Lamar W. Hankins :
The patriotism platitude

This July 4th we should be conscious of the ‘patriotic’ words used to evoke cheap emotion.

Patriotism at Republic of Texas Biker Rally, June 1, 2006. Photo from Alex Thompson / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons.

By Lamar W. Hankins | The Rag Blog | July 3, 2018

If any word in the English language has ceased to serve a useful purpose, that word is patriotism. As we near the observance of the day we annually observe as Independence Day, the words “patriotism” and “patriotic” will be used to evoke emotion without rationality. It is cheap emotion, devoid of meaningful content and leading to false reality. Its moral base, if it ever had one, has long since vanished.

What I mean, when I use “patriot” words, relates to the best values on which this country was founded. Those values are embodied in the French notions of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” — liberty, equality, and fraternity — ideas that arose out of the Enlightenment and were as important for our own break from British control as they were for the French Revolution.

Contrary to our national mythology, we should acknowledge that these values were only selectively honored in the founding of our country. We mostly denied them to indigenous peoples, slaves, women, and those who did not own real property.

At the national or state level, complete loyalty is a kind of totalitarianism.

In its most elemental formulation, patriotism is group loyalty, whether to the football team, the college, or (broadly) the nation. At the national or state level, complete loyalty is a kind of totalitarianism: to many Americans, being critical of the state is to be anti-American. But most people don’t recognize this totalitarian impulse in themselves.

Noam Chomsky explains it this way:

For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, “patriotism” means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That’s a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It’s one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do?

But the kind of “patriotism” fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long.

Patriotism and the military

“Patriot” words have been used throughout our history with relation to participation in military ventures. Soldiers are viewed, usually without hesitation, as patriots. Few ever question the notion. And now members of our military are called our heroes. I can agree that some are or may be, but not all are heroic. Unquestioning adulation of the military is tawdry patriotism.

After 9/11, many Americans wanted to join one branch or another of our military to get the bastards who were behind the terrorism that took nearly 3,000 lives on that day in 2011. But it was not massive military action that was needed to bring those men to justice; it was intelligent diplomacy in conjunction with cooperation of the international community.

But America could not take such a civilized route. We had to play the wounded belligerent and redress our grievance with military attacks on a sovereign country and its despicable leaders, in violation of international law we had pledged to uphold.

Many good young men and women were misled by our own leaders.

Many good young men and women were misled by our own leaders to believe that war was the only way to respond. The war was not fought (and is still not being fought) to protect this country, preserve our freedoms, or assure our right to continue to speak freely, to worship as we wish, or exercise democratic control over our government. None of these issues motivated going after Osama bin Laden and his henchmen.

The war has always been more about revenge and covering up the failure of our elected leaders to operate as honest brokers on the international stage, and to pay attention to what the intelligence community was telling us about terrorists. Those leaders were willing to sacrifice young men and women on the altar of political ambition.

From Ronald Reagan’s arms deal with the Iranians and his arming of the Contras in Nicaragua to overturn its democratically-elected government, to George H. W. Bush’s arming of Osama bin Laden to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, to Bill Clinton’s Iraqi sanctions that led to the deaths of more than a half million Iraqi children from disease and hunger, we have behaved as bullies and belligerents on the international stage.

This behavior continued when we invaded Iraq under false pretenses directed by George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney), and engaged in the overthrow of the Libyan regime, and started bombing other countries and killing perceived enemies anywhere with drones under the authority of Barack Obama.

Our military men and women have been used as pawns in these misadventures.

Our military men and women have been used as pawns in all of these misadventures. To refer to them as heroes is to conceal by misdirection the country’s misdeeds. It is a magician’s trick to use patriotism to divert our attention in the service of deceit.

With respect to our Iraq invasion, Howard Zinn wrote  in 2006, “We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture. …Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies.”

If patriotism is the love of one’s country, it is strange to show it by sacrificing the lives of our fellow citizens. Such mendacity is the peculiar province of America’s leaders who want to control the world for the benefit of themselves and the corporations that have built wealth by exploiting the resources of others while despoiling the natural world on which we all rely. These leaders find patriotism a useful tool to manipulate the masses.

