By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 1, 2022

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!”

My mother would often quote those lines – although, ironically, I am not sure now just which “native land” she could have been referring to. The lines are part of a much longer poem by Sir Walter Scott (1781-1832), who actually was a Scot, and who was writing here, very passionately, about his own native land. But for my mother herself, her native land was Canada. She was born and grew up in Toronto, but her parents had emigrated from England. On a visit back there, she met and eventually married my father, who was a British Civil Servant, which I suppose made her legally British. They settled in London, where I was born in 1933, so that makes me British.

I don’t know if your “native land” has to be the place where you were born, or the one that you feel most kinship with, or most loyalty to. My whole family, on both sides, was Jewish – and, while Israel did not become a State until 1948, Jews, although scattered all over the world, have always had a special feeling about that Middle East region. At the conclusion of the Passover Seder, there has traditionally always been a sort of toast expressing the hope: “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

But is that what “patriotism” is all about? What about “nationalism”? What makes a nation? It’s not necessarily Geography, and certainly not language or border-lines, although those factors can enter into it. The best answer I have heard was given by one of my History Professors at the University of London, who happened to be Dutch – and I remember that, accompanying the verbal definition, he would make expressive hand motions. His view was that a nation was a people, who had two strong feelings – that they belonged together, and that they were significantly different from other peoples.

But I have also used the word “State,” in referring to Israel. What is a state, and is it something about which we can be patriotic? I live in a State (called California) which is just one of a large group (this one, of 50) called a Federation. They claim to be “United,” – in fact, that is part of their group name – yet each one has its own Secretary of State, and the Federation, as a whole, has one too. You can live in this federal community without being a full-fledged member of it. The distinction is called “citizenship,” and only citizens have the right to vote. 

Then there’s the concept of “Country.” The term “My Country” seems to have more emotional power than “My Land,” “Nation,” or “State.” One major factor historically has been the condition called “War.” When it comes to actual conflict, people seem to prefer the idea that they are fighting for their Country, rather than for any other of those other terms. But it is political entities like States which have traditionally assumed the power to declare war on each other. However, the declaring of war seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years – which also makes it more difficult to establish just when the “war” is over, and a condition of “peace” prevails.

And there are symbols associated with patriotism. Of these, the most powerful is some kind of emblem-bearing banner, called a “flag.” And for each group with a particular sense of allegiance, it is not just “a” flag, but “our” flag, or, even more poignantly, “the” flag. The “national anthem” where I live, is all about a flag in peril, and the importance of its remaining aloft and visible.

So we come back to the idea of being a Patriot. The word itself derives from the Latin for “father” – hence “Fatherland,” which seems to be more acceptable to Germans, while “Motherland,” for some reason, appeals more to Russians. But I hope I’ve now made it clear just how complicated it can be to decide where, and to what or whom, your loyalties lie. I haven’t even mentioned “home” and “family” although these are probably at the back of anybody’s patriotic thoughts.

My own thoughts on this subject, as you might expect, have tended to be on the cynical side. But here, for what they’re worth, are two of my epigrammatic offerings:

“If only it were always my patriotic duty to have unlimited pleasure.”
“The national flag always makes an excellent blindfold.”  


You might also be interested in...