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'The best country in the world' and Australian patriotism: Countries where patriotism is not a thing

Traveller logoTraveller 26/01/2017 Ben Groundwater
Patriotism is on the rise in Australia. © iStock Patriotism is on the rise in Australia. Australia wasn't always like this. You would only have to go back 10 years or so to find a time when patriotism was something you kept pretty much to yourself, when flags were only waved at the cricket, and chest-thumping zeal was laughed at.

But it seems like the country is different now. We used to shake our heads at the Americans with all their flags and their sincerity, but now the same thing is happening here. As we approach another Australia Day, as people ready their fake Aussie flag tattoos, and their Aussie flag beach towels, and their Aussie flag bikinis and boardshorts, and even the odd Aussie flag cape, you can't help but wonder why patriotism has become so overt, and so necessary.

"Love it, or leave," some people say, and January 26th is the perfect time to prove to everyone that you belong in the first category.

There's no shortage of people who do, either. A survey by the market research company YouGov last year found that 34 per cent of Australians thought their country was the best in the world. Compare that to five per cent in France, or six per cent in Vietnam.

Patriotism is on the rise, and it's not confined to Australia country. There are plenty of places you can travel to and find people devoted to their nation: the USA, the bastion of patriotism; New Zealand, where All Blacks jerseys are fashion items; Chile, with its fierce devotion; and even England, where St George crosses seem to be increasingly popular.

Is this a problem? Definitely, if you agree with the old quote from Briton Samuel Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." You only have to look at Donald Trump's America, or Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines, to be troubled by the rise of hardline nationalism.

It doesn't have to be this way though. While many Australians, and many more around the world, seem keen to find some sort of pride in their nationality, there are a few refreshing examples around the world of nations who aren't obsessed with their own greatness.

Only seven per cent of Swedes claim their country is the best in the world. © Alamy Only seven per cent of Swedes claim their country is the best in the world. Travelling to these places is a joy. There's no need to pretend to locals that this country you're in is perfect – you can engage in critical discussion without worrying about offending anyone. And sometimes these places are great purely because they aren't so obsessed with themselves.

Take Germany, for example. Despite the recent rise of far-right protest groups such as Pegida, Germans as a whole remain fearful of patriotism. This is due, unfortunately, to a horrific modern history of events that were powered by a "Germany first" mentality. However, that lack of nationalism these days makes a refreshing change.

German flags are confined to sporting arenas. The nation's culture is celebrated, but not in a way that says to the world that it's better than everyone else's. You're free to enjoy things like beer festivals and Christmas markets and musical performances without being made to feel that your own culture is inferior.

An unpatriotic country can be a beautiful thing. Sweden – prosperous, perfect Sweden – is far from nationalistic. That YouGov survey found only seven per cent of Swedes would claim that their country was the best in the world. That's the same as Singapore.

As a traveller, that lack of patriotism means no sitting through endless conversations about how amazing Sweden is and how the rest of the world is worse. You can just enjoy it for what it is – and there's plenty there to enjoy.

Rather than demonstrate a shortage of pride, the absence of all that flag-waving in Sweden is indicative of the country's easy confidence, of its citizens' quiet belief that everything there is all right. That's far nicer than having everyone scream at you that they're the greatest.

Other countries might not have the same levels of confidence, but still, the lack of patriotism is equally welcome. Vietnam is still ideologically split, in many ways, between north and south, and hence is not a place where national pride is taken too seriously. Slovakians, despite only having been able to call themselves such for a relatively small amount of time, are also notoriously reticent to wave the flag. Latvians are the same.

It's nice to spend time in these countries, to see an alternative approach to the business of existing in this world. It's less about tribalism, and maybe more about just getting on with your life and not defining yourself by where you happened to be born.

Australia used to be more like that. Let's hope we return.

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