Two days ago, in my homeland of Australia, and in New Zealand, it was ANZAC Day. ANZAC Day commemorates the attempted invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 by British Empire and French forces. As I live in Turkey, am married to a Turk, and have two Turkish-Australian daughters descended from both ANZACs and Mehmetçiks, I feel called upon to reflect on some of the hard questions posed by nationalism and love of one’s homeland. How can the love of one’s own homeland be protected from degenerating into various forms of chauvinism and definitions of identity that exclude and reject “the other”?
Discussions of this type do not really come naturally to me. I am, in many respects, a stereotypical rootless cosmopolitan. I’ve spent almost as much of my life outside my home country as living in it and, in my 15 years of residency in Turkey, I have become, in a very meaningful way, as much Turkish as Australian although I have never taken the step of acquiring Turkish citizenship. Patriotism, nationalism and other forms of sacralised communal identity have always been foreign to me and have become more so over the years. Having said that, I have also come, in time, to deeply appreciate my Australian roots and dearly love many aspects of the society that raised me, socialised me and educated me, thus contributing heavily to who I am today. Particularly, as a multi-cultural, immigrant society, Australia invites reflection about the concept of “national identity”.
Indeed, Australians are a people particularly challenged by this concept, but any visitor to Australia will quickly grasp the truth that Australia, at least as much as the USA, is a distinct country with a distinct society and culture. The shared aspects of the Australian culture float without too much conflict over a patchwork quilt of diverse, yet largely harmonious, ethnicities and sub-identities. This is a greater achievement than it might seem at first glance, and certainly offers potential lessons to other societies, as Australia has an abhorrently racist, xenophobic past. This was a country originally founded on the odious principle of “Australia for the white man”, yet a casual stroll down any street in Sydney or Melbourne is instant testimony to how far we’ve moved on from this embarrassing, repugnant, race-based identity.
People are, it must be recognised, connected by deep emotional and spiritual ties to the geographies in which they live, the cultures which they have developed and the relationships which give these meaning. Patriotism and nationalism, as the modernist, ideological claimants of these pre-modern notions of belonging and community have distorted and appropriated these feelings and often twisted them in monstrous directions. A “nation” is, essentially, an artificial concept and the history of nation building is the history of a procrustean process of forcing identity into narrow, constraining boxes.
The un-ignorable dark side of this process, pointed out most controversially by figures such as Adorno, is that genocide is intimately connected with modernity and few nation states have arisen without a conscious process of exterminating identities that do not fit with the national narrative. Currently, in Turkey, the debate over the Armenian genocide, which also finds its centenary this year, is raging. The Turkish government does not accept that any Armenian genocide ever occurred, yet, a nation state that has never undergone some form of “ethnic cleansing” is as rare a beast as a unicorn. Australia, for example, has finally officially owned up to the disgraces of our Aboriginal policies, the US extermination of the native Americans is a matter of history; Auschwitz was the exclamation mark at the end of a tradition of purging the national body of its unwanted, “foreign elements”. The Twenty-First century, despite the hubris of the “global village” and premature obituaries to the nation-state clearly shows that the agonies of nationalism and ethno-religious chauvinism are not at all a matter of history but very much define our present. “Never Again” has unfortunately ended up a hopeful slogan more than a reality. Rather than “Never Again”, the era since the end of WW2 might better be characterised by the revised slogan “What?! Again??”.
The nation may be, in one sense, monstrous, yet the naïve assumption that people can simply transcend and forget their national identities, which for better or worse have acquired a certain reality over time, and embrace an abstract, formless, globalised humanism is unrealistic. It is only natural that people are inclined to love people they know well and with whom they sustain ongoing relationships more than abstract strangers whom they have never met. The love of one’s own homeland, culture and people is therefore not necessarily something to be overly problematized. What does become a problem, however, is when this love of what one considers one’s own devolves into chauvinism or notions of superiority, or an odious obsession with keeping one’s environment “clean of outside influences”.
Debates over the desirability of identifying with and loving one’s homeland are hampered by a compromised vocabulary. We struggle to define words such as “nationalism” or “patriotism” in positive ways because they have always been somewhat vague and open to multiple interpretations. Some progressives who attempt to construct a non-chauvinistic notion of love for the homeland have attempted to counterpose “patriotism”, as a good thing, to “nationalism”, which is defined, somewhat arbitrarily, as bad. Others do the complete opposite, equally arbitrarily describing “patriotism” as an inchoate chauvinism and “nationalism” as an enlightened creed of non-exclusive, geographically-based solidarity. In fact, this confusion in terminology and the fact that both “patriotism” and “nationalism” are heavily loaded terms that have been inscribed, without any clear contrast in meaning, on the banner of truly despicable movements, makes the choice of either undesirable. I would like, therefore, to propose a new term; that of “matriotism”.
