Josephine Baker: progressive patriot

A patriotic attachment to democratic ideals is nothing to fear.

Neil Davenport

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A common way to delegitimise Brexit has been to accuse Leave voters of being patriotic throwbacks and xenophobic nationalists. Since the devastating impact of Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, any expression of nationalism or patriotism tends to be tarnished by an association with extreme national chauvinism. Any positive identification citizens have with their nation is now deemed highly suspect. Membership of the European Union, the argument goes, diffuses such backward patriotism in favour of brotherly, transnational cooperation with other member states. Few today believe that patriotism, a love for your fellow countrymen, could ever be progressive.

The life story and experience of Josephine Baker can perhaps correct this impression. Baker was an African-American dancer and singer who became a major star in France in the 1920s and 30s. She was a pioneering icon of the Jazz Age. Like many other African Americans who moved to Paris, she eventually became a naturalised French citizen. Unlike in the racially hostile United States, in her adoptive country Baker enjoyed greater freedoms, equal treatment and the adoration of the public. France enabled Baker to fulfil her career potential and accepted her as a full citizen. She once declared that she had ‘two loves — my country and Paris’.

This was no empty platitude. Baker’s patriotic love for France extended to her aiding the French Resistance during the Second World War. Baker’s public image as an entertainer enabled her to rub shoulders with Axis power bureaucrats at parties and she could also travel across Europe as a spy without raising suspicion. After the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French military and was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle.

It was her passionate identification with the French people and the Third Republic that galvanised her to act so bravely in a time of national crisis. She demonstrated that patriotic love for your nation – rather than being only poisonous and fearful – can inspire people to act for the common good. As Baker actively supported the American civil-rights movement in the 1960s, it would surely strike her as odd that patriotism would later come to be exclusively associated with xenophobia and racism.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that patriotism as a word and sentiment developed out of progressive European ideas. In 18th-century Europe, Enlightenment thinkers started to argue that loyalty to the nation was preferable to loyalty to the church. One of the most influential proponents of this classical notion of patriotism was the French liberal thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau, patriotism was grounded in a love of civic virtues and liberalism. Patriotism was about creating a common belonging based on a shared agreement in rights, freedoms, toleration and democracy. Far from signifying a hatred for others, this type of patriotism provided a cohering identity. As Josephine Baker demonstrated, a patriotic love of France, and the liberal beliefs embodied in the Republic, can be rightly seen as radical and progressive. Such patriotism is a far cry from the blood-and-soil mysticism more commonly associated with xenophobic nationalism.

For too long, public debate has suffered from a partial understanding of patriotism and nationalism. The automatic association of patriotism with fascism has blinded radicals to the historically progressive content of liberal nationalism. But there is more going on here than misguided panics about fascism. For the past 30 years, the British elites have become profoundly uncomfortable with any expression of nationalism. The problem for them is that nationalism raises the alarming spectacle of the masses putting pressure on society. As we have witnessed with the panicked response to Brexit, this type of mass involvement in the affairs of the nation is viewed as a potential danger by everyone from Tory ‘rebels’ to Labour leftists.

Progressives should follow the admirable example of Josephine Baker. Rediscovering a patriotic attachment to democratic ideals, liberal values and the nation state is an important first step towards creating an active, meaningful sense of citizenship for the masses.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

Neil will be speaking at the session ‘Patriotism: the acceptable face of Nationalism?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 2 November. Get tickets here.

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Comments

Brendan O’Leary

29th October 2019 at 1:23 am

“She once declared that she had ‘two loves — my country and Paris’.”

That’s the song “J’ai deux amours”. Wonderful melody.

Andrew Leonard

28th October 2019 at 11:45 pm

For the past 30 years, the British elites have become profoundly uncomfortable with any expression of nationalism.

