What is Patriotism?

During my six years as UN rapporteur I experienced more than the average level of animosity, mobbing, assaults on my personal integrity and ethics, distortion of my message, deliberate misquotation, below-the-belt insults, actionable defamation, even a couple of death threats.

As a retired rapporteur I have endeavoured to remain informed and active.  From time to time I give interviews, publish op-eds, most recently concerning President Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” and concerning the disgraceful ruling of the UK court in the case of Julian Assange.  This activity has brought me more insults and one particular assault on my convictions – I have been called “unpatriotic”, even a “traitor”.

Reflecting on this surge in social media hostility, I jotted down some thoughts on the meaning of patriotism, loyalty to one’s country, community and values.

Of course, patriotism means different things to different people. For me it entails citizen solidarity in promoting justice at home and resisting official lies, apologetics, euphemisms, crime and tyranny. Love of country requires a commitment to truth and readiness to counter « fake news » and skewed political « narratives ». Internationally, patriotism means averting harm from one’s country by pro-actively seeking dialogue and compromise, so as to contribute to peace and justice – pax et iustitia.

Some adolescents and young soldiers think that patriotism can be boiled down to the formula « my country right or wrong », and thus unwittingly risk becoming cannon fodder, victims of war-mongers and war-profiteers, who do not risk their own skins and let others die for their profits.  Patriotism must not be confused with chauvinism or jingoism. It is a positive value, aimed at advancing justice for all – it is not xenophobic.

Patriotism cannot and must not require knee-jerk « my country right or wrong », a formula that can only be described as an irresponsible cop-out, which only invites governments to abuse our trust, waste tax dollars in foreign interventions, breach our privacy through illegal surveillance, and commit any number of geopolitical crimes.

A true patriot says « not in my name » and demands transparency and accountability from government, so that our countries are indeed on the path to peace and justice. Horace’s noble-sounding maxim  dulce et decorum est pro patria mori  (it is sweet and appropriate to die for one’s country) must be recast in constructive terms : It is sweet to live for one’s country ! Indeed, that is what Cicero meant with caritas patriae.

Who qualifies as a patriot? For me, every citizen who takes democracy seriously and demands truth and ethical behaviour from the authorities. Among patriots in the 21st century, I count whistleblowers who uncover corruption, political scams and criminal activities by both the government and the private sector. They are the gatekeepers of the social order. Surely Edward Snowden is a patriot, as he risked life and career because of his conscience. We can learn more in his riveting book Permanent Record. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

By contrast, who is not a patriot ? Every opportunist who advances his/her career at the expense of the common good, anyone who manipulates public opinion through sensationalism, evidence-free allegations, sabre-rattling and ends up dragging the country and its young soldiers into criminal warsand misery for all sides. The security of everybody  has been seriously compromised by these criminal war hawks, who sometimes are revered and hailed by the media as « patriots ».

Recently I have been criticized for publishing articles and op-eds with Truthout, CounterPunch, RT, CGTN, Asia Times, Telesur. I have been asked why is it that I do not publish also in the New York Times or Washington Post?  My laconic response reflects the state of censorship in our “free press”. Indeed, the mainstream media have never cared to interview me or invited me to write and article.  Dozens of proposed op-eds were rejected.  Add it to the “cancel culture” – the growing list of private-sector censorship and suppression of independent views.

It would be interesting to investigate how often other UN Rapporteurs are mobbed and insulted as I have been.  Of course, many rapporteurs avoid social ostracism by toeing the line and thus staying out of trouble.  This may also explain why so many in society have lost faith in the United Nations as a vector of change and effective promotion of human rights.

Alfred de Zayas is a professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order 2012-18.