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  • Writer's pictureCarrick Ryan

The Slippery Slope of Sanctimonious Symbolism

In the Soviet Union, at the height of the enforced collectivisation program that drove a country to near starvation, there was a direct route to the gulag prisons for any person who dared suggest the cause of the famine was in any way due to the government itself.

The accepted thinking was that the institution of the Socialist State was perfect, the leadership was perfect, therefore any failings must be entirely due to saboteurs, attempting to make the state look bad. To criticise the State or the dogmas of Marxism in anyway was unpatriotic, and to be unpatriotic was to be treasonous.

There is good reason for authoritarian states to concern themselves with those that appear insincere in their allegiance. Authoritarian regimes are generally in a state of perpetual defence from external threats. By propagating the fear of an existential threat to the state they not only seduce their citizens into a form of tribalistic support, they legitimise the persecution of any internal elements that threaten the authoritarian power of the state; if you are not with the state, then you are with the enemy.

Even for ‘free’ States during times of war, patriotism has been a legitimate utility to ensure their citizens do not pose a threat to the ideals of the democratic state that were at that time being attacked. If during the World Wars, or even during the Cold War, a man wavered in his enthusiasm for symbols of the State there could be reasonable reservations that perhaps he did so due to an allegiance to another State or another system of governance.

But whilst times of great national peril gave cause to examine those that did not appear sufficiently patriotic, what about during times of peace? Does the state that is not facing an existential threat have reason to fear those that appear not to satisfy the required displays of allegiance to the state?

The flag is a relic of nationalism, a sanctimonious symbol of the nation state. However, choosing to disrespect a symbol has no actual tangible bearing on anyone, not even the State. The notion that a lack of patriotic fervour presents an existential threat to the state is the utility of authoritarianism, not a free society that must allow open criticism of state institutions to maintain its status as a democracy.

Unlike during times of war, there is no genuine concern that black athletes kneeling during an anthem do so due to a subversive allegiance to a foreign entity. They are unhappy with a manifestation of a state institution certainly, but there is a difference between not sufficiently honouring the state and actively standing against it.

The bedrock of a liberal democratic society is open criticism, peaceful protest, and the freedom to discuss dangerous ideas. It is healthy and normal to love one’s country. However demanding reverence to symbols of the country is a dangerous submission to dogma.

The attempt to attach a tangible meaning to symbols, such as implying that soldiers have died for a flag, is ultimately a recognition that the symbol in itself has no intrinsic meaning. It is a retrospective attempt to legitimise their trained outrage over the disrespect of a piece of fabric.

But the idea that soldiers have in any way chosen to die for a symbol is an entirely immature and ignorant notion. Throughout history we have seen men and women lay down their lives for ideals, for the advancement of ideologies, and for a multitude of a causes. The only people that held any symbol above the sanctity of life however, are those that attach upon those symbols supernatural meaning, namely religions.

There is no requirement that we agree with the cause of a protest for that protest to be legitimate. Any person has been afforded the exact same rights to counter protest, openly criticise, or simply ignore. However suggesting anything should by immune from critical thought, let alone a symbol, must remain purely the domain of authoritarian states and theocracies.

Patriotism is not necessarily a harmful idea. Tribalism is a natural human condition and serves a number of useful purposes. However the moment that Patriotism attains a level of sanctity beyond any critical justification it becomes a dangerous implement of oppression.

The Soviet Union made the doctrines of Marxism unimpeachable. The Islamic State preserved even just the image of their prophet (let alone his words). The Nazis elevated their Fuhrer to a status of infallibility. By making a flag and its associated pageantry sanctimonious a State takes an irreversible step away from the inalienable tenets of free thought and towards a society that values dogma over humanity. It is a step every nation should refrain from taking.

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