George Bernard Shaw was a famous playwright and political activist who was committed to socialism. His influence was at its height during the first half of the twentieth century.
Shaw is also remembered as the most worthy of G. K. Chesterton’s interlocutors. They were constantly disagreeing with each other in public, but they were also good friends. They were both very witty, and they delighted in controversy. Shaw was tall and lean – a bit like Abraham Lincoln. Chesterton was also tall, and very rotund. He was a big man in every sense.
During one public debate, Chesterton observed, “I see there has been famine in the land.”
Shaw replied, “And I see the cause of it.” He continued, more cruelly now: “If I was as fat as you, I’d hang myself.”
Chesterton didn’t hesitate: “If I were to hang myself, I’d use you as the rope!”
I mention all this, because one of the debates between Shaw and Chesterton relates to patriotism. Which means it relates to what we’re celebrating today: Australia Day.
One of George Bernard Shaw’s most famous quote – certainly his most memorable – arises from his socialist ideology:
Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.
This is an internationalist sentiment. It’s borne from the idea that the state exploits its citizens, but still arouses their love, by stirring up “love for country.” Hence a good socialist despises patriotism.
Chesterton, being a Catholic, valued patriotism. But he wasn’t in complete disagreement with Shaw. In fact, he shared with Shaw a very low opinion of the nationalism which passed for patriotism in his time, and ours. Consider his most famous quote on patriotism:
‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’
He elaborates in his essay, ‘A Defence of Patriotism’. A truly patriotic love of country – a truly Catholic love of country – doesn’t resemble a boy’s love for jam. It’s not an uncritical love. It’s more like a boy’s love for his mother. It is respectful and it is loyal, even when the times are bad. But it is never indifferent. Patriotism compels us to support our country, which includes doing everything we can to correct its course when it falters.
Patriotism also compels us to be grateful for our country. To give thanks to God for Australia, through which we have received many blessings. It also means that we ask God to bless Australia anew, just as we’d ask Him to bless our mothers.
Hence the collect in the Australia Day Mass:
Grant we pray, O Lord our God,
that as the Cross shines in our southern skies,
so may Christ bring light to our nation,
to its peoples old and new,
and by saving grace transform our lives.