater religion than the Hindu dharma, according to these blogger-patriots.
My primary opposition to patriotism is precisely the blinkered vision on which it is founded. It prevents one from seeing the bigger picture. It withholds one from admiring what is good in other countries. How terrible a loser I would be if I were to shut my eyes to the whole treasure that lies in European literature! Yes, my best friends are books and I have found the best of them coming from countries other than my own. I’m not saying that there are no good writers in India. I’m saying that I have found my favourite writers outside the country. Do I cease to be a patriot when I say that?
The kind of patriotism that today’s nationalists uphold would withhold a lot of treasures apart from books too. There’s a whole world of music, films, arts, and so on that lies out there beyond my country’s borders and is fabulously charming. Do I cease to be a patriot because I admire those great works?
Russell argues that patriotism is no different from the tribal feeling of “loyalty to the sovereign.” Art, music, literature, and all similar creative processes lie far beyond the tribal feeling of loyalty. That is why patriots find it hard to accept writers and artists who question certain loyalties. And yet art and literature cannot be loyal to narrow concepts. Creative thinking is essentially subversive, Russell says towards the end of the book mentioned above.
Albert Einstein subverted Isaac Newton though the latter’s genius is still valid in science. Socrates was killed because his philosophy was subversive. The Buddha had to face opposition from the aristocrats of his time whose system he subverted. Jesus was a subversive. The most serious problem with patriotism is that it prevents free thinking. Like religion, it makes fetishes out of national symbols and motifs. It prevents us from questioning ourselves, our beliefs, our ideas, our smugness. It prevents us from growing. That is why I don’t want to be a patriot. I want to be open to whatever is good wherever it may come from.
I admire the Gita, the Mahabharata and the profundity of the Indian philosophies. But I also admire Spinoza and Kafka. Kazuo Ishiguro inspires me as much the Katha Upanishad. That is why I find it difficult to embrace the kind of patriotism peddled copiously these days.