Nationalism: A Complaint

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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80 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    My objections are not as strong as yours, but I too am uncomfortable with the pledge. I do not — and have never — had my students recite it (save for when I student-taught and the decision was not left up to me). My current school — far more traditional both philosophically and culturally than my prior ones — does the pledge in some (maybe all?) classrooms, starting as young as Kindergarten. I don’t know who ultimately makes that decision on a classroom-by-classroom basis. It is performed before each Friday assembly. We rarely attend these, but when we do, I begrudgingly stand silently. My students stand, some placing their hands over their hearts, but I make no motion towards them of what they are expected to do other than handle themselves with basic decorum.

    Recently, we redid our mission statement. The goal was, in part, to make the mission something that even a 5-year-old could recite, even if they couldn’t understand it… “…like the Pledge of Allegiance.” I wanted to scream.

    There is something really disconcerting about watching young children forced to memorize and recite something they don’t even understand but which (theoretically, at least) is a powerful statement of deference to something.Report

  2. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    This is why I prefer the oath I took when I joined the militaryReport

    • zic in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Something I’ve been pondering since Saul’s Zionism posts:

      I grew up in Maine; mostly white, mostly Christians in identity but atheist in practice, some military service in my family. Not much experience of outside cultures or experience. So when I first moved to Boston, I was at first shocked and soon enchanted with the bluntness of the way my Jewish friends spoke — kvetching, they told me.

      I had a second, similar enchantment when I began writing for a mag called Veterans Business Journal and several sister pubs; particularly when I interviewed active-duty officers. Not so shocking to me as kvetching first was, always done with an, “Excuse me, ma’am,” but the active duty people I interviewed were NEVER wishy washy about disagreeing with me or feeling I didn’t understand something properly. (Remember, talking to me was typically done under order.)

      And off the record (I always gave folks opportunity to tell me whatever they felt I should know off the record) there was virtually no support for the wars; most people considered it an enormous blunder.

      Until Saul’s post, I hadn’t put those two things together — the joy of talking to people who will just be honest, hopefully politely so. There’s a lot of ‘nationalism’ about military service that does disturb, but the skill of learning to respectfully speak your mind and disagree with someone could use some spreading around.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:

        @road-scholar can probably back me up, but in the military, there is something of an art to respectfully speaking your mind to a superior in such a way as to be able to let them know you think that have shif for brains, while never actually crossing the line to legal insubordination & thus giving said superior the ability to destroy you for being so bold.

        You either learn how to do it, or you keep your mouth shut if you want a career in the military.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      The officer oath is even better, in some respects, in that it promises fidelity to the Constitution but not to any particular person or people. (nor any particular set of rules)Report

  3. Damon says:

    I’ll never forget a convo I had with a guy at a former place of work. His point, essentially, was “it’s not torture when we do it.”


  4. Chris says:

    Amen, brother, as you put it.

    I hope that people in my age cohort, recognizing how criticism our country’s behavior in the early 2000s was demonized as anti-American, even treasonous, and to some extent still is, even by people who now recognize how wrong those behaviors were but believe that the people who recognized it at the time did so for the “wrong” reasons (i.e., because we were anti-American, even treasonous), will be less inclined than those before or after us (though perhaps not more than our parents, who went through Vietnam and Watergate in their youth) to find a pledge of allegiance to our country appealing.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Chris says:

      I absolutely despise that whole “Support the Troops” thing where it was also asserted that to do so you necessarily had to support the war as well.

      As a veteran it puts me in a weird place. On the one hand I absolutely oppose war unless absolutely necessary, the last one of which I reckon as WWII (and even then I’m wobbly). On the other hand I can’t help but feel a certain comradeship with my brothers and sisters in uniform. Then there’s the issue that at some point, anyone with two or three neurons to rub together should have understood the futility and immorality of our recent adventures. By volunteering, they enabled these conflicts to drag on as long as they did. There’s no way the country would put up with a draft or you could muster the votes to authorize one. Hell, we couldn’t even get Congress to raise the taxes to pay for the fishing things! In the end I’ve come to view the military volunteers less as heroes and more as enablers even as I recognize their bravery from their perspective. Like I said, a weird place emotionally.Report

      • Chris in reply to Road Scholar says:

        Yeah, one difference between the protesters of this war and those of Vietnam, in my experience at least, was that there was absolutely no animosity towards the troops (even if the animosity towards Vietnam veterans was exaggerated by some back in the day). I remember seeing signs that said things like, “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home.”Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Road Scholar says:

        I can understand that dichotomy, although I’d save the… not sure what a good word here would be, maybe contempt… for those who enlisted to fight terrorism. Some people join because it’s a job and a path to education, and have no desire to fight (although they will if called).

