CJ Werleman argues that those flocking to beaches at the weekend and flouting social distancing measures to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak cannot be called patriotic.
Beyond the economic and social destruction the Coronavirus crisis has so far left in its wake, it has also provided us with an all-too-rare opportunity to confront the mythologies we have internalised in the name of nationhood. One of these is the vapidity of flag-waving forms of patriotism.
Patriotism is premised on the idea of an ‘imagined community’, the notion on which all nations are formed in our minds. A country is able to mitigate and defeat foreign threats because each of its members feels a sense of attachment to the homeland and an alliance with fellow citizens.
Footage showing tens of thousands of Australians crammed together on beaches in Australia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and California over the weekend – in defiance of their respective Government pleas to stay at home to help constrain the spread of the virus or “flatten the curve” – has revealed just how vacuous theatrical forms of patriotism can be.
It is hard to believe anything but an overwhelming majority of these people are enthusiastic participants in acts of performative patriotism. But no true patriot would ever risk the lives of his fellow countrymen in exchange for a couple hours of sun at the beach, beers at the pub, or a dance at a nightclub.
Patriots make sacrifices for the country on behalf of their fellow citizens, with some making the ultimate sacrifice – such as those who gave their lives to defeating an imperialistic Kaiser Wilhelm and Nazism on European soil. Patriots don’t knowingly and willingly help spread a highly contagious and life-threatening virus.
“It is something beyond selfish behaviour,” a Rome-based Italian friend said in response to a photo I sent him showing thousands of beach-goers on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. “It’s utter contempt for your fellow countrymen. I wish they could see what’s happening here,” he said. It should be noted that Italian authorities blamed the rapid spread of the Coronavirus on the public’s stubborn refusal to heed recommendations to self-isolate and practice social distancing.
Certainly, we haven’t always been this way. The histories of our greatest struggles are bookmarked with iconic phrases such as “we shall overcome”, “we shall never surrender” and “don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. These words galvanised a collective will in the name of patriotic duty.
“When you get an existential crisis like this, you have an effect called ‘rally around the flag’,” Ian McAllister, a professor at the Australian National University, told The Age. “We saw it after September 11, we saw it in the Bali bombings. People support the Government and the Government is seen to be in charge and they’re looking after everything.”
A number of events have eroded public trust in Western governments since the 9/11 attacks, including the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the response to the 2008 financial crash. This decline in trust has coincided with a decline in real patriotism and rise of theatrical patriotic fervour – or it’s more sinister cousin, ultra-nationalism.
Whereas patriotism was defined by deeds in the past, it is now driven by a cultish allegiance to songs, flags, symbols, mythologies and empty-headed and often-militaristic slogans. Such theatrics were utilised with deadly affect during the rise of Nazi Germany and US President Donald Trump and right-wing political parties everywhere have revitalized them more recently.
“One of Trump’s most effective strategies has been to harness the power of this misappropriation, this tendency to conflate mindless jingoism with genuine conviction, to equate practices like belting out the anthem with living out its ideals,” observes philosopher and writer Avi Bueno. “He bottles and sells this shallow patriotism at every rally and with every tweet.”
Trump’s most solemn duty as commander-in-chief is to protect American citizens from foreign and domestic threats, but his initial response to the Coronavirus was to downplay it out of a misguided belief that doing so would benefit him politically. His disinformation stymied efforts by government health officials to encourage self-isolation and social distancing at the most critical time, which has exacerbated the speed and deadliness of the contagion in the US.
While it might not feel like you’re fighting a war defending your country from a foreign threat by sitting on your sofa and watching Netflix, you are most definitely carrying out a selfless act, one that has a real potential to protect your fellow citizens from suffering and harm – and there’s nothing more patriotic than that.