Flag-waving patriotism - the heroin of political life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am

Patriotic politics is much like heroin. It makes an instant impression and rarely fails to work, especially when first experienced. Indeed such is the impact that it leaves the user craving more until the desire for heroin (and more flag-waving) becomes both addictive and highly damaging.

The parallels are uncanny. As we have seen in Hong Kong, it needed only a single newspaper article to ignite a furore of self-righteous flag-waving from anti-democrats. They have yet to find a convincing argument against representative government but are always on the lookout for ways to condemn opponents for disloyalty to China. Thus, they were quick to accuse Martin Lee Chu-ming of being a 'traitor' for suggesting that the Beijing Olympics could provide an opportunity for engaging the Chinese government in a dialogue on human rights.

The usual rabid pro-Beijing loyalists have had a field day; the more sophisticated anti-democrats have been able to associate themselves with this rabid behaviour while seeming to act responsibly by suggesting that the attacks might be slightly modified.

And it has worked like a dream. Mr Lee has mustered no more than a sheepish defence. His supporters have been more vigorous but they, too, appear to be on the back foot, having to prove that Mr Lee is not lacking in patriotism although he is clearly critical of Beijing.

So, all in all, this has been a good couple of weeks for the flag-wavers. Some of them are so insular as not to know that their tactics are almost as old as the art of politics itself. Most famously, it was the 18th-century English man of letters Samuel Johnson who described patriotism as 'the last refuge of a scoundrel'. What he meant, of course, was not that there was anything wrong with patriotism itself, but that patriotism was used by the unscrupulous when they had nothing else to offer.

This is why flag-waving has played such a big role in politics. It is most avidly used by those most desperate to find self-justification. In failed nations, such as North Korea and Myanmar, the governments depict all opposition to their policies as being attempts to undermine the nation. And indeed the Chinese Communist Party, which has lost what may be described as the moral compass of Marxism, has settled instead for a strange hybrid of ultra-nationalism and a belief in development as an end in itself.

Most people love their country. This is perfectly natural and so it is easy to hide behind the national flag when trying to smear opponents. The beauty of the smears is that they work, just as heroin rarely fails to induce a state of euphoria.

Yet this euphoria is usually short lived and, the more the addicts try to replicate this feeling, the deeper they sink into hopeless addiction. The same happens to players of the patriotic card. The more they play, the more evident it becomes that they have no other cards.

The US experience in Vietnam is salutary in this respect. While the government's war-supporters were decrying opponents for their lack of patriotism, the people saw the American flag draped over the coffins of dead US soldiers who were paying the price for gung-ho stupidity in Washington. It was hard to maintain the argument that the true patriots were those responsible for the deaths of America's sons.

In Hong Kong, the flag-wavers have the momentary advantage of capitalising on the feel-good sentiment that surrounds the Beijing Olympics, but the essence of their argument is dangerous. It suggests the need to demolish the very foundations that have made Hong Kong the success it is. The super-patriots want freedom of expression curtailed, believe that liberty can be qualified and, most of all, have no compunction in echoing the terrifying kind of denunciations that characterised the darkest days of the Maoist era. Heroin addiction does not have a happy ending; neither will these tactics.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur