June 11, 2001
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Last year, round about his birthday, my father wrote me a letter. He has never written a letter that made for boring reading, or that was ONLY an account of some event which he happened to witness or participate in he was always one for observing, commenting, writing what were essentially little personal essays. If he were a great writer or a philosopher or a head of state his collected correspondence would probably be snapped up and published by some enterprising editor, and he would become as quotable and well known as Churchill once was.
But he is not famous, and his letters will remain mostly private treasures. Except when, as now, they move me to thinking and pondering on something.
This is what he wrote to me:
Some thoughts on the occasion of a birthday in the twilight of my life:I was brought up in the context of that love, that belonging. I have written about it and spoken about it, and it has been a part of my being and my personal philosophy for all the years of my conscious and sentient life. In the generation before my father's, my poet grandfather's firm ideals made the wounds inflicted when people or concepts he believed infallible failed in some way to measure up to his high regard deep and scarring ones but the one thing he passed on to me was that sometimes the faith was worth the pain. He bore his wounds with pride and passion, and although he had a dark streak in him which made him brood on the fact that the younger generations he was a schoolteacher for 40 years were being brought up without any enduring faith or ideals of their own, he never lapsed into outright cynicism. Out of these two forges fires full of faith, love for the people and the places that brought me into being, respect for the past, awe for the future I emerged to ponder my own way through life's maze. My two guardian angels, Dad and Grandpa, meld in this particular pondering, blending Dad's idea and Grandpa's meticulous devotion to the fine meaning of words.
What IS patriotism? Is the "my country, right or wrong" firebrand kind of patriotism the kind that is the last refuge of the scoundrel, of which the saying quoted above speaks? If so, I am not a patriot not under that definition. I do not believe in a God-given right of any one nation to rule another. I also do not believe that a minority living in any given nation has the right to demand to take over that nation when their numbers increase to the point where they think they can do what they like, or their power in that nation's governing circles allows them to think they can do what they like. I do not believe in any kind of rationalization on those grounds.
I think, for example, that the idea that some inner London schools, as the news headlines would have it, now require that all pupils take Hindustani as a prerequisite for attending the school is a ludicrous one; the people who insist on enforcing it would be the first to yell, loudly, if the Hindus were forced to go to midnight Mass for Christmas, whining about cultural sabotage. Which it would be, of course. I believe that keeping one's children aware of the language and the culture into which they had been born is an important, an essential, thing - without those roots those children would be the poorer. But keeping your own culture and traditions does NOT mean it is permissible to demand that others keep them, or else. Cockney kids of inner London have no reason to learn Hindustani in a land whose only connection with India these days is a large immigrant population and a fast-fading memory of imperial grandeur. In fact, if ever there was a justification for Englishmen learning Hindustani in their schoolrooms, it was at that time, while the Sun was busily Not Setting over the British Empire and when it would have been useful and enlightening for the British to be able to communicate clearly with the people in that huge, exotic country which they annexed and treated like their back yard for so many years. But, paradoxically, that was the time when the British would have turned up their noses the most at such a suggestion. Learn the language of a conquered nation? What an idea! (Some did, of course, and they are legend - but they were few, and they were the maverick rather than the rule.)
Does patriotism mean agreeing blindly with what your country is doing right now? Does it mean justifying everything it has ever done in the past? If so, what happens if the past involved some deeply divisive civil war or internal conflict which divided the nation - if you are patriotic, which side do you go into the future justifying? The one that won?
What if the South had won the civil war? Would we still be owning slaves today?
Should the American South, for that matter, be held up as the epitome of slave owning when it is historical fact that human beings were owned by other human beings way back in the mists of time, way back to ancient Egypt and beyond? How far into the future does the responsibility extend to the South having been a slave-owning culture in the first place? Along those lines, shouldn't the Egyptians still be paying reparations to the Israelites?
I think that the word "patriotism," like many other words in the modern spoken language, has mutated and changed until it no longer means what it originally did or, at best, it has gained a strange chameleonic property of meaning different things to different people. There are those who could justify an unjustifiable war on the grounds that it was "patriotic;" there are those, people with a simple dualistic "with us or against us" kind of thinking, who would accuse you of being "non-patriotic" if you raised your voice against such a war. And yet, there are many ways of loving your country and being loyal to your people.
As my father says, it's a matter of conscience. Conscience, and consciousness. Being patriotic means being able to take pride in the place you belong, not just being proud of the fact that you belong to it. Saying "I am Irish" does not immediately provide you with an excuse to plant a bomb in some peaceful city street, under the auspices of the IRA; saying "I am American" does not immediately make you immune from censure by any other nation. There is no such thing as my country, right or wrong. There is conscience, and consciousness. It is a proud and human thing to love the place where one was born. The hard part is remembering that other people were born in different places, and that they have every right to love and be proud of those in their own right. Patriotism does not mean a sense of cultural superiority over another, or a perennial expiation of some ancestral guilt by spending years, decades and centuries 'paying back' old debts which you had no hand in incurring.
Love your people, be proud of your country, and respect others' right to do the same.
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her next novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, is due out in September 2001 with Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
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Related Internal Links
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
This Week's Internal Links
Amnesty International and Yugoslavia: Duped or Accomplice? - by Philip Greenspan
This Round's On You, Again - by Michael W. Stowell
Break Out - by Milo Clark
Total Control Corp - by David Deckert
Sweet Cherry Wine - by Sandy Lulay
Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans
They Change Their Sky (May 2001)
Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)
Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)
On the Anniversary (September 2000)
Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)