For the last month or so, watching the Olympics and thinking more and more about life in a new country, I’ve found myself contemplating loyalty to country and differences between patriotism and nationalism.
When you grow up in America watching the Olympics every four years, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of pride and near jingoistic frenzy of “winning” and seeing your countrymen lauded as “the best in the world”. It’s all too easy to think, “That could be me one day”. Then, as we get older, our heroes are tarnished by claims of doping, cheating, and scandal. But, somehow, when the axe falls it’s always on the individual. As Americans, I think we tend to latch onto whatever bits of victory waft in our direction and inflate them beyond all reason, using them as an excuse to proclaim the greatness of our country. But when greatness eludes us, we rarely take that logical next step and examine our shortcomings.
As an American living in Dublin during this summer’s London Olympics, my loyalties were torn. I found myself rooting for Irish boxing phenom Katie Taylor. It had less to do with Katie than excitement for Ireland itself. In a country that seems to delight in slagging on itself, it was fascinating to watch the excitement build behind this one small woman from a quiet Dublin suburb. But the most curious insight came in the midst of Katie’s gold medal bout. A niggling doubt arose. Rather than being concerned for Katie, I found myself concerned for the Irish psyche. “Oh God, what if she loses? Ireland will be devastated.”
Then, I found myself wondering if my excitement for Katie Taylor, and my concern for Ireland’s fragile psyche, might be some sort of patriotic reflex for my new country. Was I capable of rooting for an Irish athlete without proclaiming Ireland’s overall greatness? Fortunately, I never got the sense that she, her coach/father, or the Irish people were strutting about Irish greatness (except in the ring). The jingoistic reflex seems to be some sort of mass consciousness thing that requirs the input of millions, and the assistance of a complicit media. I just didn’t feel it in the same way as I did in the U.S.
Fortunately, Katie won and my fears never came to pass. But I realized later that, as excited as the Irish all seemed to be, the achievement was Katie’s alone. We were merely proud of her. Katie’s gold was one of just a few medals won by Ireland in the 2012 London Olympics. Each was special and prized, but seemingly not for patriotic/nationalistic reasons.
As I watched the Olympics on the BBC, it struck me that the commentators were decidedly supportive of Great Britain, but their coverage was evenhanded and comprehensive in a way that I had not seen before. At this same time, I received scathing reports (from the States) of NBC’s willfully negligent, and openly partisan coverage. All of this got me thinking about the difference between healthy pride in country, and overzealous promotion of a national agenda.
The Free Miriam-Webster Dictionary (online) defines both patriotism and nationalism as loyalty/love and devotion to a country. But the dictionary goes on to say that nationalism presses the point further by “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups”.
That pretty much sums it up for me. Pride in one’s country is all well and good, but making that pride contingent upon the devaluation of others seems a hollow pursuit. I wasn’t sure how I would feel after the Olympics. I found myself proud to be an American. We, and our country, have done, and continue to do, many good things. Yet I’m happy to be living in Ireland, a country that more and more seems to reflect my values.
While I still have pride in America, it’s been an eye opening experience living in a small, relatively new country that is still coming to terms with its sense of national identity. Ireland is a country with some serious self-esteem and identity issues, but it knows what it’s not. It’s not a superpower, and, as such, doesn’t feel a need to prove itself. There’s a quiet confidence in that.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Seeing the Sights