Patriotism is Still a Pathology (Revisiting an Old Essay, More Relevant Now Than Ever)

In light of the recent ventilations of Rudy Giuliani, to the effect that President Obama doesn’t “love America” like “the rest of us do” — because of the way the president has framed, among other things, the actions of ISIS and our response to it — I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit an essay I wrote back in 2001 at the outset of the so-called “war on terror.” Though dated in places, it also seems more prescient than ever, especially the point that patriotism — and what those who cleave to this concept consider “patriotic” — is often against the actual best interests of the country they claim to love so much. In this sense, patriotism is not merely, as the old saying goes, the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it is also the thing such persons readily substitute for a sober-minded assessment of the real interests of their country and its people. Such “love of country” as endorsed by Giuliani, Sarah Palin and the “isn’t America exceptional?” bunch, in other words, is decidedly counterproductive and dysfunctional in most cases. Although I am working on a newer piece addressing these issues, and challenging the notion that those on the right “love” the United States more than those on the left, I also felt it would be worth circulating this piece again too. Because as was true then, so is it true now that patriotism (which goes beyond merely loving the country and its people, descending instead into a form of nation-worship) is a pathology, and one worthy of being discarded.

This essay was originally published in LIP Magazine, October 23, 2001

Since most Americans fail to appreciate irony, it may be impossible for us to acknowledge how fitting it is, and how typical, that we should launch a “war on terrorism” just in time for our own national celebration of one of the most prolific terrorists in modern history: Christopher Columbus. Still reeling from the terrible attacks of 9/11, New Yorkers turned out recently to commemorate the “peerless” explorer, who by all accounts oversaw the slaughter of Taino Indians on Hispaniola, and to “demonstrate support for what our country is doing,” to quote Grand Marshal, and Mets Manager, Bobby Valentine.

The failure to recognize the inconsistency of condemning terrorism while yet celebrating one of its most dedicated practitioners is predictable, and explains much about why others the world over view the U.S. as a bastion of hypocrisy. As with our lack of historical perspective, our military actions are also predictable, as are the likely consequences. With bombs pummeling Afghanistan, turning rocks into smaller rocks and searching for buildings over two stories tall to wipe out, the President insists that the collective will of the world is behind his “war on terror.”

Yet, in the pit of one’s stomach, the distinct feeling emerges that coalition or no, by our actions the U.S. has sealed the fates not only of thousands of Afghans, but also many of our own citizens who shall one day feel the wrath of those seeking revenge. If history is any guide, air strikes will rip up real estate, kill innocent people, and do nothing to end the extant threat of terrorism or even diminish it. Quite the opposite.

As we cozy up to the Northern Alliance — whose version of Islam is little different from the Taliban and whose only complaint about the current regime is that it’s not them — let us pause to consider what happened the last time we decided a ragtag Afghan army was comprised of “freedom fighters.”

To expect that we might learn from history would, I suppose, be asking too much. Arming one set of thugs so as to combat another — who used to be our thugs after all — may seem logical to those whose vision extends no further than the next election cycle. But to those who seek an end to the violence such action entails, it makes no sense at all. Of course to most people, the only thing that doesn’t make sense is why there is so much anger directed at America from people around the globe. Knowing literally nothing about our nation’s activities in the Middle East, South Asia, and the broader Muslim world, many “Amur’cuns” as the President might call us, wonder even as children lay dying from bombs we drop in darkness, “Why do they hate us?”

My guess is, if we had to view the devastation daily as those in Kabul are now, or as those in Iraq have been for a decade, the question wouldn’t enter our minds. They hate us for the same reason we hate those who turned the Trade Center into a pile of twisted metal, concrete and glass. It’s not hard to understand.

So I listen as my government cautions that future terrorist attacks are guaranteed, especially now that we have shed the blood of others, and I wonder what good was done, that being the case, by these bombardments? Of course, to ask such a question is verboten now, and this too is predictable. In the wake of actual shooting, there has been a new rallying ’round the flag that seeks to shut off speculation and lack of patriotic fervor.

The flags will go up, even higher than before. Perhaps the yellow ribbons that were war chic under Bush the First will find themselves tied tightly around the trunks of trees again. Testosterone-addled ex-soldiers like David Hackworth, for whom bloodshed is like Viagra, will insist that those who question the wisdom of this course are traitorous. Cries of “support the troops” will rise from the kitchen tables and water coolers of American homes and businesses. And in this environment it will grow especially difficult for many to maintain their opposition to war. So be it. But one thing I can say without fear of contradiction is this: I will not be among the flag-wavers, ribbon-tiers, or heart-crossing anthem singers. While I have no ill feelings towards those who do any or all three, I cannot imagine joining them, under any foreseeable circumstance.

I must confess that I have never been a patriot. I have never been comfortable waving a flag, or pledging allegiance to one. Nor have I found myself misty-eyed at the sight of Old Glory flapping in the breeze, nor during the playing of patriotic songs. Long before I was consciously political, to say nothing of radical, I felt that pride in my country made little sense. I had done nothing to deserve being born here, after all, so to be proud of my country would be no more logical than to be proud of my white skin or the mix of X- and Y-chromosomes that render me male.

And since children elsewhere are taught pride in their countries too, and to think their nations are “number one” — an admittedly American concept, but one that perhaps has global counterparts — it always struck me as especially absurd to cleave to national identity. After all, we couldn’t all be number one, and since there is no objective judge to sort out real greatness from mere hubris, what at long last would be the point of such vapid aspirations?

