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It’s that moment in the international sporting calendar when hundreds of millions, if not billions of people around the world remember that they have a nationality, and that they are in a kind of war with people of different nationalities. I’m referring to the World Cup currently taking place in Brazil, but I could be talking about the Olympics or any other international sporting festival. Every day browsing Facebook becomes an endless source of amusement as sensible friends from around the world post messages about who they are supporting in the football.
What are the symptoms of this armchair nationalism?
Well suddenly, a mass hysteria starts to grip people with an excessive identification with one’s country and the other people who also come from there. For months, or even years, rational people keep the idea of their nationality in a certain proportion, but suddenly when the football starts people start hanging flags out of their windows, wearing shirts the same as the players and even painting their faces with the colours of the national flag. This even happens amongst social activists who really ought to know better: I include myself in this category.
And this is bizarre, because within the country itself most people dislike one another! When I lived in the UK, I shared virtually nothing in common with any of the other people born there except for a language and a sense of humour. Yet come the Olympics, I was crying when someone I didn’t know won a medal for my country. I screamed with delight as a runner I never met, who himself was born in Somalia but represents the UK, sprints to double gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. I burst with pride as London organised the best two-week sporting festival the world had ever seen. (Do you see how I can get carried away in the hyperbole?)
Why does this happen?
I think it’s important to try to understand the mechanism that is being triggered because with a crowd surrounding a football pitch, or watching on TV, it may appear harmless, but it isn’t too many steps from a theatre of sport to a theatre of war. (As if to underscore the point, at this very moment, Wayne Rooney scores against Uruguay and a big smile spreads across my face and I spontaneously applaud).
Since birth we are indoctrinated in our countries with patriotism. We are taught to identify with the national anthem, in some countries people stand up or put their hand on their heart. We are taught in schools about the “heroes” who came from our countries and the great contributions that our country has made to the world. I’m sure if you ask any young child at school which is the best country in the world, they would reply with the name of their own country.
Each country has an educational curriculum that reinforces this perception. I remember vividly the weeks I spent at the age of 10 learning how the United Kingdom single-handedly won the Second World War with a little bit of help from the USA at the end. It was years later when I learned about the role of the Soviet Union.
And of course there is the media which propagates the nationalist message. State-funded media organisations, such as the BBC in the UK are obliged to do so, because the state pays for it and the vast majority of private media firms are in the hands of the conservative right wing who love nothing more than to promote a nationalist agenda. The left also have in their history where the State, rather than labour, was the central value.
This nationalism, of course, is all to the benefit of politicians whose very existence in Parliament relies on how much they represent the national dreams of the population: the dreams that the politicians have placed in our brains through our selected education programme.
Surely it’s only a bit of fun on a football field?
Well, no, it isn’t, is it? Because it is this same nationalism that leads young men and women, mostly from socially-deprived backgrounds, to sign-up for the armed forces. It is this “patriotic pride” which allows our politicians to send our young people into war-zones and risk their lives for “queen and country” or whatever the slogan is in other countries.
Without this identification of “our nation” at war with another nation, no one would leave their house to fight in a country thousands of miles away.
We’re seeing it again today in the media, “Isis terrorists are planning attacks in Britain,” says David Cameron according to the UK Telegraph newspaper. This is the same line that was spun by Tony Blair when he told the UK House of Commons that Iraq could launch a weapon of mass destruction within 45 minutes that would reach the UK.
The UK Prime Minister is deliberately fuelling a national sentiment, making people feel scared in their own homes, so that he can later play the role of the war-time hero as he sends troops once more into the hell-hole that Iraq has become since the war against Saddam Hussein. [It’s not that it was a paradise with Saddam, you understand, but it wasn’t like it is now.]
War is impossible unless there are sufficient numbers of people who identify strongly enough with their nation so that they can be convinced to risk their lives to “save” it.
How do we move beyond this narrow nationalism?
First of all we have to recognise the manipulation to which we have been subjected since our early infancy and when we’ve done that we need to start to agree upon what are the values that we want to project into the future. What are the useful values that benefit life, that benefit human beings – all of us, regardless of the accidental location of our birth?
We are talking here about the values of a Universal Human Nation, because surely, without question every human being is searching for elements such as happiness, peaceful existence, the best possible health and education services, security in their old age, for food, water and energy to power their homes, for rewarding friendships and personal relationships with other human beings that bring joy and pleasure and even love, for the possibility to make a project with someone else or alone to raise children.
These are the values that unite us and surely they are better than the empires, kingdoms and myths of the past that are used in the present to manipulate the naïve into going to war?
So next time you’re sitting in your armchair getting emotional about a sporting competition, remember that just because those people in that team come from the same geographical area, it doesn’t mean that they represent you any more than you represent them.
When you start to get emotional when your national anthem starts to play, remember that that reaction was conditioned into you as a child when you had no possibility to choose the information fed into your brain.
And finally, when your team fails once more to win the world cup, just remember that your country’s politicians have missed out on a fantastic opportunity to make you forget about the dreadful state of your personal economic situation, and hopefully you can go back renewed to the social activism that you were pursuing before the armchair nationalism virus took control of your ability to think rationally.