In his 1938 essay What I Believe that can be found in the collection Two Cheers for Democracy, E. M. Forster wrote the following:
I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy – they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.
One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life, and it is therefore essential that they should not let one down. They often do. The moral of which is that I must, myself, be as reliable as possible, and this I try to be. But reliability is not a matter of contract – that is the main difference between the world of personal relationships and the world of business relationships. It is a matter for the heart, which signs no documents. In other words, reliability is impossible unless there is a natural warmth. Most men possess this warmth, though they often have bad luck and get chilled. Most of them, even when they are politicians, want to keep faith. And one can, at all events, show one’s own little light here, one’s own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend. Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome. Probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice. Still, there lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer, and there is even a terror and a hardness in this creed of personal relationships, urbane and mild though it sounds. Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do – down with the State, say I, which means that the State would down me.
What particularly struck me is when he wrote, “[I]f I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
It is not clear what Forster meant by the word ‘betray’ and it means different things depending on whether it is applied to country or friend. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has several meanings and #2 most closely applies to betraying a country when it says it is “to deliver to an enemy by treachery”. That definition is loaded with the word ‘treachery’ which automatically makes it reprehensible. A more neutral definition might be “to aid an enemy nation at the expense of one’s own”. When it comes to betraying a friend, meaning #3 “to fail or desert especially in time of need” seems most appropriate.
I have been trying to think of what single action might constitute having to make a choice between betraying one’s friend and one’s country and the closest real world example I could think of is the McCarthy era where people were demanded to inform the authorities if their friends, co-workers, and colleagues had Communist sympathies, that it was their patriotic duty to inform on others and to not do so was in effect aiding ‘the enemy’. Those who refused were blacklisted and had their careers ruined.
Back in 2016, I wrote about Dalton Trumbo, an Academy Award winning screen writer, who was blacklisted during that time because he refused to betray his friends. He later wrote:
And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”
Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country.
For many people, patriotism is valued above all other things, reinforced by the state with the singing of anthems, pledges of allegiance, and veneration of the flag or the monarch. Like Forster and Trumbo, I do not believe in patriotism, seeing it as an artificial construct that has to be manufactured. It makes no sense to me. I have never understood what is meant by that term, except that it is usually interpreted as requiring people to go along with whatever their governments tells them to do. It means ‘my country right or wrong’, a sentiment that is almost always invoked when people are being asked by their governments to do what they feel to be morally and ethically wrong, since people would have no problem doing what is right without such an exhortation.
Unlike patriotism, friendship is a natural human impulse. It is real, precious, and beautiful. The choice between the two should be clear.