By Harmesh Bhambra ‘16
To your British correspondent the last few weeks have provided perspective on a particular feature of American culture. Before the start of a Chicago Blackhawks game on February 9 the spectators rose to sing the national anthem, with a fervor and passion not witnessed before by this Brit. I was swept along in this display of patriotism and tried to sing along to words that I vaguely recollected…”Star Spangled Banner”. The stadium was decked out in red, white and blue; the huge American flag displayed proudly.
While I have never taken part in such a display before I was given a preview from the televised Super Bowl. If there is a moment where you can get professional footballers to weep openly in public, it is singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Again there was the gigantic American flag, members of the armed forces, hands on hearts, and the performer, Lady Gaga, decked out in red.
Although displays of patriotism appear more often in the US compared to the UK, patriotism still tends to be fairly quiet, bubbling under the surface. This is also true at Booth. There are not huge displays of patriotism, but there are moments: Indians at Diwali, Israelis for BoothRight, Asian communities for the Lunar New Year.
George Orwell wrote in his brilliant essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" that “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty.” Yet we tend not to think of patriotism as a potent force that guides decisions. I am going back to the UK after Booth for many reasons and I would, quietly, admit that one reason is loyalty to my home country.
Yet there is a darker side to patriotism, which we have seen throughout the last century in Europe and which is starting to surface again, and which gives patriotism a bad rap. Thus, when we criticize radical policies and actions of some US presidential candidates, maybe these have less to do with their ideology, intelligence or empathy, but with their patriotism. Do they not love their country as much as anyone else -- or more fervently? One can be a patriot and a radical. Orwell understood this; he wrote the essay while “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me...they are ‘only doing their duty’” and “who would never dream of committing murder in private life.”
In that narrow sense, then, Voltaire was right when he wrote "It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind." We see displays of patriotism in the news that please us, like in the sports games, and displays that we find distasteful. Understanding the power of patriotism -- seeing it, accepting it and shaping it -- will help us prevent a minority from hijacking it. Can the patriots please stand up?
Harmesh has been doing his duty to Britain by only drinking gin this quarter.