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Is patriotism dead in the West?

Hegel's fatalistic prediction of destruction and disappearance for societies that overvalue peace spells a dark omen for Western Civilization, and perhaps more precisely Europe

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Did the Great Wars turn Europe away from patriotism for good?
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Philippe Labrecque
On 18 January 2013 10:45

The two Wold Wars of the last century left a deep scar on the European psyche. It led many to throw out the nation-state model, and especially nationalism, as they blamed the rise of the latter in fascist Italy and Germany for the carnage that ravaged Europe.

Not only was the European Union born from the will to put an end to war between nations of the old continent, but the first generation born after the war developed a strong aversion to war and nationalism, mixed with an attempt to uproot itself from Western civilization as it became a culprit for war.

Marxism was therefore an appealing ideology for the peace-and-love generation with its post-historical, utopian world-without-borders, without governments and without wars, unified through our common proletarian condition. As a result it would be safe to say that patriotism has been on the decline for the past 50 years but how can we truly measure if Patriotism is dead in the West?

We should first define what is patriotism. Many would interchange the use of the words nationalism and patriotism, but George Orwell made a clear distinction between the two concepts. Indeed, the author of 1984 qualified nationalism as "the worst enemy of peace," describing nationalism as the belief that one's country was superior to others while patriotism is an attachment and admiration of a nation's way of life: "Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally." 

Orwell extracts the dual nature of patriotism as a defense of one's country by military means and by a defense of its culture while avoiding the temptations of imperialism that nationalism may bring about. Without pounding the drums of war and imperialism, patriotism still requires an active defence which does not exclude the necessity to fight wars to preserve the homeland and ultimately it may ask of its citizens to risk their lives and die for their country.

Perhaps it is in the most dire of situations man can experience -- war and the need to defend one's country to the death if necessary -- that patriotism can still be evaluated as dead or alive.

The notion of dying for one's homeland may seem extreme you will say, and indeed it only materializes for a fraction of citizens in the professional militaries that most Western nations have adopted. But to test one's will, one's patriotism, the ultimate sacrifice is still the best marker since if a person is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on an individual level, any other lesser sacrifice or duty is imaginable in the defense of the nation, militarily and culturally as Orwell would put it.

Yet that feeling of sacrifice seems increasingly empty in western nations in this day and age. As Michel Onfray, a French philosopher, university professor, and author, said in an interview on the topic of the decline of the West: "Who is ready to die for the values of the West or the values of the Enlightenment?", clearly implying that nearly no one is willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice of risking everything for something greater than themselves such as the nation and its ideals anymore in Western countries.

For Onfray, the decline of the West is not to be measured in economic or military terms but in terms of the unwillingness of its citizens to make individual sacrifices, even dying, for a greater entity.

While trying to stay amoral, thus not accusing or judging but simply observing, Onfray questions the very will of westerners to fight for anything as they have been numbed by consumerism in a secular age that creates no attachment to God and Country. Onfray cites Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the his conclusion that civilizations who persist over time are those that are able to make the apology of war and value the notion of the sacrifice of the individual for a greater political and social entity.

This kind of discourse has disappeared almost completely from politics in western nations after the noble and aristocratic act of fighting in a war to defend La Patria -- the latin word at the root of patriotism that invokes a paternal attachment to his family -- died in the senseless butchery of WWI while WWII destroyed what was left of Europe.

With the rise of the European Union, and its increasing integration and massive migration taking place, changing the face of countries in short periods of time, not only does the aristocratic duty of fighting for your country seem like an anachronism (in the Western world at least; the Chinese are on an exactly contrary course of hyper-nationalism), the very idea of the nation as defined by borders and cultural coheson is incredibly difficult to maintain and defend in the public sphere.

It is ironic that the continent that gave rise to nationalism in its political sense, not in its Orwellian definition, may be the first to exit that very concept. Patriotism, barely alive as it is, could easily be going through its final throes in Europe.

Perhaps the United States and its citizens who seem to still value greatly La Patria, as illustrated by its numerous displays of patriotism in its political institutions and even at sports events, can avoid the complete downfall of patriotism. But if Michel Onfray is right in his diagnosis that no westerner is still willing to die for something greater than their individual selves, based on Orwell's definition of patriotism, we may as a civilization have lost the will to defend ourselves not purely in the act of physically fighting a war but also culturally.

At its very core, patriotism requires the individual to believe in a greater political entity to which he belongs and be willing to make sacrifices for that entity, thus why war is so relevant as an example. Besides a few courageous souls in our armed forces, it seems that the hedonistic and nihilist West we know today is far from being ready to make such sacrifice.

Finally, when asking what is the state of patriotism in the West, we are also asking what are the consequences if we are to conclude that indeed, patriotism is dead? Hegel's fatalistic prediction of destruction and disappearance for societies that overvalue peace spell a dark omen for Western Civilization, and perhaps more precisely Europe.

Philippe Labrecque is a freelance journalist and commentator. He blogs at philippelabrecque.com

Read more on: Michel Onfray, enlightenment, western values, western civilisation, patriotism, Why aren't British people patriotic?, British patriotism, European Union, Philippe Labrecque, and george orwell
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