On the most basic level, it seems a truism that the things most Americans view as patriotic never serve the best interests of the nation’s people, or even national security. The more nationalistic among us, after all, thought it patriotic to support the arming of the Mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviets, since patriots hated communism. Not so smart, as anyone not blinkered by red, white and blue Russophobia knew at the time. The patriotic thought it wise to support the war against Iraq, even though doing so not only failed to topple the regime of former friend, Saddam Hussein, it has led to the blowback of increased Wahabbist Islamism, a la bin Laden. Those who supported the toppling of the elected government of Iran in 1953 — leading to the vicious reign of the Shah and his replacement by the fanatical Mullahs — no doubt would think themselves patriots. Yet look at what their ill-conceived actions wrought. On this level alone, patriotism seems hardly related to the well being of one’s nation. As such, caring for the nation and its people, as I certainly do, has almost nothing to do with being patriotic.

Patriotism appears to be nothing if not a pathology, by which I mean a deviation from an otherwise healthy, normal condition. Patriotism is unnatural and unhealthy because it requires, almost by definition, that one place one’s own countrymen and women above those elsewhere, in terms of moral desert or the right to life, liberty and happiness. It requires that one see nationality first and humanity as an afterthought: a process that is only possible within a structure of separate nation-states that itself came about not naturally, but as the result of specific historical circumstance.

Patriotism asks one to reify authority as manifested in national governments, and to believe, or act as if one does, that those who stand in the way of one’s supposed national self-interest should be brought under heel. That one only ends up in the nation one does because of happenstance becomes irrelevant. Patriots assume they earned their status as the chosen.

Adding to the problematic nature of patriotism in America is that to pronounce such a mindset good, one must also, so as to be consistent (which has never been a pressing concern for most Americans), consider patriotism elsewhere to be good. And by this standard, Osama bin Laden — a Saudi patriot whose “love” for his land inspires distaste for the presence of U.S. forces there — would have to be considered a veritable role model. One can’t have it both ways. If patriotism means, as it inevitably does in practice, a reflexive defense of one’s nation, then those Chinese who applauded the crushing of dissent in Tiananmen Square, or those Soviets who went along with Stalin’s purges, or those Germans who assented to mass murder by their silence and support for lebensraum, would merit respect on par with patriots of the American variant. By the same token, if we see in those other examples of patriotism real problems, shortcomings, and dangers, then so too must we accept that those flaws are across the patriotic board, the U.S. included. They are not merely the result of others’ inability to separate responsible from irresponsible nationalism. It is, all of it, fruit from a poisoned tree.

What’s more, flag-waving patriotism serves to paper over the real divisions and disunity that continue to plague our nation, claims of togetherness notwithstanding. It allows us to push to a tertiary region of our consciousness the racism, poverty, unequal health care access, crumbing schools attended by far too many of our nation’s children, or the police brutality and misconduct that has gone unchecked in city after city for years. It promotes the lie that we are “all in this together,” when in fact our interests are not the same. In a nation where stock prices, and thus shareholder profits, go through the roof whenever a company lays off a few thousand workers, we can hardly pretend that the interests of all Americans are similar, or that the dream of America is a shared one for all.

And yes, I know there are those who insist one can reclaim symbols like the flag, or concepts like patriotism; that one doesn’t have to accept the supremacist interpretation of either one. There are those who are convinced that one can wave the flag as a symbol of potential and promise, in hopes of what America could become, despite our failure to live up to our vaunted principles thus far. But while true on an individual level — persons can, after all, decide what symbols mean for themselves, irrespective of what others might think — in the court of public opinion, reclaiming icons en masse is more difficult. After all, when the meaning of a symbol or concept is widely accepted to be that held by the majority, and when the majority is insistent on that interpretation being maintained, those proffering a different meaning are likely to be thwarted in their efforts for reclamation.

In those few cases where symbols have been effectively reclaimed, such as the pink triangle by the gay rights movement, circumstances were different. Transforming the triangle from a symbol of Nazi repression into one of liberation didn’t require activists to contend with others seeking to use it in the historically traditional manner. The pink triangle had long since ceased being an active symbol of anti-gay bigotry, so “reclaiming” it was less about trumping another interpretation, than merely picking up a symbol with which many were not even familiar and turning it to good use. That doing the same for the flag would be infinitely more complicated is an understatement.

To speak of the deep flaws in the American experiment and the hope of transformation to a more equitable and just republic, requires one to criticize, often harshly; to rebuke; to even condemn the actions of one’s government. And to expect to be able to do those things and still be viewed as patriotic is asking for a much more nuanced understanding of national pride than that which is likely possible in a soundbite-dependent society that favors easy answers: especially at a time like this, when falling back on old understandings is more comforting.

It may be that new realities require new symbols, new concepts, and new slogans. For those who seek peace with justice, in the Middle East or right here at home, that means giving up the fight for the flag, and instead engaging in the more meaningful struggle for the soul of America. While not denigrating the flag, or ridiculing those who find value and virtue in patriotism, we should yet not be fooled into believing that we have the power to turn chants of “USA, USA” into something other than what they are: a dangerous projection of nationalistic machismo, likely to precede more bombing, more gunfire, more retaliation, and more death.

For me, the only way to accept patriotism, and this war that the patriotic seem to think is so necessary, is to accept that American mothers and fathers love their children more than Afghan mothers and fathers do. And that our children are more precious not only in the eyes of the parents but in the eyes of God, however defined, and that ours are more valuable. And that is very simply a lie; and not one that I am willing to say is true just for the sake of national unity.

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