Do we need patriotic journalism?
Once we start attacking the journalists who expose politicians’ flaws – instead of the flaws themselves – we are not being patriotic, we’re being jingoistic, writes
President Jacob Zuma once heaped effusive praise on Mexican journalists for their patriotism. There was plenty of crime in Mexico, he said, but on his visit to that country he learnt that it was hardly ever reported in the newspapers because the Mexican media were patriotic, and did not want to repel investors and tourists by reporting negatively on their country.
South African journalism should take a page from its Mexican counterpart and be more patriotic; South African media should cease dwelling on crime, he said.
The president either misread or was misinformed about Mexican media – violent crime is the staple of Mexico’s prensa roja, or red press. There are even tabloids dedicated to drug wars, detailing the power and influence the kingpins exercise even when incarcerated in prison fortresses. But the president’s misinformation is not the concern of my discussion in this paper.
I want to address the question of whether South Africa needs patriotic journalism, especially because the president keeps harping on about this issue. He advanced this notion once more during the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa when the Sunday Times led with photographs of a fatal assault on a Mozambican vendor by local thugs in Alexandra. Zuma said it was unpatriotic of the newspaper to carry such a story, along with its graphic pictures.
I have an immediate answer to the question as to whether we need patriotic journalism. It is a resounding yes, provided we redefine patriotism. Is South African journalism unpatriotic? A resounding no. And I’ll tell you why. What is patriotism?
Perhaps I should begin by explicating the competing versions of patriotism because its meaning can be problematic, if not contentious. For instance, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) viewed it as the last refuge of a scoundrel. As it was in his time, it continues to be today.
When constrained by moral limits, patriotism can serve the positive function of giving people a sense of personal belonging and identification, and can therefore facilitate mobilisation for the common good. But without moral checkpoints, it can be abused by the ruling elite to oppress and marginalise sectors of the populace, and silence criticism.
Its dictionary definition may be innocuous enough – devoted love, support and defence of one’s country; national loyalty – yet its implications are wide in their toxicity. For instance, in the politician’s view, national loyalty encompasses unconditional loyalty to leaders. The exposure of their flaws, not the flaws themselves, causes embarrassment for the country, and is therefore unpatriotic. Loyalists often rally around corrupt and dangerous politicians in the name of patriotism. Confusing patriotism with jingoism
In the US, a country famous for its patriotism, the Dixie Chicks present a good example of a toxic version of patriotism. The members of this Texan country music band were punished for expressing their regret that President George W Bush was also from Texas. The problem was not that they expressed such a sentiment at all, but that they did so when they were abroad. They were, therefore, deemed to be unpatriotic, even though their criticism was not directed at the country but at a specific politician who they felt had betrayed the country by taking it to an unnecessary war, against the country’s national interests.
The Dixie Chicks were taken to task, not by government, but by their compatriots, who exercised their right to boycott the “traitors”. Fans stopped purchasing the band’s music and DJs withdrew them from radio station playlists. But the citizenry’s rage went beyond that: they smashed and crushed the band’s CDs with bulldozers in public squares. This illustrates how hegemonic patriotism can be.
Today, most Americans share the view that the war against Iraq was unnecessary and a big mistake. But that is cold comfort to the Dixie Chicks; it will not redeem them from the cultural oblivion to which they were consigned by the initial boycott.
National loyalty also implies hostility to people of other nations. As a patriot, you must promote your country while diminishing others. You must place the wellbeing of your country above that of the rest of humanity.
I am talking here of the version of patriotism that is not constrained by moral limits, and which therefore becomes jingoistic. It is a destructive patriotism that acts as a vehicle for narrow nationalism and ethnic chauvinism. It fuels xenophobia and fans the flames of war. We have seen in South Africa how patriots who felt they were safeguarding their country from being tainted by foreign elements attacked, murdered and immolated those they perceived to have darker complexions and different accents.
Patriotism is closely linked to war. Jingoism even more so. The jingoist sees others – those who were placed on a different piece of ground by accident of birth – as the enemy, and therefore less than human. Jingoism is a demeaning and dehumanising tool. It is sustained by and sustains the slogan “my country, right or wrong”.
