Virtues and vices of patriotism

Here, I take a detour and try to explain what I understand under healthy patriotism and national identity. My perspective is from a small nation’s view and may not be applicable to other countries.

I have never called myself a patriot. My discomfort with the label does not come from the basic idea but with the ways it is expressed. I don’t like pathetic displays of emotion, over-generalizations and over- simplifications. But I do love my country, albeit my love has a more mundane basis. I love the view of the mountains back home, the “mischievous” mountain rivers, the evening wind, the smell of the forests, the little urban gardens, the modesty of ancient monasteries, the food, the water, the various dialects, the poems, the games children play. Most of this is not inherently better than in other countries. But these are the things through which I started experiencing the world, getting fascinated by it.

Me being happy in the mountains (there are higher ones, too)

Then there are the people. Humans like everywhere else in the world. I’ve learned about their pain, about their joy, about their collective dreams and struggles. I’m not idealizing them. Many of them have often frustrated me with their conservative views and ignorant comments. Yet, there were others who have inspired me by their restless enthusiasm to make things better, to give their absolute best despite being underpaid, people who have not given up and have continued to build and create on the ruins of a landlocked post-Soviet country. Of course, there are inspiring people everywhere in the world, but I happen to know the Armenian society the best. I owe my gratitude to many people, whose efforts have directly benefited me.

These people and the admiration for their strength is the reason that the more I grow up, the more I want to shift from the receiving spectrum of the society to the giving one. The many problems that Armenia faces makes me more conscious about this responsibility. There are of course problems in every country, and each society must find a way for a peaceful, productive and prosperous coexistence. However, when you come from a small and struggling country, your perspective is somewhat different.

For instance, I currently live in Germany and I really like this country. It’s my second home. My second home is well built and seems to have some “maintenance” issues only. Even if there are any fundamental problems, I don’t feel competent enough to fully understand, let alone fix them. There are over 80 million people here, everything seems to be well organized. My job is to do my little share, be a law-abiding and productive resident, respect their culture and laws. The German problems seem too small to me. Of course, Germany has legitimate issues but my frame of reference is different. Armenia is a “cozy little cottage” with only few hands to help. The foundation is laid but you need to strengthen the walls, you need to fix the ceiling, you have to renovate and finally, decorate it. I love progress, putting things in order, therefore, I want to be part of this development. I think my love for mountains has largely contributed to the fact that I lean towards moving back to Armenia. I enjoy the mountains when I climb them, not when I am taken to the top by a cable car. There are so many mountains to climb in Armenia, both literally and figuratively.

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This is basically my take on patriotism: maintaining and fostering well-being and humanity, growing personally and professionally by aligning to an entity you understand the best. At the smallest scale it could be the family, then friends, a community you choose to live in, your country. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be engaged in other places if you can afford it. There are also dysfunctional and abusive environments (families, countries) one would rather get away from. Such cases aside, for most people it may be more efficient to invest their skills and limited resources into a place they live in or are most familiar with.

Each country needs some kind of uniting ideology to avoid descending into chaotic anarchy. Some countries are ruled by dictators, who feed their folk by extreme ideologies. This is of course not ideal. Many states though have a moderate approach: France, for example, values cultural traditions instead of common ancestry or race. This makes sense given the colonial past of the country. Similarly, the multicultural USA seems to value individualism, democracy and freedom. Germany has embraced and multiculturalism as well. Multicultural states face challenges such as making sure no ethnicity or religious group is being discriminated. This is not a trivial task given implicit biases all humans host. To counteract these biases, the benefits of diversity seem to be emphasized a lot in the West. However, there is no “one size fits all” solution to how a national identity should be. I think one should look at each country in the context of its neighbors and challenges. Then we might see that different types of states are legitimate (with certain constraints of course), depending on the circumstances, meta-diversity if you wish.

Armenia, for instance, is a largely homogeneous country. However, we are not all nationalist bigots. First of all, the population of Armenia is barely 3 Million people. Next, there is peaceful coexistence with the few minorities that do exist in Armenia. Given the homogeneity of the country, the national identity is largely based on the Armenian ethnicity. It’s not perfect, there are things that many of us misunderstand about history but nothing you cannot fix with a little more effort in education. However, another big aspect of the Armenian identity is the appreciation of possessing statehood after centuries-long oppression by different empires. This second component is what creates harmony between Armenians and ethnic minorities in the country: , , are all people who have suffered oppression and have found a safe harbor in Armenia. The role of a functional state should therefore not be underestimated: as limited as Armenia’s resources are, as flawed as some of the institutions may be, Armenia guarantees the physical security of all these people, their right to practice their culture and religion, to build their homes, to create and develop. These people will not be slaughtered like lambs again, their homes will not be destroyed at whim, they are not going to be arbitrarily used as a bargaining chip between bigger fish.

Of course, sometimes our freedom is assaulted by our expansionist neighbors and we are forced to pay an immensely painful price to maintain what we have created with so much effort. Such expansionist nationalism is what I would call disastrous (apparently the term is jingoism). That kind of patriotism is not directed at building and developing but destroying, murdering, stealing and oppressing. There are wars for territories, there are wars for resources, there are civil wars ruthlessly exploited by foreign powers. But there are also wars that are forced upon people. Wars where even the most peaceful and bright souls go to fight voluntarily. Because they fight for freedom. They fight for the basic rights of their fellow humans. All of the sudden, they become firefighters risking their lives to extinguish the fire of the hateful aggression towards us. I am not glorifying the war. It’s terrible, ugly, inhumane. I wish we never had to go through this. The war is evil but many people who are tangled up in it are not. How do I know? Sadly, I happen to know some of them.

Rest in peace, guys, we can never thank you enough, never repay you. We’ll try to fix this mess. Maybe we’ll fail again. But one day justice will prevail, I’m sure.