On patriots

04/12/2012 by Christopher Buxton

Dr Johnson defined patriotism succinctly and perhaps unfairly as the last refuge of scoundrels. I say unfairly because for me there is a vast difference between patriots and people who call themselves patriots. What has never changed is the alacrity with which self declared patriots label as unpatriotic folk who care deeply about their country. Sitting smugly on their moral high-mound these self declared patriots feel they have done sufficient. There is no need to engage in any rational argument with those whose views they disagree with.  If they expend any effort at all it is to find or invent personal details that will blacken the names of their opponents. The high mound they sit on provides sufficient mud.

Thus it was in the US during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. Folk who cared sufficiently about their country to have their heads broken by the Chicago police were routinely labelled as unpatriotic by self appointed moral guardians.

New interpretations of a country’s history that challenge comfortable prejudices are sufficient to provoke paroxysms of self induced anger from the patriot brigade. This is particularly true in a country that is in the throes of complex transition and ruled by a government whose principal concerns are its popularity and looking after its own

The history of Bulgaria contains one uncomfortable and inescapable fact. For five hundred years Bulgarian speakers across the Balkan peninsular were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.  These five hundred years have been routinely labelled as a yoke, as slavery, as oppression even as holocaust or genocide. But little has been written up to now about the day to day reality. It is sufficient for patriots to know that with the rise of nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century brave revolutionaries and brigands sparked revolts through the Balkans that provoked horrific reprisals from the regular and (more significantly) irregular forces of a now failing empire.

There are obvious parallels with the British Empire in regards to India, Ireland and Kenya. Only that the British were far more brutal.

Like the British, the Ottoman Empire left its tangible legacy.  Many Bulgarian towns still have medieval mosques. Bulgarian language still contains many colourful Turkish words and expressions. Arguably these five hundred years played a key role in the formation of patriarchal moral codes. There are significant pockets of ethnic Turkish populations and Moslem Bulgarians – sufficient to ensure a continuous presence in the Bulgarian parliament and even as coalition partners in previous governments.

However any Bulgarian who seeks to study Bulgarian lands under the Ottoman Empire runs a terrible risk. Unless he/she just trots out the accepted black and white mythology of vile Turks and brave oppressed Bulgarians, he/she will be labelled as anti-Bulgarian, agent of foreign enemy powers – the equivalent of being labelled a paedophile in the UK. Consequences can be dire. Any statement about some of the positive aspects of life under the Ottomans will quickly be seized upon by furious patriots and transformed into the shit-blanket accusation of denial. It is as though any critic of the current Israeli government is immediately labelled a holocaust-denying anti-Semite.

As a parenthesis, the use of the word mythology is meant in no way to discredit the truth that lies behind strongly held shared beliefs about the past. Misunderstanding of the academic use of the word mythology has led to one woman being driven out of her home by a mob enflamed by the patriotic media– just like the paediatrician in England wrongly labelled by the Sun as a paedophile.

And so my former otlichnik pupil Tony Georgieff has had his personal life raked over by the patriots. His crime has been to collaborate with a historian and archaeologist to publish an objective and beautifully illustrated book about the Ottoman legacy in Bulgaria. His picture has been published on a blacklist of “Bulgaria haters”.  He has been accused of being a CIA agent and Turkish whore.

I know what some of my Bulgarian readers will be thinking. Buxton’s English.  The English have always been pro-Turkish.  So to even up this article let me praise the writer Orhan Pamuk who has dared to take on his “patriotic” fellow Turks in addressing the Armenian massacres. This terrible blot on the history of the Ottoman Empire has been a taboo subject in Turkey and it takes a real patriot to dare raise it.