You only got one mama
You only got one pa
You only got one life to live
No matter who you are
You can go the whole world over
Every city has its dawn
But everybody liveth has one place where he was born
And mine is Kenya, so warm and wild and free
You’ll always stay with me here in my heart
My land is Kenya, right from your highlands to the sea
You’ll always stay with me here in my heart, here in my heart.
Good for Roger Whittaker, who sang this song. It is normally used to whip up a nationalistic feeling in people whenever there is a public holiday, say Jamhuri or Madaraka Day. Eric Wainaina’s Daima Kenya is also used in the same way, played on radio and television to the point of exhaustion on holidays that are supposed to mean something to Kenyans, but just end up being extra days on which we can sleep in. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful songs. I just don’t identify with the feeling they try to inspire.
Patriotism has been defined as the love for, or devotion to, one’s homeland (country) or ancestry. A patriot is thought of as a person who would sacrifice their own interests for the interests and well-being of their country. In the 1700s, when the word was originated, a patriot was one who stood up against the King and his men to defend the rights of his country and “land.” In current conventional thinking, a patriot puts his country first, especially when it is “up against” another country. Great thinkers have also chimed in and given their definitions of patriotism:
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Samuel Johnson
“Patriotism is the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers.” Leo Tolstoy
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” Oscar Wilde
“Patriotism is a superstition, one far more injurious, brutal and inhumane than religion… It is artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods. It is a superstition that has robbed man of his dignity, self-respect and increased his arrogance and conceit.” Gustave Herve
Perhaps the best definition comes from Emma Goldman:
“Indeed, conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves nobler, better, grander, more intelligent than those living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.
This is easily illustrated by the precarious situation we find our world in today. Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists are thought to have shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in a territory which they control, leading to the death of 257 people who were on-board (41 people were still unconfirmed as dead or alive at the time of writing this essay). The cause? The rebels thought it was a Ukrainian government plane, since on the radar it looked similar to the Antonov AN 26 planes used by the Ukrainian Air Force. They had even brought one down on July 17th. 257 people died by mistake as rebels fought to protect the land that they love so much. This may also put Malaysian Airlines out of business, but no matter, all’s fair when protecting one’s country, right?
In the Middle East, Israel and the Hamas, who claim to represent Palestinians, are at war over the control of Gaza. The Palestinian death toll is up to 500 people (almost 100 being children) in the two weeks the fighting has been happening, while Israel has lost at least 20 people. This is a battle over the control of the Gaza strip, with each side feeling entitled to the land, Palestinians suffering genocide, and Israelis fearing that should they “allow” Palestine to be a nation, they would proceed to be wiped out. Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches, mostly shocked and clueless, while human beings are slaughtered in the bid to control a piece of land.
In Kenya, we have suffered terrorist attacks severally in the past two years (we have covered them on this site here, here, here and here). Our recent attempts to solve this have included spying on our neighbours, and outright discrimination against Kenyans of Somali origin, going as far as arresting them and putting them into a concentration camp. We were so quick to create an “us-vs-them” situation, with some Kenyans even alighting matatus when Somalis boarded. I wonder if those were little acts of patriotism in defence of our great motherland.
When Kenyans were killed in Mpeketoni, the fingers pointed directly at Al Shabaab (though Uhuru Kenyatta made a vehement statement that opposition leaders were behind it). Already, tribal rhetoric was being spewed, and people from opposition strongholds had been threatened with evacuation from some areas, only for it to be found out that the leader and mastermind of the cell that is terrorizing Kenyans at the Coast may be Idris Kamau. Not only is he not Somali, he also hails from the President’s tribe. The very definition of an enemy within. We continue to await the President’s statement on this.
It may be argued that these are extreme examples of patriotism gone wrong. That there is good patriotism and bad patriotism. Of course, there are good examples of patriotism. Whenever a Kenyan wins at an athletic event, we feel a burning pride. We are proud to be associated with them, because we share a homeland. However, politically speaking, such patriotism is inconsequential.
