Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Posted by Todd Newton
We all know how to be patriots, don't we? Didn't we learn about it in school? Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, hold our hands over our hearts and sing along with The Star-Spangled Banner. Nowadays, we put yellow ribbons and "Support Our Troops!" stickers on our cars, speak out and vote in support of our views. We work for a living, and pay our taxes. We watch CNN, damnit, or Fox News, or MSNBC, or C-SPAN, and by god we keep up-to-date on all the comings and goings on Capitol Hill.
Is that patriotism?
What about looking with disdain upon all other nations--particularly those whose cultures and religions we disagree with? What about moral justification: sacrificing our freedoms and consciences on the altars of "the greater good" and "national security?" Do these things make us patriots?
The point came up because we'd briefly discussed where we came from, and talk of Utah led to religion, whereupon the woman mentioned her own family beliefs of pacifism, in a historical sense. She then made the above comment, and it's been stuck in my mind ever since.
Of all the things borne from the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 (which is not mentioned in People's History, it ends with Clinton's administration), I believe nothing so heinous has come about as the revival of what people veil as "patriotism." I've had inklings of this for some time, as shown in my essays on "Proud to be an American" (Part 1, Part 2). Having, now, explored an alternative perspective of historical events, many of which I had less than even superficial knowledge of, my sentiments have multiplied and intensified.
One of Zinn's major points in the book is that numerous concepts, including racism, inequality, and class warfare, are fostered in the United States in an effort to control its population. Whether you agree with this abstraction or not, you probably agree that these concepts exist and are not going away anytime soon. I would add to that list, as does Zinn, the concept of nationalism under the guise of patriotism.
Some might argue that it's a very fine distinction, telling the two apart. Even the dictionary considers them partial synonyms, so I won't even attempt to argue otherwise. Pride in your nation, the belief that it is the paramount of human achievement to the belittling and disdain of all else, may be called nationalism, patriotism, or plain old hubris for all I care, but it doesn't change one fact: it is a deplorable trait in a human being in the 21st century.
I'm American. I was born here, and I have lived her my entire life. No one will argue that society now is much different than it was twenty, or even ten, years ago, but reading about the events that led up to those conditions has allowed me to gain some hindsight.
Patriotism, to me, used to mean a passive, tacit faith in the trustworthiness of one's nation. That my government, from police officers to the President, did their jobs and made their decisions to conform to what was in the peoples' best interests. It watched out for me, protected me. It allowed me to pursue my own goals because others were already advocating on my behalf.
I loved America because we were "the good guys." We fought for our independence from tyranny, instituted a radical and new form of government that proved it cared what its people thought, freed the slaves, pioneered industrialization and commerce, suffered in the Great Depression, protected us from Hitler's plans of world domination, passed Civil Rights laws, and carried on the tradition of The American Dream whether for a citizen, naturalized, or immigrant.
I was taught this in my youth, long before I could possibly understand that a government could possess its own interests, much less act on them to the detriment of my own. Long before I knew what a perpetual motion machine was, one had been created in a social structure deemed American Democracy; the only fuel it requires is for the oncoming generation to believe everything is great and should continue as-is. (We all know of another social structure that operates on this principal, that's lived even longer and oppressed far more, but I'll save that discussion for another day.)
My aim here is not to mislead; America is not out to get me, and I still live here and plan to continue to do so for the time being. However seditious these words are, the truth is that they come from a steep discontent with what I see around me now. We can't right the wrongs of the past by pointing fingers and apologizing, but we can by choosing to move in a new direction.
I am one among many who do not support military actions abroad--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Israel--for any purpose. I'll echo the statements of greater men in saying there is no such thing as a "just war." Our "operations" in Korea, Vietnam, and the first Iraq war--among numerous other infractions of the United States on human rights in Cuba, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua--prove that in the game of finger-pointing, the United States loses. Except, of course, to those whose patriotism will not allow them to condemn such blatant atrocities.
And yet, how can we criticize our troops without indicting the ones who put them in harm's way? How can we indict our politicians without criticizing the system (and the voters) who put them in office? How can we, in good conscience, disagree with the policies of our government and still call ourselves patriotic?
So, then, my questions become: Is it patriotism to protest the building of a mosque and scream things like "Go Home Ragheads," or is it racism? Is it patriotism to participate in a system where millions of dollars are spent on campaigns to elect the same corporate-funded politicians year after year, or is it class warfare? Is it patriotism to have faith in a government that keeps 95% of us too poor to do anything else but work, or is it capitalism?
Ultimately, I think the true definition of patriotism is putting the needs of your country ahead of your own. However, I also believe this leaves no room for whether or not you agree to the validity of said needs. Nationalism, on the other hand, merely speaks to supporting your country in being "the greatest," and requires no special endorsement or limitations to act upon that agenda. In either case, I do believe I lack what it takes to measure up.
My plea is that the people of the United States sober up. We have been on a patriotism/nationalism binge for nearly ten years now, and at every obstacle we have used our heroic dead to justify our righteousness. If we cared about our soldiers dying, we wouldn't send them off to war. If we cared about the budget deficit, we would cut the enormous and superfluous defense budget. If we cared about stopping terrorist attacks, we would try to understand why they began in the first place rather than "hitting back," as if the conflict were a mere schoolyard tussle. If we cared about the poor and the middle-class, we wouldn't tax them into submission.
On the other hand, if we didn't care so much about corporate interests we could actually revise the tax system (for once) so that welfare wasn't perpetually required and people could use it as a stepping stone rather than a lifeline of last resort. If we didn't care so much about the size of America's rhetorical phallus, and how far we could shoot in political pissing contests, we could retreat from invaded foreign territories where we don't belong and halt our course toward bankruptcy, death, and the povertization of the countries where the people, inevitably, only suffer from our continued presence. If we didn't care so much about profits, labels, and putting on a show of outstanding moral character, we could provide healthcare for the entire country.
If we cared more about each other than we did about looking patriotic, we would actually be worthy of being called a great nation. Beyond that, we can celebrate our economic and technological successes, however brief they may be, and sit back down in front of the couch for our daily dose of patronization. America is fatally addicted to its own propaganda, and the longer we citizens allow this to continue, the more we are to blame for the chaos and horror it creates.
I am one among many; the discontent, terrified citizens who grow pale at the sight of patriotism. My only recourse is to speak, to weather the storm and hope that the winds truly change and not just bluster about it in speeches and campaign ads. Should my one last ounce of faith in this country expire, which it will if any military action is perpetuated in Libya (where we've sat idly by for 40 years and smiled at the regime we now claim to loath), my sole concern will be leaving this country before it gets any worse.
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