        Not every decision can wait until our foreign policy & military adventurism aligns with personal preferences.Report

  5. Road Scholar says:

    Heh, you would absolutely despise life on a military base. At sunrise and sunset they go through the ritual of raising and lowering the flag. This is accompanied by, IIRC, the National Anthem and Taps, respectively. If you happen to be outside when this happens you are expected to stop, face the nearest flag, stand at attention, and salute the entire time if in uniform or do the hand-over-heart thing if in civies. If you’re driving you’re supposed to stop right in the street and sit at attention.

    It could get kinda comical sometimes. You couldn’t always actually see a flag from wherever you happened to be. So you’d see a bunch of sailors (in my case) spinning around, desperately looking for a flag, until someone would remember that HQ had a flag out front and it was that-a-way and then everyone would sort of crystallize around that first guy, right or wrong. And then there were the types that would happen to be near a building entrance and would desperately try to duck inside before anyone noticed.

    Anyway, I tend to agree with you. It’s one thing if you’ve consciously, and of free will, joined the military and taken the requisite oath of office (same oath for officers and enlisted). It’s quite another for civilians, particularly children, to show the same sort of fealty. I mean… I think citizenship means something, but what that something is, is fairly limited when said citizenship is really just an accident of birth in the first place.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Road Scholar says:

      Oh god I hated that when I was on base. I made a conscious effort to be indoors or off base at such times.

      Similarly with constantly saluting officers, especially when said officer was not worth the minimal respect the salute offered.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Remember boot? You hadn’t really figured out yet how to distinguish officers from CPOs and you were instructed to make sure you saluted any officers that drove by if you were out walking? So you just ended up saluting every car that went by; officers, chiefs, POs, civilians, the fucking bread truck… everything. Good times.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        At least the cars had the blue, red, & green stickers. You could safely salute just the blue stickers.

        The worst was accidentally saluting a chief who was looking for a rick to dress down, or worse, accidentally saluting a cadet on base while a chief was watching.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Road Scholar says:

      Oh, I’d probably find it amusing, and I’m generally unsuited for military life by predisposition to anarchy and hating all authority anyway. But I see a more legitimate purpose there, in creating unity and a certain mindset, even if it may be overdone (not that I’m in position to judge whether it is or not, and I’ve had military friends on both sides of the issue).

      If I had joined the military I’d probably view it as I view my College’s practice of having a prayer before every ceremony; something appropriate to the institution, so I’ll go along fairly cheerfully despite my disbelief.Report

    • I’m out on the Air Force Base about once a week and usually around the time the standard duty day ends. All the loudspeakers blast the anthem and you’re supposed to pull your car over to the side of the road, or if you’re on foot you’re supposed to stand still and salute the flag, and wait for the song to end before you go on about your business.

      At one point, I was at the Hollywood Bowl with friends, and one of them got a call from her boyfriend just as the show started. The dude was on active duty, on a carrier, in the Persian Gulf. He heard the national anthem start and told his girlfriend that he’d call back rather than disrespect the ceremony underway despite the fact that initiating each new call cost him something like ten dollars. She thought it was silly too (although the show was starting, so I thought it would have been better if they waited until the intermission to talk).Report

  6. Mo says:

    Have you seen the, “Everyone on the plane give a round of applause for random guy in a uniform because uniform!” thing before?Report

    • Kim in reply to Mo says:

      What’s more amusing is the “Everyone taking orders from a guy in a uniform in a crisis”
      … even if it’s a band uniform.Report

  7. bluefoot says:

    I had a teacher back in high school who would stand for the pledge but never recite it. I asked him about it and he told me that he was willing to stand in a show of respect, but ever since Vietnam wasn’t willing to recite the pledge and as an atheist refused to say “under God”. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone not recite the pledge. But it certainly made me think. I blame him for planting the seed for my libertarian tendencies.

