Tag Archives: patriotism

Patriotism & Football

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After President Trump tweeted his way into the matter, the question of patriotism and protest became a hot issue in the public eye once again. A reasonable way to begin the discussion is to consider the nature of patriotism, which has been said to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel.”

One caricature of patriotism consists of shallow flag waving, the uncritical obedience to the dictates of the ruling class and the exaltation of popular prejudices.  Unfortunately, this caricature is often the reality and is, unsurprisingly, what is often pushed by the ruling classes upon the masses. This is, of course, not the only viable account of patriotism.

One alternative approach is to go with the easy and obvious definition—patriotism is the love of one’s country. This simple definition leads to the philosophically complicated question of the nature of love. One way to look at love, at least a positive form of love, is that it involves a devotion to the higher principles, a commitment to what is truly and properly best for the loved one, and an exaltation of the best ideals. This sort of love has a strong moral component and is dedicated to what is truly best—something that might run contrary to what the loved one thinks they want. In the case of patriotism, the love would be for what is best about the country and would commit the patriot to doing what is truly best for the country. This is likely to make such a patriot unpopular for it often requires the patriot to oppose the dictates of the ruling class and to fight against the popular prejudices. While the definition of “patriotism” is a matter of semantics, the idea that it is a love for one’s country that commits one to trying to do what is best for that country (in the moral sense) seems rather appealing and should be adopted. I will now turn to the matter of the NFL players protesting (or showing solidarity with protestors) during the national anthem.

One standard criticism advanced by Trump and others against the protesting players is that these wealthy players are ungrateful. As others have suggested, “ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” although most critics are reluctant to utilize the n word. Ironically, some are quite willing to call black players by the n-word while also asserting that they have nothing to protest.

While the players should certainly appreciate their good fortune, to reject what the players say because they are wealthy would be a mere ad hominem fallacy. This would be the same error that would be made if the tax plans of rich, white Republicans were dismissed out of hand simply because they were made by rich, white Republicans.

A more substantial version of this attack is to argue that the players have no grounds for protest about how blacks are treated in America because they are proof that their criticisms are invalid. While this is better than a mere ad hominem, it is easy to counter. First, wealthy black athletes have still been subject to the sort of unwarranted police violence they are protesting. Second, the unusual success of these athletes does not invalidate the truth of their claims about what happens to other people. To use an analogy, if famous athletes urged people to take action against a serious disease, it would be a foolish objection to say that they are wrong because they are healthy athletes and do not suffer from that disease. It does, in fact, make the most sense that the famous should protest—they are the one who will get the most attention.

Another criticism against such protests is that people watch sports to be amused and to have a break from serious issues. While this does have some appeal (people do deserve leisure time), one reply is that people who are oppressed do not get a break from oppression. If the fans want their break, they should certainly recognize that the oppressed want their oppression to end. There is also the fact that the protests, as conducted now, do not actually disrupt the game—the players still play and the game goes on.

As might be suspected, some people try to counter the protests by contending that they should not have to deal with the protests because “they did not own slaves.” One reply is that while they did not own slaves, they most likely benefit from the system that arose out of slavery and that now serves to systematically oppress some while conveying unearned advantages to others. Oddly, this position does seem to acknowledge the existence of a problem, since the person is claiming they are not part of that problem. However, there are those who deny there is a problem.

One approach is to assert that the protests are pointless because there is nothing to protest—everything is just fine. This is obviously not true and can be rejected in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somewhat ironically, when people engage in racism while denying racism, they merely prove the existence of racism.

One interesting criticism is that the protests are just empty theatre, perhaps even some sort of marketing ploy aimed at improving viewership (albeit at the risk of alienating some fans). This criticism does have some appeal. However, there is the interesting fact that the playing of the national anthem at games was originally itself a marketing ploy that somehow became something more. It would be quite appropriate if the protests were marketing and even more so if they became more than mere marketing. In any case, even if the protests are marketing, this would not show that they are thus unpatriotic or unwarranted. At worst it would call into question the motives of those involved.

