Patriotism is Primitive

A unique confluence of circumstances over the last while has brought us to a heightened sense of political awareness. Amidst a watershed US presidential election campaign that has now entered its stretch run, and ongoing political turmoil across the Atlantic that witnessed the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, the question of human migration has been common to both. Civil war and economic strife have conspired to drive millions of refugees north toward Europe, enflaming tensions in places where residents view their arrival as an invasion. Meanwhile, Donald Trump rarely gives his dog whistle a rest, harping on about the potential danger posed by outsiders. In short, the prevailing mood has drawn on and further emphasized sentiments of division. It has come at the precious cost of our perspective.

I recall seeing an Olympic TV advertisement several years ago in which Nelson Mandela summarized his vision of the Games as “Seventeen days as equals. Twenty-two seconds as adversaries. What a wonderful world that would be.” So as I watched the 2016 edition of the Olympics and the Copa America and Euro soccer championships this past summer, I couldn't help but reflect on how much the ideals of sport contrast from the present state of the world. The slogan in that commercial, “Celebrate Humanity,” is more or less the opposite of the prevailing zeitgeist. It's tough to take such noble ideals seriously – regardless of how much sense they make – when one look out the window indicates otherwise.

Humanity as a whole has never been celebrated because smaller groups of people have always been too busy celebrating themselves. One need only watch TV for five minutes to know that American politics is more partisan now than ever. But if there’s one overriding and uniting feature to American life, it’s the widely held conviction that the United States is the greatest country in (the history of) the world – a belief that’s reflected by honoring the flag, singing the anthem, and other shows of patriotism. The American flag and anthem have different meanings to different people, but honoring these symbols is commonly interpreted to represent respect for the US armed forces, which are viewed by many as near-sacred institutions.

So naturally, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a bevy of other pro athletes began to protest violence against minorities by refusing to stand in respect for the Star-Spangled Banner, the #KneelGate controversy followed swiftly. While many have come out in support of their decisions, even if just in principle for the right to free speech, the condemnation from many others has been strident. The protesters have been chided for being unpatriotic, and for purportedly showing disrespect to veterans by extension. It's come to the point where certain police departments are revoking the security detail they normally provide to NFL teams if there are players choosing to kneel during the anthem. The dissenting players find themselves in a complicated position, obligated to explain that yes, they still love America and respect service members despite holding reservations about the state of social justice in their country. Divided as its current state of politics may be, America's rather peculiar brand of nationalism is undying. It's as if Americans aren't allowed to not love America.

The United States isn't the only place where patriotism is taken for granted as proper conduct. North Korea, for example, is fiercely nationalistic as well, yet most would dismiss that as a direct result of intense propaganda. The US has a far higher average standard of living than ordinary North Koreans, sure. But so do places like Canada, Sweden, and Japan, yet their cultures involve far fewer displays of patriotism than America's does. Just because we take something for granted doesn't make it inherently true. Perspective is essential.

To see why, take the story of a professor who, while teaching his students about the Enlightenment and the value of critical thinking, asked them why they thought people once believed that the Sun orbits the Earth.

One of the students answered matter-of-factly: “Well, because it looks that way, obviously.”

The professor replied: “And how would it look if the Earth orbited the Sun?”

A quick review of humanity's social genealogy exposes the absurdity in dividing ourselves. In a lecture he gave to the British Royal Society for the Arts, Jeremy Rifkin observed that human consciousness has made enormous advances over the course of our evolution. During our hunter-gatherer days we valued blood ties exclusively, regarding those outside of our local tribe as potentially hostile outsiders. The advents of centralized irrigation technology and written communication gave rise to hydraulic agricultural production and larger economies, and the civilizations that emerged from these developments eventually came to formalize their existing cultural mythologies into religious doctrines. Organized religion was useful for promoting social cohesion, and led us to recognize theological ties as an acceptable level of trust, expanding our consciousness to accommodate those with congruent spiritual beliefs into our social circle. As long-distance trading became normal during the following millenia of exploration and innovation, ideas were shared and became entangled, eventually calcifying into robust ideological camps. Guided by these theories and ideals, the technology and ambition of the Industrial Age both allowed for and demanded greater political organization, precipitating formalized nation-states to manage a complex economic paradigm. The predominant echelon of human consciousness is now based on national/ideological ties. But it's still just a grander form of tribalism.

There is a clear teleological trend at work here, with each socially constructed fiction gradually yielding to a relatively more enlightened stage of awareness. And now that humanity has progressed to the national/ideological level of consciousness, Rifkin poses the deceptively obvious question: Why would we stop there?

When we pause to examine the Human Condition from afar, any level of consciousness other than that of a singular, global humanity is revealed as patent nonsense. Consider another piece of recent news: the discovery of a potentially habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star next nearest to us after our own Sun. At 4.25 light-years away it's only a stone’s throw from us in cosmological terms, since our Milky Way galaxy is at least 100 000 light-years in diameter and contains at least 100 billion planets. That's very encouraging until one realizes that even if we were to send off a probe traveling at 65 000 kilometres per hour to explore this new planet, it would take 76 000 years to get there.

How's that for perspective? Albert Einstein is famous for his theories explaining things like the nature of spacetime and gravity, but he might have been at his poetic best when he mused that relativity is the reason for why sitting on a hot stove for a minute passes like an hour, but sitting on a park bench with a pretty girl for an hour passes like a minute. It's a concept we ought to contemplate more often, because when you get down to the brass tacks of it, we are all just frightened apes huddled together, desperately clinging to a tiny pebble that's hurtling through the vastness of space. We don't know where that space ends, how it works, or even much about the other planets in our own solar system, much less those outside of it. Our species is at most 200 000 years old – 0.004% the age of the grain of sand that we live on. There's a good reason that the astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission called their photo of Earth The Blue Marble. We are, as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck.

And yet, on the tiny speck we call home, we draw lines in the sand. We argue about which humans should cross those lines, and we worship the songs and images that we invented to symbolize the area within those lines. It's as ridiculous as two rival bands of chimpanzees fighting over tree territory. A human observer might wonder why they don't instead work together for the sake of their species, blaming their primitivity for their failure to see past their petty differences. Relative to the universe, our fictitious, socially constructed divisions are equally trivial.

So for those who defend shows of affection for their country, let alone those who feel that patriotism should be compulsory, understand this: tribalism is an antiquated sentiment. It served a purpose when human civilizations needed it to help people focus on an immediate and local goal. But now that the human race circumnavigates the globe with ease and regularity, and has its eye on venturing beyond Earth, Cosmopolitanism is the only truly defensible worldview.

Our ancestors believed that they were literally at the center of the universe. Their hubris limited their understanding of the world and of their place in it. Today, shorn of the delusions that afflicted them, we are at a moment in our evolution when we can finally combine humility in the acknowledgment of our relative insignificance with the recognition of our own innovative potential to make more giant leaps forward. Dispensing with tribalism puts us on the path to defeating our own primitivity. Perhaps within the lifetime of my millennial generation we can finally, for the first time in the history of our species, celebrate humanity.