    One of my pet peeves is faux nationalism, which isn’t really the correct term for what I mean. For instance, I was driving home on a rainy night this past weekend. I passed many flags up at businesses, residences and at least one town square. In no cases were the flags lit, and in only a few were they obviously all-weather flags. Times like that, I want to stop and tell them if they want to show off their patriotism or nationalism, fine, but they could at least display the flag correctly.
    (I’ve been enough of a jerk before that I’ve gone into businesses and told them they’re violating flag code. One of these days some jingoistic asshat will shoot me for being an uppity melanin-enhanced person telling them they’re doing it wrong. At least I will die laughing from the irony.)Report

    • Kim in reply to bluefoot says:

      The Jewish School up the road insists on flying the Israeli flag at the same level as the American Flag. Haven’t been quite brave enough to go bitch at them yet.

      (Be a bit better if I could get a vet to show up in uniform, and continue being cantankerous until they fixed it, I admit).

      I never used to say the Pledge in school. But I did stand, and that was enough for the teachers to not be totally annoyed with me.Report

    • Patrick in reply to bluefoot says:

      Times like that, I want to stop and tell them if they want to show off their patriotism or nationalism, fine, but they could at least display the flag correctly.

      This bugs the crap out of me, too.Report

      • greginak in reply to Patrick says:

        You mean display the flag correctly like as a bikini or head scarf or t-shirt to sweat in and get ketchup stains on or as a scanty pantie/banana hammock?Report

  8. Tod Kelly says:

    Out of curiosity, how do you feel about the Star Spangled Banner being played before sporting events?Report

  9. zic says:

    My neighbor had four big American flags in the back of his pickup truck; along the front of the bed, just behind the cab. He left them there for years, until they were tattered. Only reason I can figure he didn’t use a decal instead:

  10. Burt Likko says:

    The flag is a very good, effective, and powerful symbol of our nation. It is, of course, a symbol. My concern is when people confuse the symbol for the thing that it symbolizes, when the reverence for the symbol overtakes respect for the reality.

    A soldier does not serve the flag, she serves the United States of America. Which is why it makes great sense to me that the soldier’s oath upon enlistment or commission has her promise to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and is silent about the flag, because the Constitution actually is the United States, whereas the flag is a symbol of it.Report

    • zic in reply to Burt Likko says:

      A soldier does not serve the flag, she serves the United States of America.

      Nice touch, @burt-likko, and I commend you for it. Thank you.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:

      The Constitution is the United States… is the United States its constitution? And nothing else? Or just not the flag? It seems to me the United States is a lot of things, including the Constitution, the Flag, you, me, the state of Hawaii… lots of stuff. There’s probably some formal political way we could say the United States is nothing but its constitution (is that what you’re saying?), but I don’t think there’s much reason to be interested in it, and nor do I think that, whatever their oath says, American soldiers fight only for the Constitution of Unites States. They’re sworn to defend the Constitution (that’s what the country has determined to use them for, though in fact we use them for a lot of things beyond that, which is fine), but they fight for the United States and its interests. If the nation had determined to use its soldiers to do something other than defend its Constitution (which is has), its soldiers would be sworn to defend something different, but in any case they be doing that for their country. And yes, the flag is a symbol of the United States (not just of its constitution); it’s not the country itself. And, no, they don’t fight for the symbol. But that’s essentially trivial. No one thinks the flag is the country. Soldiers use the symbol for what symbols are always used for: to remind them of something (in this case what they fight for). The reverence for the flag simply reflects reverence for the country it symbolizes. (What’s the reason to have thought otherwise for even a second?)Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Actually, the oath puts us in a bind, as we are sworn to defend the constitution, but to also obey the orders of those above us, up to & including the president.

