I merely belong

When I lived in the USA, I was always amused and confused by people who puffed out their chests and said how proud they were to be American. Now that I’m back in London, the government here declares its intent to instill a sense of “Britishness” among its insufficiently jingoistic people.

None of this has ever made any sense to me, at least not since I was a child and too young to know any better. Since I have been able to think for myself, I’ve always been puzzled by flag-waving. Of course I am British. I have no intention of denying that. But what does that really mean? And how is it possible to be proud of a purely random event? I’m reminded of a Chris Rock stand-up routine where he asks patriotic Americans, “What, you’re proud because you happened to drop out of your mama’s pussy in Detroit?”

Part of my problem with patriotism has to do with what Britain stands for in the world, the crimes of slavery and genocide it has committed in pretty much every corner of the globe. That makes pride pretty much impossible for me.

But I think it’s also more than that. Even if Britain had historically been a positive influence in world affairs, spreading justice and freedom and all that good stuff, I still don’t think I would feel any real sense of national pride. After all, I would not have made those great contributions myself, and merely being a passive beneficiary based on an accident of birth doesn’t seem to be a cause for pride. I’m proud of things that I have achieved in my life, and I feel a connection with people whose values I share, not those who happen to belong to the same tribe.

I was reading the London Review of Books the other day and came across an interesting piece on Hannah Arendt. Apparently she received a lot of criticism from people in the Jewish community for her famous description of the high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann as merely a banal, careerist functionary. Gershom Scholem wrote to accuse her of lacking “Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people’. ” Arendt replied:

You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person. To clarify this, let me tell you of a conversation I had in Israel with a prominent political personality who was defending the – in my opinion disastrous – non-separation of religion and state in Israel. What [she] said – I am not sure of the exact words any more – ran something like this: ‘You will understand that, as a socialist, I, of course, do not believe in God; I believe in the Jewish people.’ I found this a shocking statement and, being too shocked, I did not reply at the time. But I could have answered: the greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love towards Him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that? Well, in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or
argument.

Her second point goes beyond my own thinking about nationalism, and I think it is very important, and not only for Israel or Jews. A people that believes only in itself is, by definition, blind to other moral claims, whether by rival groups or by laws or gods. It will act in what it defines as its own national interest, no matter what the consequences for others who are not fortunate enough to be part of the group. It will follow its own course blindly, so focused on its own self-love that it cannot love, understand or learn from others. As Arendt says, what good can come out of that?