Matriotism is, of course, just like “patriotism”, an ideological construct. In proposing it I am consciously advocating a link with the feminist movement and the ancient tradition of seeing the earth as feminine. Most ancient cultures; whether the Greeks, Chinese or Sumerians, characterised the earth as a feminine entity, often personalised as a goddess. The matriotic view also alludes to the earth as the “mother”, thus the homeland of the matriot is the “matria”, i.e. motherland, rather than the masculine “patria”, or fatherland. Matriotism is specifically semantically and semeiotically identified as “the love of the motherland” and, in casting it as such, I am making a conscious appeal to a set of archetypical values that support an agenda of compassion, empathy and solidarity, i.e., the archetypical “feminine” values.
The Matria is a nurturing place; it is the homeland reconceived as a mother to its citizens. The mother, as an archetype, is a loving support to her children. She raises them, protects them, educates them and prepares them to enter the world. The matria is not the harsh patria that has dominated the nationalist discourse since the enlightenment and which exacts scrupulous tribute from its sons, demanding that they ever strive to meet its stern approval through acts of heroism achieved primarily through bloodshed and military feats of conquest. Nor does the matria typically play the patriarchal game of “favourite sons” enshrined in the stories of the Bible and Greek mythology among other sources. The archetypical mother loves her children equally and attends closely to their needs. The mother archetype serves her children devotedly but wisely, seeing their individual talents and encouraging them to explore their potential without prejudice.
Of course, this is an archetype, an idealised image that, in itself, is very open to critique. I want to be very clear that the archetypical mother figure referred to here is not meant as a standard by which to judge real flesh-and-blood mothers. The archetypical/mythological mother is essentially the ancient goddess (Gaia, Ishtar, Brid, Friggja, the Madonna) it should not be interpreted as a conservative demand for all women to re-embrace their traditional role as defined under ancient patriarchal notions of a “woman’s place”. Indeed, that would be quite the opposite of the intention behind the conception of matriotism which is a cultural affirmation of “the feminine” and “maternal” across gender lines. Just as our traditional “patriotic” societies tend to value the archetypically “masculine” values of competition and hierarchy, the “matriotic” society emphasises egalitarian relationships and cooperation.
The nurturing “Matria” is a call to reconceptualise the modern state, particularly the post-war welfare state, in a way that respects and accommodates people’s love of place and culture, which celebrates connection to historical communities without conceding anything to racism, exclusivism, chauvinism or narrow communalism. The point behind the idea of “matriotism” is to find a practical path to increase the solidarity and empathy in society and to redefine the state as a nurturer of its “children”.
Evolutionary biology has dwelt much on the obsession of male animals with the issue of paternity. The desire to pass on genes creates an obsession with controlling female reproduction that, in nature, often takes the form of infanticide. Mothers in some species, however, can apparently sometimes be induced to adopt even unrelated young and will nurse them and raise them as their own. Admittedly such behaviour is not particularly common yet there is a message here in terms of the “matriotic” approach to society I am advocating. The matriotic approach is open to adopting new members of the family. It is not blood, nor race, that unites people but their status as milk-siblings, suckled by the same parent whether native or adoptive. There is, however, clearly an implicit responsibility here; matriots must embrace a common set of values that unite them in their diversity. It is not a community where siblings angrily compete with each other for the attention of a harsh parent but one in which solidarity is the first of the matriotic values and the members are encouraged to remember their fundamental family ties. Matriotism, in short, is a love of place based on relationships.
Of course, all of this is an exercise in myth-creation, however I also believe this is necessary. Left wing values have too often been seen, especially after the turning of the tide at the end of the 1970’s, as too abstract, too coldly rational, too removed from the everyday life and concerns of real people. People cannot easily drop their traditional identities to embrace some 18th century notion of rationalism which is, in any case, horribly out of date and unrelated to true human psychology. People are not, in fact, the rational, self-interested beings of liberal myth but rather complex, multi-faceted entities whose needs comprise a range of emotional, spiritual and ideational dimensions.