        Our only out is that we can refuse an illegal order, although such a refusal can get us court martialed, and since few enlisted & officers have the legal training to know for certain the difference except in very specific circumstances. Thus the other out that you have something of a defense if the order is not clearly illegal (I was only following orders).Report

  11. dragonfrog says:

    As a Canadian and outsider to US politics, I can’t really comment on the experience in the US. To me the whole business of reciting of the pledge of allegiance at events not directly related to citizenship or allegiance to the country in some way is strange.

    There was a ridiculous flurry of Islamophobia a few years ago here in which the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration pronounced that women receiving Canadian citizenship would be barred from doing so while wearing a niqab – in response to the imaginary threat of Muslim women not actually uttering the apparently magically binding words of the oath of citizenship. There was no word on whether everyone would have to also show their hands so it would be clear they weren’t crossing their fingers while reciting the magic formula.

    A perfect solution to a non-existent problem, and a convenient cover for making Islamophobes feel good about the government, is all I can see that amounting to.Report

    • James K in reply to dragonfrog says:


      I’m inclined to agree, ritualised loyalty oaths strike me as deeply creepy.Report

      • Kim in reply to James K says:

        I agree. But it’s one thing to do it once, as a ritualized “crossing over” (like a religious conversion, a statement of principles you believe). It’s quite another to recite it at every single event under the sun.Report

      • Murali in reply to James K says:


        I actually don’t find saying the pledge to be creepy, especially when everyone else around me is saying it. I mean, sure, strictly speaking, a pledge doesn’t exactly signal liberal individualism par excellence, but when all is said and done, it is pretty anodyne. For example, Singapore’s pledge requires me to build a democratic society. But I’m a sceptic of democracy. That doesn’t mean I should stop saying the pledge. It sort of like going to temple or church and join in the hymns just because the rest of your family does so. Its just something you do to fit in. 15 seconds of your time is not so severe a burden that it requires the sort of reaction you guys seem to be having.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James K says:

        15 seconds of your time is not so severe a burden that it requires the sort of reaction you guys seem to be having.

        Do you really think that our complaint is that it’s a waste of time?Report

      • Damon in reply to James K says:


        While I’m wishy washy about the pledge, I do not LIKE feeling pressure to say it. It’s the same as when I was asked to be a god parent. I was asked to stand before my SIL’s family, in their church, in the presence of their god, and swear an other to that god that I would raise the child in the faith if anything happned to the parents. I couldn’t do it, not because I would be lying to a god I didn’t belive in, but because I take oaths and promises I made VERY seriously. Swearing fealty to a soverign, or alleigence isn’t something I take casually.Report

      • Murali in reply to James K says:

        Mom: Promise me you won’t stay up late or go drinking with your friends

        John: Yes Ma

        Next day at the pub…

        John: So, as I was telling my mother….Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James K says:

        “… that I wouldn’t stay up late or go drinking with my friends, I realized the loophole: staying up late AND going drinking with my friends.”Report

  12. j r says:

    How do y’all feel about this:

    To me, it seems like spectacularly bad idea of the kind that this administration seems to have often, perhaps by virtue of this generation’s fascination with the powers of social media. Of course, to this administration’s credit, most of its spectacularly bad ideas haven’t involved a large-scale invasion of another country yet.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to j r says:

      I like the cheeky way it was set for May 1. Were it not titled “loyalty day,” the idea behind it wouldn’t even be bad, but that title just galls.

      To be fair to Obama, though, it predates him.Report

    • j r in reply to j r says:

      Aha, I stand, actually I am sitting, corrected:

      With the exception of Eisenhower in 1959 and 1960, Loyalty Day has been recognized with an official proclamation every year by every president since its inception as a legal holiday in 1958


  13. Pinky says:

    Wow, not one person on this site who thinks that the average schmoe is capable of distinguishing between the flag, the country, and genocide? This thread as jingoistic as any I’ve seen, only with the guy wearing the flag as The Other. Creepy.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

      One thing that I hear about from time to time that always amuses me is the whole “American Ex-pat” thing where the former American goes to a new country (England, say) and immediately says something like “Finally! A country whose flag I can be PROUD to fly!” and then learns that, erm, only white supremacists fly the Union Jack anymore.Report

    • zic in reply to Pinky says:

      Hey, you’re either with us or you’re . . .Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Pinky says:

      …not one person on this site who thinks that the average schmoe is capable of distinguishing between the flag, the country, and genocide?

