Thursday, February 25, 2010

Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Olympics

I teach English in Japan, and when I ask students what's up these days, the answer is inevitably "the Olympics." Japanese are particularly entranced with their female figure skaters, as Mao Asada and Miki Ando are the only Japanese competitors thought to have a chance to win a gold in any prestigious event. As would people in any country, most Japanese say they want Japanese athletes to win. When they say that, I ask them: why?

Duh, responds the reader. But I think it's a good idea to occasionally give serious thought to questions that we'd normally consider too obvious to bother answering. Why should I care whether Athlete A from my country defeats Athlete B from another country, when until two days ago, I had never heard of either of them? Personally, I don't, though I know I'm unusual.

Of course, I know the answer: "I identify with my country. My country is my 'team', and I want it to win. I like to know that my country is better than other countries, because I then feel as though I'm better." Well, okay, people wouldn't say the last part. But it's definitely true. Many will say they want their country's team to win because "I'm patriotic." Now, is this a good thing?

In some cases, certainly. Patriotism can bind people together, help them come together in the face of attack or tragedy. It can be a legitimate feeling of pride when one's country has done something admirable. Used for positive purposes, it can enable a country to do what it perhaps otherwise could not. But used negatively, it morphs into nationalism, the use of national pride for political purposes. It fosters and encourages a 'we are better than them' feeling, tapping into the human need for recognition, validation, and social standing.

Sad to say, throughout history patriotism has been used for far more negative than positive purposes. There are few better examples of this than in the recent history of the country in which I currently reside. The Japanese of the early 20th century were ceaselessly told by their leaders that they were special, led by an emperor considered a living god, superior to any other country, and thus divinely destined to rule others, starting with Asia. That didn't quite work out, and nationalism got such a bad name here that even saying that one is patriotic is something one doesn't do too loudly.

This has never been a problem in the U.S., a country in which it is a felony for a politician to speak for 15 minutes or more without mentioning that "the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth." (Okay, that's not true. But it seems like it.) Quick quiz: what was the last time Americans' patriotism was used by the government as a political tool for a major policy objective? If you didn't say 'the Iraq War', then you weren't thinking very hard. The Bush government repeatedly invoked patriotism in support of the war to remove the terrible danger that Saddam posed to America, and routinely questioned the patriotism of anyone who questioned or opposed this objective. Not that this was unusual; if there has ever been a war in which patriotism was not invoked, I'm not aware of it. I don't mean to suggest that patriotism is bad because it is used to support wars, any more than I think fire is bad because it burns down buildings. Both have positive uses. At the same time, both have to be watched carefully, lest they spin out of control. Neither should be used recklessly, or just for the sake of enjoyment.

A reasonable observation at this point would be, "Dude, it's just the Olympics. Lighten up." It's true that I'm not worried that we're going to suddenly invade Canada. But at this time, when most root for athletes for no more reason than their national origin, it seems like a propitious time to make and consider such comments. Our country seems almost addicted to patriotism. You see the flag not only at political rallies, but in supermarkets, TV commercials, car dealerships, and dozens of other places where its relevance is questionable. Why? Because it causes the desired effect. Just like it did for the Iraq War. (I supported that war, but not out of patriotism, or U.S. interests, but because Saddam was a clear threat to his neighbors and a danger to regional stability. Americans, however, wouldn't have supported the war for those reasons. So, Bush waved the flag, and Americans responded like Pavlov's dogs.)

A majority of Americans now think that the Iraq war was a bad idea. I would feel better if they had a better sense of what it was that led them there in the first place. It wasn't the Olympics. But that kind of thing is the first step along what is clearly a very slippery slope.

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