Before September 11, patriotism, wasn't doing all that well. You might have noticed it at the ballpark, as the “Star Spangled Banner” turned into a novelty number and the guy next to you continued munching on his hot dog as you stood at attention. Less obvious, however, was that in the media and the nation's talk it just didn't seem to matter that much.
Yet now, suddenly, we speak of patriotism again. Why did so many need the Viagra of violence to demonstrate love for their land? Where was this love when NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (WTO) were being forced down our throats? Where was it as corporations raped our waters and forests and infected our crops? Where was it when the young took to the streets to defend old American values against a new world order?
It feels odd to this Vietnam-era vet, whose great-great-great grandfather fought with his four brothers in the Revolution and whose parents both lost brothers in World War I, to be lectured on patriotism by those who until the morning of September 11 had evinced so little interest in loyalty to any larger entity than themselves and their careers.
To be sure, the sudden rise in patriotic self-branding is not entirely a spontaneous reaction to the tragedy. It has also been the result of intense government and corporate propaganda capitalizing on these events and on a long-cultivated shift by which Americans have been reduced to being spectators and consumers, rather than actual citizens, of their government. We have been taught to cheer rather than act, to wear logos rather than think, and to purchase rather than control and influence. At a moment calling for the most rational vision and thought, our leaders—from the White House to CNN—have instead chosen to turn this disaster into a national policy Super Bowl in which our only assignment as Americans is to choose the right team and cheer it on.
This is a dirty business that does a huge disservice to the country the flag-wavers purport to honor. Remember that our government, in the months before September, not only assured us that our future lay in giving up our national independence for the greater good of a corporate-dominated global culture, but arrested young people who dared suggest this was not right, and ridiculed anyone who spoke with feeling of the need to protect America's sovereignty on behalf of its workers, its environment, and its civil liberties. And, until recently, some of the same multinationals that now bedizen their ads with the flag regarded America mainly as a mail drop.
No assault on American sovereignty has been more successful than that carried out in recent years by corporate globalization, through such mechanisms as NAFTA and the WTO. Victory, which over the course of our history, had proved impossible to the British, Mexicans, Confederates, Spanish, Germans, and Japanese, was being accomplished by a handful of lawyers armed only with cell phones, fax machines, and the support of politicians willing to trade their country's nationhood for another campaign contribution. The new agreements not only permit unsafe, polluting foreign trucks on our highways, push down wages for American workers, and ban state and local boycotts against dictatorial governments, but the US Congress was even denied a chance to change them.
Today, we justly pledge allegiance to the republic for which America stands, but we do not have to pledge allegiance to the empire or failed policies for which America is now suffering. There are few finer, albeit painful, expressions of loyalty than to tell a friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent that what they are doing may be dangerous or wrong. If our country is about to run into the street without looking, there is absolutely nothing disloyal about crying, “Stop!”
True patriotism is an act of love, not of hate. It is debate not salutes, contributions not cheers, participation not prohibition, service not revenge. It's the product of vastly different people with remarkably similar dreams, for it is not a primeval past or cultural similarity that binds us but rather a shared present and future.
Patriotism's dark side
We need always beware of the dark side. Like other isms, patriotism is easily driven more by hatred of the other than by positive love of one's own. This is why the KKK and various movements of extreme American nationalism have typically recruited from among society's weakest and most insecure. Further, almost every time our government has sought to decide who qualified as a good American, it added shame to our history.
Thus the current hysteria belongs in the same dismal catalog as slavery, the disfranchisement of women and non-property owners, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the notorious Palmer raids of the early 20th century, and McCarthyism. It shares absurdity with the FBI's labeling of those fighting in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists” and it shares dishonor with the arrest in 1951 of an 82-year-old intellectual because the State Department considered him the “agent of a foreign power,” a man better known today for far sounder reasons: W.E.B. Du Bois.
But the madness can be far worse than individual injury, for not only is patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel, it is also the first tool of the tyrant. And while prejudice and hatred have been endemic to the human story, only in the last century have nations developed the technocratic ability to carry them out on a mass scale. Combine primitive patriotic agitprop and the modern technocratic state and you have the essence of fascism, the former drugging the psyche and the latter creating a closed-loop logic impervious to moral inquiry. Was it hard to kill so many Jews? Adolph Eichmann was asked at his trial. No, he said, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.” It was the language of the technocratic manager, “office talk” they called it.
Today, America's discussions are also dominated by manipulative appeals to patriotism on the one hand and the technocratic office talk on the other. Nightly on TV, the military and anti-terrorism experts speak antiseptically of deadly or repressive techniques. Even though this is a struggle framed by religion, moral voices are absent. Even though the solutions often trade the certainty of less liberty for illusions of safety, those speaking on behalf of democracy—our purported cause after all—appear only as an afterthought.
One observer has counted six amendments in the Bill of Rights that are currently under attack in the name of freedom. Increased surveillance, searches without warrants, arrest without habeas corpus, secret and military trials, censorship, restrictions on public information are but a few of the ways the Bush administration has blasphemously, in the name of patriotism, altered and diminished the nature of America, its constitution, and its citizens.
As Americans, we do not have to accept this. Progressives in particular must understand that there is nothing to be gained by ducking for cover as so many did during the McCarthy era. Adopt instead the attitude of Paul Porter of Arnold & Porter, the only big Washington law firm that represented leftists during those dismal days. Called before a House Committee and asked if it were true that his firm had represented Communists, Porter replied, “Yes sir, how can I help you?” We must meet the bullies and charlatans with both resolution and ridicule.
Meanwhile, each of us can express our love for America in our own way. The Green may do so through care of our environment. The libertarian or anarchist may do so by preserving our faith in liberty. The progressive or socialist may do it by insisting that America's promise of social justice be fulfilled. The conservative may do it by preserving the good. The deeply religious may do it through personal witness. The oppressed may do it through protest that brings us closer to our ideals. The cop may do it through upholding the laws of the land—including the most important one, the Constitution. The artist may paint it, the musician sing about it, the teacher teach it.
And if others don't do it your way, that's America, too. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly said during the McCarthy era, “We must defend the basic right of every American to make a damn fool of themselves.”
At best, our patriotism is still a work in progress, one that, in the end, is defined by deeds and not words. We are not just fans in the stadium; we are each on the field.
Sam Smith is editor of the Progressive Review and author of Why Bother? Getting a Life in a Locked Down Land.