      Did I say that the average schmoe is incapable of distinguishing between the flag, the country, and genocide? No, I went back and read my comment again and I’m confident that no I did not write anything that could be fairly interpreted as this. Did anyone write anything like this? If so, I can’t find it, not in the OP and not in any of the comments.Report

    • Chris in reply to Pinky says:

      Dude, I just pointed out that I and people who thought like me were considered enemies of the state, in essence, just a few years ago, so I find rote expressions of allegiance to the state and the idea that my country is always right problematic, and you see this as jingoism? I got nothing for you, except to say dude, you are as wrong as wrong can be.Report

    • Barry in reply to Pinky says:

      See above -‘if our country does it, it’s not torture’.Report

  14. Stillwater says:

    Man, it’s a tough day for first principle types here at the League. First Tod writes a devastating take down of natural law theory and now you eviscerate the pledge of allegiance and blind nationalism. I’m down with both, I might add, and I don’t even hate the state.Report

    • zic in reply to Stillwater says:

      Ha, @stillwater

      You made me wonder why people who seem to hate the state (drown it in a bathtub types) love the symbols of the state , while people who love the state (regulate everything types) are suspicious of the symbols.

      Can you explain that to me?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to zic says:

        I think conservatives who hate the state but love it want America to Re-become the Greatness We Never Weren’t.

        Lefties who love the state but hate its symbols prolly identify overt patriotism as impinging on America Becoming Greatness We Never Were.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        Eckkkkk, to many nevers and n’ts.

        Maybe there’s some appearances vs. substance going on here, too.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to zic says:

        It’s the title of Colbert’s book. And if you think about it a bit from that perspective it makes perfect sense.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

      it’s a tough day for first principle types here at the League.

      I always like seeing the dogs being sicced on the first principles types, but I’m not sure I see how this post does that. Do you see some particular connection between first principles and nationalism (or at least with American nationalism)?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Nationalism is the first principle.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Hmm, is it a first principle in the way that American natural law-believing conservatives would use the term? I’m having a hard time imagining Tim Kowal treating nationalism as a first principle. Or maybe I’m just not following you?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s a first principle in the same way all the others are: it’s a normative guide to action and belief derived a priori. For those that believe it, anyway.

        But I’m happy to be wrong about all this, or agree to disagree or whatever. I didn’t really mean anything important in that earlier comment. It was just something that struck me.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Hmm, I guess I can see that. I just interpreted your comment as referencing our American legal conservative type first principalists, but maybe it wasn’t that narrowly focused. No worries. I’m not trying to argue it, either, was just trying to figure out what you meant.Report

  15. LWA says:

    The comments about jingoism and faux-patriotism are of course spot on.
    But lets look at this from another angle- Is there such a thing as patriotism?
    How would a libertarian express it?

    When Hanley writes in disgust at “passive adherents to a mass common identity that brooks no real dissent. ” which of those phrases is the problem? The passivity, the group identity, or the lack of dissent?
    If the group identity brooked dissent, and was active, would it be swell? Or is group identity itself a problem?

    I would make reference here to Haidt’s observations about the power of group identity and tribal loyalty.

    My tribe of liberals, for example, is still bitter over being on the receiving end of acusations of disloyalty, stretching back to the Vietnam War. The urban myth of hippies spitting on servicemen persists to this day. But why not? If the only thing people hear from liberals is how rotten “Amerikkka” is, it becomes pretty easy to believe the spitting hippie myth.

    There is a value, I believe, in tribal loyalty and identity, and rituals of belonging. We can argue about how silly they are and how easily abused, and thats all true- but they are still important, and still vital as tools to create a society that can act and do something.

    All the things libertarians want to do- Recognizing property, protecting rights, enforcing contracts- are positive actions, not passive ones. They require large groups of people to act in concert, with a clear goal and purpose. They are impossible to accomplish without making a large scale social compact, with terms and conditions and enforcement.

    Group identity- “WE do ordain and establish…” helps make all this possible.Report