Worst of all, it nourishes the myth of a divinely chosen people, the mass delusion that God is on your particular country’s side solely because you happen to be born in it. Your country is, therefore, always on the side of righteousness, even as it uses unmanned drones to bomb to smithereens women, children, families, babies and wedding parties. In service of the elite
When politicians talk of patriotism, they mean this toxic and dangerous version – the one they can manipulate to tame and domesticate the populace. Politicians appeal to patriotism to bring about compliance with laws, traditions and practices that may be more in the interests of the ruling elites than of the people.
In addition to your country right or wrong, the ethos of state-sponsored patriotism is “love your country, its government, its culture and its values, as professed and interpreted by your political leaders in power”.
This is the patriotism that gave birth to the slogans of social cohesion and nation-building as we hear them articulated in South Africa – to the detriment of freedom of expression. These innocuous concepts, which may be intrinsically positive, become dangerous when politicians and servants of the state are the sole arbiters of what comprises social cohesion or nation-building. Thus we see a politician – a minister of arts and culture no less – condemning the work of an internationally celebrated photographer who has exhibited works of art portraying women in embrace and other works that make queer faces and bodies visible. These photographs, by Zanele Muholi, who is also a gay rights activist, have been exhibited in many cities worldwide to great acclaim. I saw them at an exhibition in Bayreuth, Germany, where they left patrons mesmerised by their aesthetic depth and beauty. A higher form of patriotism
But in a liberated South Africa, a brazen politician, Ms Lulu Xingwana – then arts and culture minister – decreed that this art contradicted the values of social cohesion and nation-building. This Cabinet minister assumed the role of sole arbiter and made pronouncements that were a reflection of her own personal values, and these automatically became national values, even though they were contrary to the values of freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution – the very Constitution that permits samesex love. In the name of patriotism, the state decrees that relevant art must contribute to national cohesion and nation-building, and artists who do not subscribe to this notion, or who have a different comprehension of the meaning and application of these tenets, are considered unpatriotic.
This is the kind of patriotism that becomes a refuge for corrupt politicians. The said politicians are constrained by the Constitution from outrightly bludgeoning the media and banning newspapers in the manner that apartheid did. They therefore resort to, firstly, encouraging self-censorship. When that cajoling fails, they demand self-censorship, and then coerce it through blackmail and threats.
There is, however, a different conceptualisation of What do you want to see more of in City Press? What do you want to see less of in City Press? SMS the keyword PATRIOTISM and your answer to 35697. SMSes cost R1.50 patriotism that embraces critical love of one’s country and rejects unconditional loyalty. It was once outlined by Senator J William Fulbright of the US when he wrote: “To criticise one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing … Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism – a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.”
In this higher patriotism – and this is what I’ll call it henceforth to distinguish it from the garden-variety patriotism that Zuma is demanding from the South African media – the citizens care so much for the wellbeing of their country that they are vocal in their criticism when they think politicians, civil servants and other fellow citizens are causing it harm.
Higher patriotism does not mean the citizen disowns and disavows patriotism’s trappings, which the populace has been socialised to regard as sacrosanct. It simply means these trappings do not constitute blindness to the country’s flaws, as they do to a jingoist. By his own admission, Zuma is hostile to higher patriotism. He would rather have a onesided presentation of news in favour of the state, and thus maintain a patriotic hegemonic discourse.
In a democratic state, it is imperative that the media play a watchdog role. It is not for nothing that the press is called the fourth estate – the informal, self-appointed independent fourth branch of government that monitors on behalf of the voiceless the other three branches so that they do not abuse their power. Patriotic media (in Zuma’s sense of uncritical patriotism) cannot effectively act as a watchdog over government.
Democracy cannot function without freedom of expression in general and of the media in particular. Zuma’s albatross
The country’s media – especially the print media or press, as it is traditionally known – have been very effective in their watchdog role. Independent radio has also been good in taking up issues that have been exposed by the press and then pursuing them, exposing a different demographic to the debate. Undoubtedly, Zuma wishes the Mail & Guardian had been patriotic enough not to expose his government’s misuse of taxpayers’ money to refurbish and extend his private residence under the pretext of installing lawful security upgrades. The Nkandla scandal will be the albatross hanging round his neck for the rest of his tenure in office and will haunt him even in retirement, further tainting his legacy, which is already highly blemished by many other untoward activities and antisocial behaviours. Mda is an author. This is part one of a two-part series
Mda wrote on whether we need patriotic journalism
WOMEN IN THE CROSS HAIRS The Dixie Chicks (above) and Zanele Muholi’s photographs (right) have both been accused of undermining ‘national values’, albeit in different ways