As far as whether the protestors are patriots, this question can only be answered by knowing their motives and goals. If they are protesting what they regard as injustice and are doing so to make America better, then they are engaged in true patriotism: they are trying to make the country they love be the best it can be. And that is a far truer patriotism than someone who just wants to wave a flag and uncritically praise their country be she wrong or right.

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Fiction and Patriotism

In my last post I looked at some ways in which my emotional involvement when watching a sporting event on television was like my emotional involvement when reading fiction. It seemed to me that in both cases there was a similar conscious willingness to suspend my normal commitment to the truth of the matter, for the sake of a story, with suspense and a happy ending.  And I thought that was interesting because it threw a bit of extra light on the so-called paradox of fiction. The paradox of fiction is that we can feel emotionally responsive to characters and situations that we know not to exist, so that our emotions seem to be freed from the normal belief-dependence that we might plausibly think them to have. I argued that when I watch sport I willingly succumb to a narrative of the event that omits some facts and prioritises others to the extent that that narrative is an artifice, aimed not at truth but at building a satisfying, story-shaped experience of the race. I knowingly base my response on a selection of data that I fully believe to be partial and distorting, and in that sense my emotional engagement with elements of the real world seems to have the kind of believe-independence that is involved in the paradox of fiction.

I ended that post by asking whether we sometimes need to allow our emotions this kind of partial autonomy from truth-tracking, not just for the purposes of catharsis, but in order to inform and motivate our truth-oriented engagement with the world. Where situations are complicated and the best outcome is unclear, we need a preliminary stance to guide us, some loyalties that can thrive even in the absence of the kind of beliefs that might warrant those loyalties. Frequently, our commitment to seeking “the truth of the matter” does not mean that we begin our researches in a state of cold, static objectivity. We begin instead in medias res, from some engaged perspective which we know is unlicensed by our knowledge of the facts of the matter but which nonetheless motivates us to care and to act, and then to question our actions, and to question the emotionally charged allegiances that prompted them. If we didn’t start from somewhere, we would never get anywhere.

I said in my earlier blog post that I had had two new experiences courtesy of the Olympic Games, and I’m coming now to the second of those two experiences – an unfamiliar twitch of patriotism. It is patriotism of some sort or another, quite frequently, that supplies us with a ready-made engaged perspective, a preliminary action-guiding source of emotional affiliation that is arguably unlicensed by relevant facts.

The term “patriotism” lacks a well-agreed meaning. It is sometimes taken to involve a set of beliefs about one’s country – that it is superior,  for example, or that it has special claims that trump those of other countries, that it has some “mission” in the world, and so forth.  On another account (and this is the version of patriotism I want to talk about here), patriotism is not a matter of beliefs about one’s country: it is instead an affectionate identification with one’s own country, including a propensity to take that country’s interests as an object of special concern. One might experience that affectionate identification whilst acknowledging that one does not have good reason to do so, and in that case the emotional engagement that one feels with one’s country might seem puzzling. It does seem puzzling: why, for example, should I feel elated by the fact that Britain has hosted a successful Olympic Games, or won 65 medals? I didn’t do it: I contributed nothing to the Games. Why should I throw in my lot with an ill-defined geographic-legal entity within whose jurisdiction I happen to have been born? Patriotism has it in common with the consumption of fiction that it is an arena in which our emotional engagement is not, or at the very least is not fully, warranted by relevant beliefs.

Perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can say that patriotism is not only like the consumption of fiction: it is the consumption of fiction. My recent glimmering of patriotism was aroused by a story: the story that the Olympic opening ceremony told of Britain’s progress from rural idyll to industrial powerhouse, under the influence of a class of industrialists explicitly likened to Shakespeare’s Prospero, raising wonders on a mysterious island, relying, not on sorcery like Prospero, but on the stoic endeavours of a heroic working class. It is easy to see that that is not a fully realistic but a somewhat mythic account of British history. Over the years I have been exposed to numerous other popular histories of Britain that are similarly suffused with fiction. And when I am looking at real-world developments relating to my country – domestic politics, my country’s conduct of international affairs, and so on – I am not immune from viewing matters through the prism of such stories, so that I experience my country in a somewhat fictionalised way. I think (although there isn’t space to explore it here) that equally unrealistic myths and legends, and people’s capacity to synthesise these with their perception of real-world events, tend to be at the core of patriotisms everywhere.