When we look at the relations between power and the state in our world today, “good patriotism” pales in comparison to “bad patriotism”, or nationalism. This powerful sentiment we feel seems like nothing when compared with the thirst to retain and expand power and territory. The threat of massive force cannot be used to subdue the people in many democracies. However, the stimulation of nationalistic loyalty, or patriotism, can. Icons are created to inspire patriotic sentiments, ensuring the ruling class does not even have to exert itself to maintain the status quo. They just need to master their propaganda. Think of Uhuru Kenyatta’s advertisement to end terrorism.
The icons inspire such blind and unthinking loyalty, and are so powerful, that anyone who dares to even think about questioning them is instantly castigated as being unpatriotic. Some may even go as far as labelling such people “terrorist sympathizers” and sellouts. Such icons include the national flag, the national anthem, the Armed Forces, the coat of arms, monuments in honour of national heroes among others.
When we look critically at these icons, what do we see? A printed cloth, a song, men and women in uniform, a fancy drawing and statues. However, the connotation behind them is heavy. When the state commits an offence, perhaps war crimes against other states, the national flag is brought out and the citizens of said state are told that it was done to defend their country, their honour and, by extension, their lives. This is meant to end all questioning and critical thinking about the matter at hand. Meanwhile, our ruling class can continue to commit its offences. What of when these offences are committed within national borders? Our other favourite icon, the Armed Forces, rears its head. We are suddenly required to rally behind our troops without questions, since they are out there taking the fall for us, especially the army. All of a sudden, the armed forces can impose shoot to kill orders, arbitrary curfews and ask the people to remove tint from their cars, and anyone who does not comply is obviously a terrorist. But what are the armed forces, if not scarecrows to scare away birds from our proverbial farm? They are shrouded in so much mystery and awe, almost worship, such that many are not able to see them for what they are: protectors of wealth, not of the people. What a convenient way to deflect criticism and inspire unwavering obedience to the ruling elite.
Even when we accept that our nation may be wrong, we somehow feel bound to support it. “My country, right or wrong”, many seem to say. Bound by what, though? The fact that we were born on this demarcated piece of land, when we could just have easily been born on another? We could easily have been Ugandan, Tanzanian, Somali, South Sudanese or Ethiopian. Instead, by some accident of nature, we were born here. Why don’t we ever pause to think that maybe, just maybe, the other side we are up against has valid reasons for pushing back against us? Is it because the implication is that we are letting our country down? Do we forget that governments are two-faced, like coins? Protecting your freedom while also being corrupt? Protecting your sovereignty while inspiring mass hysteria? Oppressing you every chance they get while accusing terrorists and other bogeymen of oppressing them?
The ardour inspired by patriotism is perhaps only second to that of religion: dressed in several metres of dogma, stealing from usually sound people the ability to think and question, making them easily manipulated by the ruling class, making them fight against their own interests and instead, for the interests of the elite, all the while not seeing what is happening. Patriotism is like a strong drug.
Centuries of patriotism (and a few other phenomena) have led us to this point we are in the world, a place where there is constant conflict between and within nations. It is naive to stop and ask “What happened?” because “it” has been happening for a long time now. We have been fighting for our hallowed motherlands for as far as human history can be recalled. Since the time of the cavemen, when man realized he fared better in the company of other cavemen (he had higher chances of surviving the harsh climate/terrain and animals in the wild when others supported him) than alone, man has needed to belong to a group. This is perfectly understandable. However, much carnage has been caused by this line of thinking we insist on carrying forward into modern times.
What is the solution? How about a patriotism that goes beyond borders? One that prizes human beings and human lives/well-being above land and capital? Is there a name for such a patriotism? Indeed there is: humanity.
How about we allow the concept of patriotism to evolve, as the world has evolved into a global village? Globalization will soon render national boundaries useless, and we seem unwilling to enter this era. We must no longer justify death and destruction using this “us-vs-them” mentality. We must no longer celebrate as the rights and freedoms of others are violated in our name. Countries are not people, that you should love them unconditionally. Let us instead love our fellow mankind, and stand up for them. Once we uphold human life and human dignity above all other things, only then will we know true peace.
“You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”
George Bernard Shaw