Loyalty and patriotism are emotive issues and it often proves difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them. I am going to seek an easier entry by dealing first with misplaced loyalty and patriotism.
I was drawn to this subject by the swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded the refereeing in the recently concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa. (See the articles by Jeffrey Marcus and Tim Parks.) I recalled the times when home umpires were the rule in test cricket and the endless talk of favoritism that inevitably ensued. There were umpires about whom it was said that their fingers used to go up even before there was any appeal. I suppose the umpires must have considered this an act of patriotism and loyalty to their fellow countrymen and I suppose some of the latter might have seen it in the same light. Opposing teams and the global audience saw it more as favoritism and cheating and ultimately home umpires were replaced by neutral ones. Clearly, if this was loyalty and patriotism, it was misplaced.
Take another example. Suppose you are a judge at a dance competition in which one participant is your niece and another, the daughter of a despised neighbor. Or an interviewer in which one job applicant is your countrywoman and the other is from a country which has poor relations with yours. Any semblance of loyalty in such situations would be seen by objective observers as instances of bias and discrimination. Once again, the loyalty and patriotism would be misplaced. In fact, the proper conduct expected in such situations is for the judge or interviewer to withdraw because of a potential conflict of interest.
All these examples are non-controversial and their logic is readily accepted by most people. Yet, when the context is transferred from individuals to countries all logic seems to go out the window. Here we are more often faced with the obdurate stance of ‘my country, right or wrong.’ This is a patently absurd position to adopt unless one insists that one’s country is always in the right and has never done any wrong. It would be hard to find such a country. All one has to do is to track the apologies issued by various leaders for the wrongs that have been committed by their countries in the past.
The illogic does not end there. Any one within the country who offers a contrary opinion is forthwith labeled a traitor irrespective of his or her credentials. The accusers provide no contrary evidence or argument; it is enough to question the loyalty of the accused. Arundhati Roy is the latest example but there have been many others.
The principled stance to take is to uphold the primacy of truth and justice over loyalty and patriotism and if it is one’s own country that is deemed to be in the wrong to be able to point it out. Thus, even in such situations, unquestioning loyalty and patriotism is misplaced and a disservice to one’s country.
What I find even more intriguing is the conceptualization of countries in such situations. Clearly, countries are inanimate pieces of land and to say that country X did this or country Y did that does not really make much sense. The actions are always carried out by individuals or groups within countries. The analysis has to probe deeper to see which group is carrying out a particular action, for what purpose, and with what mandate. For example, we now know that President Johnson lied to the US Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the Vietnam War and that President Bush lied similarly about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
To say that America did this or that would be a gross simplification even though America is a democracy and one assumes that its rulers act in accordance with the wishes of its population. Situations in which the rulers are not representative of the citizenry or not accountable to it are infinitely more complicated.
Taking a simplistic country-level perspective also rules out any intelligent solutions to conflicts ensuing from particular groups in one country carrying out illegal actions in another. The only option that remains is for one country to subjugate the other, a solution that is increasingly unlikely unless one is dealing with a lopsided conflict involving, say, the US and Grenada. The US has been waging war in Afghanistan for ten years and finally coming to the realization that it would have to distinguish good Taliban from bad just as it had to finally distinguish between good Baathists and bad in Iraq. Afghanistan did not do anything; some people in Afghanistan carried out an unlawful action. It is an important distinction to make.
Loyalty and patriotism seem innocuous when one is rooting for one’s sporting teams (although even here the history of violence in soccer provides a sobering pause) but any mechanical and uncritical extension to international affairs can have damaging long-run consequences. Just as misplaced loyalty and patriotism in individual situations are really instances of bias and discrimination so at the national level they can be instances of prejudice and uncritical thinking.