On the other hand, the re-tribalisation of society into competing groups with no shared sense of identity or values, is just a fine. Supposedly this is also a long-term workable situation. What pressure has been placed on the elites to explain this preference for tribalism, over non-imperialistic nationalism? Why are fascistic states regarded as representative of Nationalism, and not the far more numerous democratic states? The list of democratic states who have attacked other democratic states is sparse indeed, but apparently this is irrelevant.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_between_democracies

Also worth discussing is the concept of elites. I’ve noticed both right & left refer to the elites as consisting of representatives of the opposite side of politics. The left perceive these elites to be right-wing, and vice-versa. What does this suggest? Perhaps that neither right or left are in control of public discourse or policy direction – these are now almost totally in the hands of government, and the meanings of political terms like nationalism and racism, are whatever suits the government of the day.

What else but the sheer size and scope of modern governments could be the reason for their dominance of the political arena? Public citizens must consider their own role in this state of affairs. If we want free education, universal healthcare, public railways, and cradle-to-the-grave welfare, we have to grasp that the government must necessarily become not just a large institution, but also a very high status institution. It is short step from there to the speech restricting nanny state. Anyone who disagrees with this logic is really suggesting that they want governments to be little more than gigantic public services bureaucracies – and therefore not too different from the EU.

Claire D

29th October 2019 at 8:38 am

But has’nt the state always been high status ? Does’nt it always tend to go too far and become overbearing and authoritarian, until people make enough of an outcry so that it has to back peddle and correct itself ?

Andrew Leonard

29th October 2019 at 12:27 pm

To some extent yes, but I think it also depends on its raw size and scope of influence. At the start of the 20th century, the USA had no income tax and no central bank. Federal spending was a smaller share of GDP than the current deficit. I can’t imagine a nanny state coming out of that, and things didn’t really change until the double whammy of a massive economic depression and a world war.

Government status and prestige has to roughly match that of the private individuals and companies it wants to regulate. This really means that big money and big business requires big government. The problem becomes that this regulatory role and broader economic management role, always spills over into the sociological arena. Once government grows beyond a certain point, there seems to be no such thing as a purely managerial state – the nanny state also enters the picture (in democratic states). The Blair era is the classic example. By the way, it is fascinating that Blair was/is regarded as a managerial era PM, and Bush a conservative president, when the two were involved in an attempt to socially engineer a country from the ground up.

As for the ultimate fate of big government, that is one of the oldest political science questions. The dependency of government on tax revenues from the wealthiest individuals and richest corporations can generate a dangerous dynamic, in that a situation where the lower classes pay little or no tax can result in these citizens having little more than nuisance value to the government. Very progressive tax systems are therefore cause for concern – we really want more equality before tax, and for me that means low immigration levels, and possibly foreign investment restrictions on property.

The key things are; keep government as dependent on as many taxpaying citizens as possible, ensure government and public services have the social clout to be effective regulators, but prevent these from becoming so big that they become oppressive. In practice, these are probably too contradictory to be possible to maintain over a very long period.

Claire D

29th October 2019 at 2:30 pm

Well, that’s interesting Andrew. I agree with you about ‘ low immigration levels and foreign investment restrictions on property ‘.
One thing the lower classes still have which counts is their vote, and despite big business and big money that can be powerful, obviously, considering our present circumstances. So I come back to my previous comment about the people making themselves heard when government policy goes too far in the wrong direction. It can be done, money does’nt count for everything.

Andrew Leonard

30th October 2019 at 9:58 am

So I come back to my previous comment about the people making themselves heard when government policy goes too far in the wrong direction.

Is the epidemic of single parenthood an example of the welfare state going too far in the wrong direction? How would the people make themselves heard on that matter?

Any zero-sum policy is likely to be immune to democratic oversight – the interests of every loser are negated by those of a winner. Even strong support for or against can fail. A million marched against the Iraq war, in London – the UK still went to war.

Claire D

30th October 2019 at 2:00 pm

You’re right Andrew, that’s a fair point. However I am reluctant to give way entirely to your analysis. I may well have to argue with you again on this once I’ve thought it out. If I could do emojis there would be a smiling one here.

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