How Much Patriotism is Too Much?

During our trip to Johannesburg, we had the opportunity to meet with Allister Sparks, a prominent journalist and author who has actively spoken out against apartheid throughout his career. Although many have contrasting views about him today (mainly that he is too conservative), many of his arguments bring to light interesting comparisons. The main thing I took away from our discussion was that the ideology and motivation behind apartheid are not unique to South Africa, but are present throughout the world. He discussed the similarities between the apartheid regime and other cases of institutionalized discrimination based on race. I found this argument to be unique because we often discuss apartheid as being a thing of the past, when examples of the same type of blatant racism are present in modern societies all over the world today. This made me realize how we tend to forget about current struggles for equality when discussing past issues, and how ironic and even harmful that can be.

One of the particularly striking comments Sparks made was that “Patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.” Although this comment was clearly meant to make us think and trigger a controversial conversation, I do believe that it underlines a very important argument about the potential negative impact of excessive nationalistic sentiment. Intense national sentiment often emerges from hardship or oppression of a certain group or minority. This national sentiment can drive populations to then attempt to secure their power and position within society once they have overcome oppression. Many times they even end up reproducing behaviors that were inflicted upon them to be able to maintain a new position of superiority. The memories of past hardship become a motivator to assert their particular national identity. However, differing populations are therefore seen as a threat to this particular group. This leads to racism and oppression, which enables the group to maintain a higher position within society and ensure that they are not subject to the difficulties they faced in the past.

In South Africa, this narrative played out within the Afrikaner population. The Afrikaners felt that they needed to assert their national identity in the face of the English, who were imposing their authority in a land they had inhabited since the 1600s. This led to a series of violent conflicts that further reinforced Afrikaner national sentiment. Even though they were a minority, they were able to rise to power in 1948 in part thanks to this nationalism. The National Party (NP) then instated apartheid, which strengthened the position of Afrikaner culture against increased urbanization.

Another example Sparks used was that of Palestine. I think this example is particularly interesting in that many Americans are not used to hearing a different side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He hinted that the Israeli population could be seen as a previously persecuted group of people that was maintaining their position and national sentiment by oppressing the Palestinian minority.

Even though I am aware of the simplistic nature of this analysis, I do find this trend to be interesting and worth noting. Even though comparison is often a useful tool in arriving to a deeper understanding of an issue, the struggles of populations are still extremely complex. These comparisons have made me aware of the importance of history and of looking back to learn from the past.

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