Patriotism and the flag

Patriotism in the United States often manifests itself in burnishing the flag, in infusing it with meaning and emotionalism based in false assumptions.

The power of that symbolism was brought home to me in 1968. I bought about two dozen small flags on wooden sticks the length of straws and provided them to a group marching from the campus at Southwestern University in Georgetown to the town square to protest the Vietnam War. I overheard a woman remark that the marchers must be confused to be protesting carrying American flags. She saw protesting the war, with or without a flag, as “unAmerican.”

The flag became a ‘fashion statement’
for the right wing.

But somewhere along the line, as one writer has noted, the flag became a “fashion statement” for the right wing and the thoughtlessly patriotic. Is it patriotic to use the flag as clothing or to juice up an accessory? Apparently so, at least for many Americans, who seem oblivious to the written protocols for the flag and its use.

And many businesses use giant versions of the flag to call attention to themselves, as though the larger the flag, the more patriotic the company will seem to the public.

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during game against Washington, Oct. 15, 2017. Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons.

Patriotism and the NFL

Colin Kaepernick began his 2016 protest against racial injustice and police brutality, by sitting on the bench during the performance of the national anthem. Nate Boyer, a Seattle Seahawks football player and former Green Beret, suggested that kneeling would be more respectful and in keeping with the military tradition of kneeling over the body of a fallen comrade, and Kaepernick changed his symbolic tactic. But the background of military involvement with the NFL is instructive.

Between 2012 and 2015, as explained by Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, the Defense Department spent over $10 million on contracts with sport franchises to promote the military. Around half of that was spent on payments to the NFL, but the figure could be much higher. Defense has reported its spending on only 76 of 122 “promote the military” contracts. The marketing and advertising includes payments for “patriotic salutes” to the military, military jet flyovers, military appreciation events, and similar promotions.

No wonder that Trump expressed his outrage at NFL player protests.

No wonder that candidate Trump and now President Trump expressed his outrage at NFL player protests that cut into the “patriotic” symbolism featuring the flag and the singing of the national anthem. Given Trump’s racist history, he couldn’t abide protests about racial injustice and police brutality against minorities.

They might make us think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who fifty years ago protested this country’s racial inequality at the Mexico City Olympics. Trump certainly did not want to offend his base supporters by acknowledging those problems. After all, Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he is a devoted racist. His preferred response is to distract us from real problems.

Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams was critical of the president’s tweets and comments, saying, “This anthem thing is a scam. This is not actually part of football. This was invented in 2009 [by] the government paying the NFL to market military recruitment, to get more people to go off and fight wars to die. This has nothing to do with the NFL or American pastime or tradition.” It is wrong to question the devotion to this country of football players who call attention to our failures.

There is nothing patriotic about the NFL. It is a sports combine established for the sole purpose of making money, especially for the owners. It has been subsidized throughout the country by owners who extort hundreds of millions of dollars from local taxpayers to build stadiums that enrich those same owners.

Commercialized military promotion doesn’t belong in NFL games.

The average value of NFL franchises is now $2.5 billion. Commercialized military promotion doesn’t belong in NFL games. It degrades the military services and falsely presents the nature of the NFL franchises. It is propaganda masquerading as patriotism.

Those who say they want politics kept out of NFL football need to think again about the promotion of the military and the flag and realize that these are elements of our politics, just as much as, if not more than, social protest.

Patriotism as propaganda

Propaganda as patriotism works to confuse many Americans. It is common now in America to hear paeans to veterans on Memorial Day (traditionally May 30), a day set aside for honoring and mourning those who died in our wars, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

There is another day to honor veterans — Veterans Day — observed on November 11 each year. The conflation of the purposes of the two observances is another symptom of a faux patriotism that brings out the jingoism in too many people — what Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as “garrulous patriotism.”

Noam Chomsky explains the use of propaganda:

With regard to the U.S., I think we find a mix (of beneficial and destructive forms of patriotism). Every effort is made by power and doctrinal systems to stir up the more dangerous and destructive forms of “patriotism”; every effort is made by people committed to peace and justice to organize and encourage the beneficial kinds. It’s a constant struggle.

