Kaleem Hawa is a Canadian Rhodes scholar and PhD candidate at Oxford University. This is an adaptation from a speech Mr. Hawa gave at the Oxford Union, the university’s speech and debate society.
I awoke on the morning of Oct. 22, 2014, not feeling particularly patriotic. Tired? Yes. A little grumpy? Sure. But patriotic? Not really. Very few people begin their day with a reaffirmation of their undying love for country. I usually start it with a coffee.
But on that day, a gunman stormed the Canadian Parliament buildings in Ottawa. I will never forget it; we were glued to our screens, watching in shock and sadness as the chaos unfolded. Thousands of Canadians across the world felt it viscerally, as if it were an attack on their very selves. Some would even venture to say that we felt patriotic as a citizenship that day – a concept often described as anathema to polite Canadian society, especially as it recasts itself in opposition to the virulent, incandescent nationalism that is characterizing our modern moment.
However, from my vantage point as a Canadian transplanted abroad to England these past two years, we do the concept of patriotism a disservice when we conflate it with nationalism – patriotism is about loving your country and tends to be iterative over time; nationalism is about expressing the superiority of your country over another’s, a snapshot that ossifies national identity into something absolute.
Instead, we ought think of patriotism as duty to community and to country, as one of the most potent forces driving justice and progress in an increasingly divisive time and as a tool for empowering immigrants, new residents and refugees alike by generating a more inclusive definition of citizenship.
To love your country is to want it to be better. To truly love a country is to say that we as educated citizens cannot and will not accept an erasure of the past nor an apathy of the present. Many who disagree with the concept of patriotism envision its primary manipulators as the likes of Donald Trump, prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage and France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. But those who couch their hatred in the language of obligation to the state miss what exactly it means to be an engaged citizenry, what it means to critically question and protest in pursuit of a more just society. Mr. Farage, Mr. Trump and Ms. Le Pen are not patriots: They are ideologues.
Countries should be constantly evolving, atoning for the mistakes of the past. Edward Saïd, in his Reflections on Exile, identifies the myth making that becomes the nation state – that we “retrospectively and prospectively characterize a history selectively strung together in a narrative form.”
And this is exactly the point; in many ways, patriotism is a myth, an act of moral imagination. If a country is a dispersed community, then patriotism is its collective story, its living will. If we view our country as a project then we become the stewards of that project, and we become invested in that project. In fastening a nation narrative, we therefore tap into a forward momentum that is the essential story we tell ourselves as a society – to mobilize people, to strive for better, to galvanize activism and to give back to our communities.
I think therefore that patriotism has united countries towards many of the great investments in science, in technology, in education and in aspirational social works projects that have withstood the tests of time. People need to feel united by their country, that their lives were part of a meaningful narrative, driving them forward.
On Feb. 15, 1965, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson inaugurated the new national flag of Canada, an act of political courage that ended years of debate about replacing the Red Ensign, which featured the Union Jack. He concluded his speech at Parliament Hill, with the following:
“Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism, but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land.”
Mr. Pearson keenly understood that real patriotism is about saying that yes, we love our countries, but that we love them flaws and all, and that we are committed to improving them, even if it means tackling head-on past systems of power. This makes recognizing Canada’s colonial history and the devastation wrought on the Indigenous peoples of this land a prerequisite of being a patriotic Canadian, rather than something oppositional, as it is sometimes cast. Being a patriot in our context also means understanding deeply that we have always been a nation of others, of hyphenated-Canadians who each have their own painful histories. It is what we do with those histories therefore that renders pluralism and patriotism either mutually exclusive or complementary.
There are, of course, those who reject the premise in its entirety. Why, they argue, should we feel any positive obligation to our country if it is a construction? But this is the type of cynicism that critical theorists use to reject duty to country, service to community, and commitment to the public good. These things aren’t boring relics of the past – our citizenship affords us security and stability with the state as our guarantor – and as recipients of these privileges, it then falls on us to protect and advocate on behalf of those the state has failed. This is the entire basis of the social contract.
What do we then say to those who feel this country rejects them for who they are? Our country’s history is pockmarked with painful legacies; can we conceive of a patriotism that does not erase these stories or undermine the persecution faced today by minorities and the vulnerable?
On this, I submit to you an analog from the inexhaustible Danielle Belton, writing about the structural injustices faced by African-Americans and how her family views patriotism:
“You can be a patriot who doesn’t want that plastic ‘Made in Taiwan’ flag on their lawn. You can love someone who hates you. In 1965, hundreds of black people gathered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma, Ala.], who just wanted to be heard, even though they knew there was a chance they’d be taking their own lives into their hands. They did it anyway, out of love. Love for a better future. Love for a better life. Love for America’s unique ideals that sound so good on paper. What if it was more than paper for us, but real? they thought. Let’s all take a billy club to the head for love, to prove we should have the same rights and protections as all the citizens America purports to love.”
Is there a more patriotic experience than loving your country so much it hurts? So much that you fight to improve it even in the face of the injustices it inflicts upon you and your family? To protest is therefore to be a patriot.
I have seen some of the greatest capacities for love and compassion mobilized under the name of patriotism. In the wake of the atrocities in Syria for instance, Canadians from coast to coast opened their homes and their hearts to those seeking safety. In doing so, that long-standing national story was employed – that our country would be a place of refuge for those fleeing war, that people such as my mother, a refugee from civil strife in Lebanon, could be welcomed for no other reason than because our people were proudly, patriotically, Canadian.
But have you caught what has been happening here? Over time, what started as an artificially constructed patriotic myth has evolved into a shared set of values and beliefs as a society. To be a patriot therefore is no longer about simply being a Canadian, it is about acting like a Canadian.
So, we have talked about the people already here. About how patriotism motivates them in their lives, how it empowers justice advocacy, how it spurs philanthropy. But what about people who were not raised under the national myth? How does patriotism unite a country full of new immigrants from different backgrounds and cultural contexts?
Historically, national identity was inextricably linked to race and class. To be British was to be of white, Anglo-Saxon ancestry, with little room for those new immigrants with their coloured faces and funny accents. Race was used as a barometer for inclusion in society: To be white was to be a citizen, a lover of one’s country. To be black or brown was to be an import, something to be tolerated, never truly included under the banner of national identity. To be Indigenous was to be an exile in your own home.
But what patriotism provides is a new way of understanding membership in the state. Here was a love of your country that could be accessed on the basis of actions, rather than immutable characteristics. It didn’t matter where you came from: You loved the land you lived on and that’s what counted. To me, this underscores a lot of the importance we place on the environment and our rejection of rootless cosmopolitanism.
Because of patriotism, those torn from their homes, from their families, from their lives in pursuit of something better were provided a new vocabulary. To the old question – “Why are you here?” – immigrants have a new response: “I am here because I love this country.” And then to the question they ask themselves at night – “What am I doing here?” – they now counter: “No, what can I do now that I am?” There is a power in those words.
The great, exiled poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, “restore to me the colour of face, and the warmth of body, the salt of bread, and the taste of earth.” Patriotism mobilizes countries towards the future while transcending selfishness in times of division. But patriotism is not uncritical. You can be a patriot that loves their country only sometimes. You can be a patriot that loves a country that doesn’t love you back. You can be expansive in your pursuit of justice, fierce in your advocacy for good, and still believe the myth. This is how patriotism unites us. In fact, these are the duties, the obligations, of being a patriot, not to sit idly by, content with the present, but to strive towards a better future, and to stand, on guard, for those who need it most.