Nationalism: A Complaint
In the past two days I was twice subjected to that dehumanizing ritual we call the pledge of allegiance. Or perhaps you call it the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m not going to dignify it by capitalizing it. I call it dehumanizing because it asks us to suppress our individuality and dedicate ourselves en masse to the state, the ultimate dehumanizing organization. We become not active Citizens managing the direction of our state, but passive adherents to a mass common identity that brooks no real dissent.
The first occasion was at our college graduation. This didn’t use to happen, but now it’s a set piece in our ceremony. Because, somehow, honoring people who’ve earned their college degree can’t be done properly without a robotic display of nationalist fervor. (And what about those foreign students who are graduating; why do we even let those un-American Canadian “lacrosse”–what an un-American word!–players in anyway?)
The second was at the local school board meeting, which I only attended because daughter #3 was being honored along with the rest of her Equations team. Honor your kid for academic achievement? Hold on, we must rotely recite our nationalistic devotional before we can do that, because it’s only by the grace of
king, er, flag and country that our children outperform all other nations in math. Again, this didn’t use to be a thing.
We do it before city council meetings, and before candidates’ debates, which also did not use to be a thing. Apparently, neither city councilors nor Democratic and Republican candidates from small Midwestern towns can be trusted until they have recited the pledge yet again. Who knows what commie hijinks those salt-of-the-earth city councilors might get up t0 otherwise? And how can we dare vote for a candidate who doesn’t demonstrate her love of country by wearing a flag pin and reciting the pledge louder–and with more erect posture–than the rest of us?
And check out this guy–he’s not even covering his heart! Thank god we didn’t elect him president, because it’s pretty obvious he’s not really pro-America.
I don’t do it. I despise nationalism and its manifestations. The flag in itself doesn’t bother me overly much–it’s useful to have on embassies and consulates in other countries. But you won’t see it on my house, and you won’t see me salute it. I will stand quietly, hands behind my back, gazing off into the distance, but not at the flag.
Similarly, I’m not going to go out of my way to honor the military. This puts me in something of a weird–albeit unnoticed–position at work. Some years back my college started a collaboration with the ROTC. Some of my colleagues objected on the grounds that it was not compatible with our mission and tradition. I wasn’t keen on it myself, but I thought it was fair to make the opportunity available to those (albeit few) students who want it. It wasn’t going to turn us into a military academy.
Those students who make it through get commissioned just before they graduate, and they walk through the graduation ceremony in uniform, rather than in a robe, and are announced as “Second Lieutenant Joe Smith.” And they get extra loud applause, regardless of their academic accomplishments. That’s not intended to imply that they’re bad students. Rather, a commissioned officer–who’s never yet done any active service–gets louder applause than someone graduating summa cum laude, regardless of whether s/he’s graduating with honors or not. And veterans, who’ve actively served and in some cases been seriously wounded, not being in uniform don’t get that applause.
I’ve noticed specifically that the newly commissioned officers get enthusiastic applause from some people (not all) who objected to the program. I’m one of no more than two people who supported the program but refuses to clap wildly for our men and women in uniform. Because I don’t believe in limiting young people’s opportunities, but I also don’t believe in being nationalistic.
When Johnson said Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, he didn’t mean that it was wrong to love your country, but that wrapping oneself in the flag, in a patriotic, nationalist, identity was so powerful that it blinds people to your sins. To question the flag-wrapped patriot is to question the nation, and therefore to make oneself an outcast.
One of our earliest naval heroes, Stephen Decatur, said
Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.
But to knowingly align oneself with wrong, simply out of identity and allegiance, is to be in the wrong. Some decades later American Statesmen Carl Schurz corrected Decatur, saying
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
Amen, brother. But it’s hard to see if your country is wrong when patriotism becomes a matter of symbolic repetition, rather than active and thoughtful consideration of what one’s country is actually doing. The latter form of patriotism is what led me to publicly oppose the Iraq War (although that wasn’t a necessary outcome of thoughtful patriotism); the prior form was what led an audience member to stand up, yell that we were cowards and traitors, then stomp out of the room. That’s not just patriotism; that’s nationalism.
We know where nationalism leads. It leads to genocide and to total control of the population to ensure against dissent. It leads to domestic violence. It leads to the arrest and imprisonment of those who disrespect patriotic symbols. It leads to efforts to erode protections on political speech.
I’ll not put my hand over my heart for any of that.