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There’s nothing more patriotic than wanting your country to be better

By Jack Graham

Reactionary nationalists like to portray themselves as the only true patriots, but wanting the best for your country ought to mean embracing openness and progress

Nasty nationalism is back in force in Western politics.

Since the Brexit vote, government ministers have attacked Remainers – those who wish Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) – and sceptical journalists for being unpatriotic. In the US, Donald Trump has embraced the white-supremacist alt-right and condemned (often black) football players for disrespecting the national anthem with their “take a knee” protests. And as Europe’s refugee crisis has highlighted, welcoming others is often portrayed as disloyal to one’s nation.

Liberals and progressives often feel uncomfortable talking about patriotism, but they shouldn’t surrender this political ground to nativist and reactionary nationalists. On the contrary: patriotism means wanting the very best for your country, which should mean seeking to overcome the barriers that are holding it back from progress. It ought to be about imagining how much better a country can become, not harking back to an idealised past.

It’s fine to be proud of one’s country, its culture and its achievements. While you would hope that they also cared about people elsewhere, it’s right that national politicians seek to advance the national interest: they were elected to improve the lot of their country’s citizens. And while people in a country have their differences, seeking national unity is preferable to fomenting divisions.

But while healthy patriotism is a good thing, narrow-minded nationalism is not. If you are blind to your country’s faults, you won’t seek to remedy them. If you define the national interest as going it alone and pulling up the drawbridge, you deprive citizens of the benefits of cooperating with others and welcoming outsiders. And if patriotism becomes whatever a politician wants it to be, it can become a stick to stifle dissent.

Since the Brexit vote, Remainers have consistently been told that they should be getting behind the government to ensure the country gets the best Brexit possible, even if they think – in its current form at least – it will be damaging for the country. Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg wrap themselves in the flag; at the Conservative Party conference he even compared Brexit to the battles of Waterloo, Agincourt and Crecy. But are sceptics really deserters who don’t love their country?

In the US, the National Football League (NFL) protests involve players highlighting institutionalised racism – not least among the police – that denies black Americans true freedom. President Trump is using patriotism as an excuse to discredit the causes of the protest – and sadly it seems half of Americans agree with his position.

Many argue that the national anthem should be respected for those servicemen and women who have fought to defend the country’s freedom. But NFL players mean no disrespect to veterans, many of whom are black. And if some Americans’ freedom is limited because of the colour of their skin, surely the singing of the national anthem is the perfect time to protest against this?

Unbridled nationalism can also be counterproductive on the international stage. Us against Them is all very well on a football pitch, but in an interconnected world, political-economy issues are rarely zero sum.

Europe’s chaotic response to the refugee crisis illustrates this exact point. With the notable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, most EU governments buried their heads in the sand and retreated behind national borders, while the ugly xenophobic politics of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán prevailed. Surely they would all have fared better by cooperating?

Working closely with others and pursuing compassionate migration policies is scarcely unpatriotic. While Chancellor Angela Merkel took a political hit to the far-right in September’s elections, she “saved our collective dignity”, as French President Emmanuel Macron rightly said.

Welcoming refugees is not only morally commendable – a point of real national pride; it is also likely to alleviate Germany’s demographic crisis. As a study by OPEN and the Tent Foundation has shown, investing in refugees can bring big economic dividends.

Patriots want the best for the country – and openness and internationalism, albeit imperfect, are the most powerful ways for countries to progress. You don’t have to see yourself as a ‘citizen of the world’ to understand that countries can benefit from cooperating with others and being open to outsiders, and that defining national identity in opposition to others is dangerous.

OPEN’s mission statement states that we believe in being open to the world, open to everyone in society, and open to the future and all its possibilities for progress. Let’s hear it for progressive patriotism.

Jack Graham is a fellow at OPEN.

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