Monday, July 21, 2008

The Problem Of Patriotism

The Problem Of Patriotism

By James Rothenberg

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Puzzled we would be if a child’s first words were: “I’m proud to be white!” Even if the child waited long enough to learn a thing or two about life there is still something unsettling in this utterance. Should there be any particular honor in being a member of this group (there isn’t), what did one do to deserve it? It’s rather like being honored as the millionth person across a bridge.

The United States has never been blind to color, even if Lady Justice supposedly cannot see out. Albert Einstein called racism our national disease. He was gifted at recognizing things but this was a simple matter to see. The only way you can miss it is to be in some degree a racist yourself. And it is a matter of degree. One hundred racists will not be racist in the same way.

Overall though, if not quite uniformly, we do recognize the basic unfairness of discriminating by skin color and the folly of being unduly obsessed with one’s own, even if our institutions are not apace.

Then there is the meaningless birth accident of sex. “I’m proud to be male!” Wonderful. Congratulations! One can enjoy being a man or a woman but even that seems to mean no more than enjoying what you are doing.

As with skin color, we do recognize, if not quite uniformly, the basic unfairness of discriminating by sex and the folly of being unduly obsessed with one’s own, even if our institutions are not apace.

Religion is a great separator of people. It is largely accidental and sometimes chosen. Many tens of millions of people have been killed for it. Tens of millions of proud people killed by other proud people. The philosopher Dagobert Runes said no god is worth killing for. The United States was founded on religious freedom, but some today claim it is a Christian nation. I have an indirect proof that this is not so; It has never been official state policy to persecute Jews.

Still, we do recognize, if not quite uniformly, the basic unfairness of discriminating by religion and the folly of being unduly obsessed with one’s own, even if our institutions (particularly State and Justice in regard to Muslims) are not apace.

Now we have nationalism and patriotism, virtually inseparable in our country today, so let’s just refer to it as patriotism (because it mounts a better defense in the public mind). Our nationality is largely accidental, sometimes chosen. George Bernard Shaw had this elegant observation on the subject. “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it."

Yet, unlike racism and sexism and religionism, in the case of patriotism we do not recognize, if not quite uniformly, the basic unfairness of discriminating by country and the folly of being unduly obsessed with one’s own, especially because our institutions are apace.

Race, sex, and religion do not demand your loyalty but your country does. Your village or town doesn’t. Your city doesn’t. The state you live in doesn’t. New York and California don’t care if you are loyal to them. What’s the difference? Armed force. Uncle Sam needs you. To fight.

One could argue that we are all Americans and what is so bad about this, fighting for our country? Two things. Americans do not decide when to fight and Americans do not fight for the country. The political leadership decides when to fight and Americans fight for the political leadership.

It must be added that we are not the only nation with a military and patriotic citizens. We are, though, the reigning superpower with a bad history of state violence, for those interested in the record. Due to the preeminence of our military power the decent moral position would be for us to be the last to use it. Unfortunately, we are consumed with its display and demonstration.

All that it takes to prepare the country for war is to sound the alarm that they’re coming to get us and raising the claim of self-defense. It’s known as propaganda, a pejorative term since the Soviet Union and Germany started using it but neutral when the United States formed the Committee on Public Information (World War 1) and the Office of War Information (World War 2).

Even when there is plentiful evidence to the contrary, a massive government propaganda effort in the claim of self-defense can bring the country into submission. What makes this possible is an abundance of obedient, loyal, patriotic citizens who look the other way. Obedient and loyal the way a police dog is obedient and loyal. Without question.

There is an abstraction known as the United States of America. It is not the language, the culture, the artifacts, the customs, and it is certainly not the people who individually house the most exquisite tool for determining right from wrong, their individual consciences. The abstraction is what we swear to, what has recently caused millions of lost and wrecked lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, need we add torture holes like Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo.

Yet when the abstraction America acts, Americans are involved. This is no price for patriotic Americans who surrender their consciences and salute. But the result is we are a nation of criminals, criminals against peace, bedrock of international law under the Nuremberg Principles.

There is a way to synopsize the problem of patriotism in question and answer form. Why aren’t U.S. crimes regarded as crimes? Because it’s unpatriotic.

At election and re-election time (Our multi-term system insures a permanent political class.) politicians play a game with the people called ‘I love America more than you could possibly love it!’ A flag lapel pin is to a politician as a giant red nose is to a clown except the clown is trying to be silly. They are show-probed by a largely subservient media to determine the depth of their patriotism.

Tell people that you are an internationalist, a citizen of the world, and you will be regarded with suspicion. That is assuming you are even taken seriously. Strange is the situation whereby we intuitively see our ideals as universal but fail to free ourselves of the bonds of national prejudice.

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