But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.
Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians
In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty. In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?
The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..
In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:
Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm, Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand
What is Shelley saying? He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:
And shall no patriot tear the veil away Which hides these vices from the face of day?
I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.
…..But Was it Enough?
Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue. This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action. It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.
Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…
John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)
Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionaryI find particularly useful:
…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.
From Milton to Shelley….
Some writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:
I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..
Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)
Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later. Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post. Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant. II started with England in 1819a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.
Some time ago I came across a wonderful definition of patriotism which defined it as a vibrant celebration of community. I must confess that I cannot recall just who said it; I’m pretty sure he was a poet and if anyone out there is reading this post and can remind ne I’d be very grateful.! I like this definition for many reasons. Firstly it is scalable. Your community can be a tower block or a village, a town, city, region, nation, continent or even conceivably the whole world. Furthermore, this idea of celebrating your community is not exceptional and does not prevent an understanding that other people have a right to celebrate their community. Strong confident communities are less prey to the fears and inadequacies which breeds intolerance These features also make it an inclusive concept as opposed to many ideas of nationalism which so often cast it in an exclusive light, where by necessity a clear distinction is made between one group and another.
But this definition also implies a measure of responsibility, a fact pointed out by one of our great poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (no surprise for my blog followers!). In his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (for more details see myOpenDemocracy article) Shelley uses the words “patriot” and “patriotism” three times. Each time he makes it clear that the duty of a patriot is to attempt to shine a light on the corruption and secrecy that bedevils parts of our society. For example, speaking of Government he says:
And shall no patriot tear the veil away Which hides these vices from the face of day?
This idea of patriotism is closely related to the idea of English lexicographer and author Julian Barnes who adds a dash of justice and wisdom to Shelley’s sense of virtue.
The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.
This harks back to the first definition since strong communities are open and just communities. As a republican I am used to being labelled unpatriotic, as someone who hates Britain or is at best naïve and idiotic. But my sense of patriotism makes me deeply concerned about growing inequality which may fatally weaken our society, along with a ramshackle constitution which endangers all of us whether we realise it or not.
Definitions of patriotism have changed over the centuries, most being evolutions of its root as the middle French word for a countryman. On very many occasions it has been used as a synonyms for nationalism or, worse, jingoism. But I think the spirit is very different and expresses something valuable.
Fiercely contested court cases, attacks on the judiciary, personal abuse and subversion of Parliament. Sounds like 2016, but this was over 200 years ago in 1811. At the centre of it was Irish journalist Peter Finnerty. Almost unknown today, Finnerty was the beneficiary of one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great early works Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (you can read more about the radicalism of Shelley’s Poetical Essay here), but his influence at the time was far greater. Finnerty possessed a keen perception of how state institutions could be utilized to gain public attention and saw many opportunities for advancing his radical ideas in novel ways, some of which are applicable today.
Born sometime between 1766 and 1778 (sources vary) in Lochrea, Ireland, Finnerty became a printer in Dublin and published The Press, a nationalist paper founded 1797 by Arthur O’Connor. That same year the British government prosecuted The Press and Finnerty was tried for seditious libel following strong criticism of the judges who sentenced United Irishman William Orr to death along with Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who turned down an appeal for clemency. Finnerty was tried in early 1798 and sentenced to two years imprisonment and time in the pillory. On his release, Finnerty moved to London and worked as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle newspaper while engaging in radical activism. This included the Robin Hood Society, notorious amongst establishment figures for, amongst other things, actively campaigning against the George III Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1809. In 1811 Finnerty was again sentenced to prison, this time receiving eighteen months for libeling Minister of War Lord Castlereagh during a highly critical report on British military command during the 1809 Walcheren campaign against Napoleon. Incredibly, Finnerty used the imprisonment to keep the issue of Castlereagh in the public spotlight and repeated the libel on a number of occasions. In 1811 jail was a tough place and inmates had to provide for themselves. As a result, Finnerty’s friends and associates organized events to raise money for his maintenance inside jail with Shelley’s contribution being the proceeds from his poem Poetical Essay.
Finnerty is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly he was one of the first activists to use journalism as a method of developing and promoting a radical political platform. Secondly. Finnerty missed no opportunity in trying to destabilize government by petitioning Parliament on all kinds of issues including the conditions of his imprisonment. Thirdly his use of court cases, even ones he lost, as a means of keeping issues in the public gaze was masterly.
Finnerty was a thorn in the side of Government using investigative journalism to cast doubt on the veracity of Governments officials and even witnesses in trials. Finnerty’s aim was the emancipation of the Irish people and the promotion of a mainland radical and republican agenda and the techniques he used can still be deployed today. But they are as equally available to reactionary and oppressive forces as to progessive ones. We need only look at the virulent attacks on the High Court and Supreme Court judges by the Daily Mail which briefly included drawing attention to the fact that one of them was a gay Olympic Fencer! These disgusting and scurrilous articles are serving the aims of an oppressive oligarchy which are very different from those of Peter Finnerty