A patriotic British citizen feels elated when she has no reason to (it isn’t she who has triumphed, only a part-fictional entity), because she is reading the story avidly. She feels shame and guilt in relation to Britain’s misdoings, even when she has no reason to, and apprehension at the thought of the wrongful actions Britain might yet undertake, because she is enthralled by Britain’s story.

Our patriotic engagement with a nation is like our engagement with a character in a novel. When I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, I feel pleasure in Cromwell’s love of his daughters, apprehension about his capacity for ruthlessness. I travel with the protagonist for the duration of the tale. I share deeply in his concerns, even though they are not mine, and even though I know that the Cromwell that Mantel writes about does not really exist, but is instead a fictional creation, only partly founded in her historical knowledge. Similarly, the character “Britain” in our patriotic stories is a fiction, but that need not stop me caring about that character and adopting its concerns as my own.

In principle, these emotional reactions to the story are capable of  informing our perception of Britain and also teaching us about ourselves, just as our emotional reactions to any great novel help to inform our interpretation of the characters in it and to see ourselves more clearly. Depending of course on the quality of the patriotic stories we tell ourselves (superficial and formulaic fiction tends to leave us pretty much where we started), patriotism might not be something static. Instead it might function as the kind of  preliminary perspective I spoke of above, an affiliation unmotivated by the relevant facts of the matter, which nonetheless motivates our actions, but also causes us to question those actions and refine or even overturn our loyalties.

As it is used, the term “patriotism” tends to be reserved for positive emotional engagement in one’s country – pride, joy, contentment. We perhaps lack a corresponding term for the shame and guilt and apprehension we feel about our country’s misdeeds. But since these negative emotions arise from the same sense of engagement with one’s country as  the positive ones, a rounder, fuller concept of patriotism might embrace them. If patriotism did explicitly embrace such shame, guilt, and apprehension, as well as elation, pride, joy, it would more easily recognised as a source of constructive criticism of one’s country. Patriotism, like all the other story-reading we immerse ourselves in, would be a resource for learning how to act well.



Sport, Stories, and the Paradox of Fiction

Like a lot of British people, I have had two new experiences in the last couple of weeks, thanks to Britain’s hosting of the Olympic Games. One of these new experiences was a twitch of patriotism, felt while watching Danny Boyle’s impressive opening ceremony. The other was the experience of being emotionally engaged by a sporting event. I’ll come back to the patriotism shortly, in a fresh blog post, but for now I want to talk about the emotions involved in sports spectatorship. As I sat agonising about whether British cyclist Bradley Wiggins could pedal a few seconds faster than other cyclists in the Surrey time trials I had two thoughts. One was “How on earth do keen sports spectators  manage to survive this kind of emotional torment every weekend?” The other was a recognition of some similarities between my emotional response to viewing sport and my emotional response to fiction. Simply because I so rarely get excited about sport, I was groping for some sort of precedent to the kind of emotional tension that I was experiencing. And edge-of-the-seat moments in fiction were what popped into my head. Why? Given that the cycle race in Surrey was real and not fictional, how and why was my experience of watching it reminiscent of the consumption of fiction?