The idea of Matriotism is consciously and unashamedly based on myth, on story-telling, as was patriotism before it. The difference is that the matriotic myth is a vehicle for appealing to the side of human nature patriotism ignores. Instead of the competition, rivalry and drive to expand and conquer embedded in the patriarchal myths of patriotism, matriotism embraces the human need for solidarity, empathy, cooperation and relationships. It is a myth, but a myth that has profound implications for the way we organise our societies. It is a call for greater democracy, on a notion of rights which is as inseparable from responsibility as the natural give-and-take of any relationship. It is, in short, an invitation to reconsider and reconceptualise our society as a kind of ecosystem, a system of relationships in which all are valuable, all have a role to play and all are needed.
Patriotism is an exclusive notion, matriotism strives to be inclusive. The patriot talks of dying for the nation, the matriot talks of living for society. Matriotism cherishes and values life the way a mother wishes to protect her children. Militarism is the essence of classical patriotism, it is the antithesis of matriotism which sees the state as a servant of its citizens, never as their master. The matriotic state is, by definition, a welfare state, a state based on service to the community and I would like to further imply that such a state requires an institutionalisation of participation based on a deepening of democracy and relationships throughout all of society’s institutions. A matriotic state is not the top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical structure of the patriotic state with its impersonal, distant, cool approach. The matriotic state is warm, present, nurturing and personal.
So, when all is said and done, what is this talk of “matriotism” really good for; what is the point of it? Well, it’s a myth; a story about society that deliberately chooses to emphasise certain elements and concepts while de-emphasising others for the purpose of creating social change. It is not a rational, scientific argument intended to sway rational minds, although the policy side of this story, the translation of the warm, fuzzy myth into practical political solutions, must manage to present more than just the kinds of broad assertions I have made here. Matriotism, as a myth, can and, if it ever gains currency, will be, criticised as unsatisfactory in that it is based on a certain imaginary conceptualisation of “the feminine” and “motherhood”. However, these archetypes are deeply buried in our collective psychological inheritance and find their echo in our religions and mythologies.
The Right seems to be mastering the art of appealing to mythology, which often drives people on the Left crazy, but the dry, school-masterly attempts by certain left-wing intellectuals to pop the misconceptions and patiently, albeit often ponderously, explain the gaps in logic and lack of respect for the facts, totally misses the point. Politics is, in the end, always about myths, it always involves story-telling; one of the oldest human activities. Politics is not only, nor even primarily, about rational calculations based on interests but about emotions, passions, feelings and visions. The Left was once very much about these things and this was our finest period. Mythology is not bad, story-telling is not bad; these are ways to help us to connect to deeper enduring truths of the ongoing human condition.
This short meditation on matriotism is intended as the start of a discussion, certainly not the end of one. The idea may well come across as half-baked which, indeed, it is. This should be seen as no more and no less than a modest, initial proposal for a new way of seeing society and the legacy of the nation-state which, contrary to the hubris of globalisation and “post-nationalism”, is far from disappearing any time soon. We must engage with notions of national identity and the human need for a sense of belonging if we are not to fully cede the field to the emergent extreme Right. A new concept, a new word that reformulates the notion of love for one’s homeland and culture has the potential to enable us to circumvent defensive arguments held a priori in enemy territory. If we are accused of being “unpatriotic” for eschewing drum-beating militarism or refusing to buy into xenophobia and islamophobia, we have the option of shifting the discourse to our own matriotic turf where none of the jingoistic overtones of traditional patriotism apply. By choosing a new term to describe a new approach to the love of one’s homeland, we potentially have the means to seize the initiative and start re-setting the political agenda once more rather than running like confused dogs behind the speeding car of austerity, barking ineffectually, and barely even consciously, as it speeds insanely towards an unseen, or ignored cliff.
The Left has been fooled into attempting to speak in the language of the Right. We locate our discourse in enemy territory, struggling to use their emotionally-loaded vocabulary to express different ideas even to ourselves. We fear to stray from the conceptual limitations imposed by a centre-right world view and so we become bumbling and speechless. We lose the arguments from the very beginning when the loaded terminology we have borrowed from the Right explodes in our face. We look like clowns in baggy, ill-fitting clothing made for others. We feel as uncomfortable as we look trying to find a “progressive version of austerity” or mumbling about “decent capitalism”.
It’s time to take back the agenda, and an important step on the way to doing that is to redefine the basic conceptual framework we are dealing with. “Matriotism” may or not be a useful alternative to inhospitable notions such as patriotism and nationalism but it seems like it might be worth experimenting with.
Shayn McCallum is an Australian-born resident of Istanbul and PES activist (working as a member of the Irish Labour Party and French Socialist Party). He is employed as an instructor at Bogazici University in Istanbul and is also currently working on his doctoral thesis on the subject of European Social Democracy.