As 2016 stumbles to an end, we look back on an eventful and tumultuous year, where the much-discussed rise in nationalistic rhetoric this year has gone hand in hand with expressions of patriotism – some hopeful, some discouraging. From armed standoffs to mango boycotts, National Questions takes a look back at 2016.
The year began dramatically on the snowy plains of Oregon, northwest USA, where an armed militia of several dozen occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for over a month. Protesting for the control of federal land to be ceded to local ranchers, the heavily armed men described themselves as patriots in the spirit of American individualism, decorating the entrance of the refuge with a US flag and copy of the constitution. Supporters of the protesters – who were later charged with conspiracy – agreed, bringing their own flags and copies of the constitution to demonstrations.
“We have no national idea besides patriotism,” declares Russian president Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Leaders’ Club, an organisation of Russian entrepreneurs. Russia has been ramping up national rhetoric since 2005, when it announced its first State Programme for the Patriotic Education of Citizens. Moscow maintains that it is a drive to make patriotism the ‘spiritual backbone’ of the country and its citizens; critics suggest it is nothing more than a diversion from Russia’s ailing economy. Either way, state reinforcement looks set to continue: “we need to talk about it constantly, at all levels,” adds Putin.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump (remember when he was only that?) explains the violence that has accompanied some of his rallies as an expression of patriotism. “There is some anger,” he admitted, acknowledging that “we have some protesters who are bad dudes.” However, “there’s also great love of country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects.” Expect many more bad dudes and beautiful things in 2017 as Trump’s nationalistic presidency begins.
Worried about ‘depleting sentiments for the country,’ the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or ‘National Patriotic Organisation’) begins Sunday schools across India, teaching children about ‘dharma, patriotism and friendship.’ “Our youth need to have pride in our culture to become self-respecting and loving of our motherland,” explained the RSS. Those at the receiving end of its vicious and occasionally violent attacks – Christians, Muslims and secularists alike – may disagree.
Zimbabwean children as young as four will now be required to recite a national pledge of allegiance. The new pledge encourages children to take pride in ‘the richness of our natural resources’ and ‘our vibrant traditions and cultures.’ Conspicuously absent is any mention of political freedom, which continues to struggle against President Robert Mugabe’s interminable regime. Joining that struggle this month is Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mwarire, launching the #ThisFlag movement, which uses patriotic language and imagery to protest rising unemployment, longstanding corruption and the spiralling cash crisis.
The UK votes by a margin of four percent to leave the European Union. Patriotic rhetoric in both Leave and Remain camps has been building for months, though Leave are considered to have tapped the sentiment more successfully with calls to ‘take back control’ and for a British ‘independence day.’ The shock result spurs the left-leaning Labour party to take a more patriotic stance, with even their cosmopolitan leader Jeremy Corbyn declaring his love for the country at a conference speech later in the year.
In a case brought by the Philippines, The Hague rules that China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea does not have a legal basis. In retaliation, some Chinese – who have been at the receiving end of nationalist propaganda for years – propose a boycott of ‘dried mango snacks,’ a significant Filipino export. This is not the first time fruit has been politicised in China: when the country faced a surfeit of peaches in the mid-60s, eating peaches was promoted as a patriotic act.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party organises a week-long ‘flag march’ to celebrate the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. As reported in The Indian Express, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his MPs the curiously specific instruction to carry ‘eight foot long flags on bikes’ in an attempt to ‘evoke sentiments of patriotism and nationalism.’ We could have devoted every month of the year to the BJP’s patriotic antics – by August 2016 alone, the party had passed a resolution pronouncing nationalism an ‘article of faith’; made it mandatory for universities that fall under the Department of Higher Education to fly the national flag (to ‘evoke nationalistic sentiments’); suspended a Muslim legislator for refusing to say the national mantra ‘victory to mother India,’ and asked government-funded Urdu writers to guarantee in writing their work will not contain ‘anything against the policies of the government of India or the interest of the nation.’
Reaction grows to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the US national anthem, in protest against ‘a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.’ Although his right to protest is supported by many, including President Obama and numerous US army veterans, and in stark contrast to the Malhuer siege seven months ago, a backlash against his ‘disrespectful’ and ‘unpatriotic’ action is building, with angry 49ers fans burning Kaepernick jerseys. Trump – who this month vows to promote ‘pride and patriotism’ in schools with the help of the American Legion – tells him to leave the country.
One theme that keeps re-emerging this year is the desire to inculcate patriotism in the young. Malaysia joins India, USA and Russia by praising such efforts, with politician Azalina Othman Said’s audacious and sweeping claim that ‘there should be a strong sense of patriotism, especially among the younger generation who are prone to be influenced by IS [Islamic State] and extremism.’ Said is promoting the work of the Biro Tata Negara, or BTN, a government agency whose stated aim is to ‘foster the spirit of patriotism and moral values’ among Malaysians. However, mirroring the equally controversial RSS in India, the BTN is accused of fostering xenophobia against non-Malays.
During the campaign to elect the right-wing UK Independence Party’s third leader this year, candidates agree more should be done to encourage patriotism in Britain’s schools. Peter Whittle voices his wish to see schools forced to display the national flag and pictures of the queen, while rival Suzanne Evans complains that Shakespearean education does not focus in his Britishness (“it seems to treat him like a global playwright bloke”), ignoring the possibility that the curriculum might – just might – be focussing on his literature rather than nascence. The eventual winner, Paul Nuttall, promises to ‘make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people’ and to ‘put the Great back into Britain.’
Following last month’s Supreme Court ruling, the national anthem must now be played before every film in Indian cinemas, and audiences must stand to attention. Several people have been assaulted for not standing, included a disabled man who is unable to, or arrested for failing to ‘show respect for the anthem.’ The irony is that the writer of India’s national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, warned a century ago of ‘this fetish of nationalism,’ in words that would undoubtedly be called anti-national by the BJP today:
‘The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation.’
With the rise is patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric showing no signs of abating, we can expect 2017 to have just as much to discuss and dissect. Whatever happens, National Questions will be ready and waiting. In the meantime, we wish you a happy new year.
Photo credit: Atanas Kumbarov