Here are some possible answers that come to mind. First, sport itself, like fiction, has a concentration of “heightened moments” – moments of triumph or defeat, of critical choices, of intense effort against adversity or pain or one’s own personal limits; and, like fiction, it has a final moment of resolution – the end of the competition – in which matters are brought to a fairly orderly and coherent conclusion, a happy ending or a sad one. Second, television commentators routinely build on sport’s inherent drama by supplying us with numerous mini-narratives that make use of standard themes common in fiction. As the camera cuts to a particular competitor, we will be told that he sustained a major injury last year that threatened his future as a cyclist, that he vowed to overcome it, that his mother has said he will not rest until he has won a medal for his country. The commentator has shaped a story for us. It may be a true story, in the sense that it is composed of propositions that are true. But its construction (the selection of some propositions for inclusion, of others for omission) is an artifice aimed at promoting drama, suspense, tension. Third, even though we might feel a little cynical about all this pat storymaking, we seem rather heavily programmed to be receptive to it. When a commentator informed me, at the start of the men’s 400 metre final, that Grenada had never won an Olympic medal, my loyalty for the duration of the race instantly went to the Grenadian runner Kirani James, even though a moment’s reflection told me that there were numerous other available facts that could equally have aroused a loyalty to any of the other competitors in the event. In fact, not only was I receptive to the commentator’s provision of a shaping narrative of the event, I was consciously seeking just such a narrative. I wanted excitement, I wanted to care about the result, and I was consciously willing to found my excitement on the arbitrary bequeathal of salience to the desires of one set of people (Grenadians) rather than another.

This brings me to the reason why I find the similarities between my sports spectatorship and my consumption of fiction rather interesting. Philosophers of literature ask the question “Why do we care about fictional characters?” As we read a novel, we feel anxious, angry, fearful, pleased, relieved, disappointed about the fate of the characters in it. If they are characters who arouse our sympathy, we adopt their needs, wants, interests as our own: we are satisfied when they are satisfied, frustrated when they are frustrated. And all this is the case even though we know that they do not exist. Our intense emotional engagement with a piece of fiction coexists more or less smoothly with our awareness that nothing at all is at stake. This is known as the paradox of fiction. Is there something similarly paradoxical in my emotional engagement with sports spectatorship? Is there, in both cases, a similar parting of company between my beliefs, on the one hand, and my emotional response, on the other? I think that there is. Unlike fictional characters, Kirani James and the people of Grenada really do exist and – let us assume – they will indeed be happier as a result of winning a medal.  But the state of my beliefs as I watched the race did not at all licence my emotional response.

To see this, let’s say that I have a belief that the best outcomes are those that produce the greatest amount of happiness that is compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In that case, my anxiety that Kirani James should win his race would be sensitive to my beliefs only if I had good grounds for thinking that, compared with the victory of other participants in the race, his victory would produce the greatest amount of happiness compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In fact had no idea whether it would or not, and more importantly I didn’t care about that when I transferred my loyalties to him. My normal commitment to the truth of the matter was suspended for the sake of my immersion in a story-shaped experience of the race, with suspense and a happy ending.

It might be argued that this is nothing like the experience of reading fiction: all that is happening as I watch the race is that I am forming a preference without good reason, which is something we do all the time. The goals that we adopt do not – or do not always – have to be sensitive to our beliefs about what is, in fact, most desirable.

But something more than simple “plumping” (i.e. unmotivated, unreasoned choosing) was going on as I watched that race. I formed my preference as the result of an engagement with a narrative that I and the sports commentator had evolved between us (about a tiny nation yearning for accolade in the theatre of all the nations), knowing the narrative to be radically incomplete, and knowing it to be shaped by stock narrative themes and by the commentator’s need to deliver, and my own need to consume, a story-shaped experience of the race. It wasn’t an ungrounded preference: it was entirely well-grounded – in a selection of data which I knew to be partial and distorting because I knew it to be an artifice aimed at dramatic tension rather than truth.

If the above considerations hold any water, it seems that the “paradox of fiction,” or something like it, extends also to elements of our engagement with the real world.

And not only are we willing to allow our emotions this particular kind of freedom from the austere demands of truth-tracking, it seems interesting to speculate about the possibility that we sometimes need to grant them this autonomy – not only by retreating into a good book, but sometimes also in real life. Sometimes, in response to complex situations where the best outcome is far from clear, we need to start from somewhere. We need a stance, an orientation, a set of loyalties, something to guide our action even while we are gathering the information that will hopefully  come to inform those loyalties, refine them, perhaps overturn them. Arguably, one such stance is patriotism, and in my next post here I would like to look at patriotism, and the ways in which, like sports spectatorship, it displays something like the paradox of fiction, by eliciting emotional responses in us that we know are unlicensed by the facts.