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

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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

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