When people are frightened, the more dangerous kinds tend to emerge, and people huddle under the wings of power. Whatever the reasons may be, by comparative standards the U.S. has been a very frightened country for a long time, on many dimensions. Quite commonly in history, such fears have been fanned by unscrupulous leaders, seeking to implement their own agendas. These are commonly harmful to the general population, which has to be disciplined in some manner: the classic device is to stimulate fear of awesome enemies concocted for the purpose, usually with some shreds of realism, required even for the most vulgar forms of propaganda.

The sources of fear that President Trump promotes are clear: Muslims, immigrants, minorities, “#metoo” women, gun control advocates, free trade, public schools, climate scientists, protesters.

Origins of patriotism

Feelings of loyalty to the group undoubtedly are of ancient origin, embedded in our DNA since we were hunters and gatherers in need of the security the group could provide to protect against wild animals and other groups who would do us harm.

When those ancient feelings are bolstered by the belief that we are God’s chosen people, a Biblical myth that right-wing, fundamentalist Christians promote endlessly (forgetting, of course, God’s promise that Israel was the chosen group), the patriotic feelings become ubiquitous. Religion and patriotism are closely linked among many religious Americans.

Religion and patriotism are closely linked among many religious Americans.

This country’s prenatal sin of stealing land from the native inhabitants of this continent paved the way for a myth of meritocracy to flourish — we work hard to get what we need and, therefore, deserve it — ignoring what actually happened.

With the military leading the way, those who were willing to endure the real hardships of homesteading and hunting by traveling over mountains, wild rivers, and deserts, as well as dealing with wild animals and “renegade” Indians, could survive, even thrive, through their hard work.

The idea of meritocracy conveniently elides what our real history shows, and it, along with patriotism are closely linked — both allow us to believe the myths we tell ourselves about our country’s past and present.

Who and what a patriot honors

Those who serve in the military or whose lives were damaged or taken from them in that service deserve to be acknowledged and thanked for their service. But no more so than teachers, garbage collectors, fire fighters, police officers, librarians, those who protect our environment and natural resources, social workers, nurses, and all of the public servants who make our lives richer, safer, and even possible. Where are the days set aside to honor them? At what sporting events do we remember them? Their service is at least as valuable to the nation as military service.

Relatives and friends of mine have participated, and sometimes been maimed or died, in every war this nation has fought since the American Revolution. I want their lives, injuries, and deaths to have meaning. But since the end of World War II, it has become increasingly difficult for me to suggest that the sacrifices they have made and are making are noble or meaningful. I wish it weren’t so, but the reality I see makes it impossible to reach a different conclusion. Telling the truth about our military is patriotic; pretending that the military protects our values and way of life — our freedom — often is neither truthful nor patriotic.

‘Support our troops’ is propaganda used in place of ‘support our foreign policy.’

The slogan “support our troops” is propaganda because it is used in place of “support our foreign policy,” which the propagandist doesn’t want us to think about. Who can quarrel with the idea of supporting people who risk their lives, presumably for our benefit? Hence, we become distracted by the essentially meaningless slogan, so that we don’t think about what our government (through its military) is actually doing.

We need a military for one purpose — to protect this nation from foreign attack. The founders who worried about the maintenance of a standing army were right to be concerned. A standing army has demonstrated repeatedly in our history its usefulness as a vehicle for treachery.

Those who have promoted and supported our military ventures around the globe since World War II have much to answer for. Every death, every maiming, every mental trauma created by military action should eat away at them like uncontrolled metastatic cancer.

The extent to which it does not is a measure of an inhumanity that has infected the body politic and is demonstrated daily in Donald Trump and others who feign love for this country. What they love is the ability to bully others and carry Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” wherever some corporation needs some natural resource or cheap labor, or where there is a political ideology they (we) don’t like.

As the writer Max Eastman suggested over 100 years ago, we should be loyal to truth and goodness (and, I would add, our relative freedom), not to some false idol called a nation. The latter kind of patriotism is idolatry.

If this were truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” no one would be criticized for calling this country to account for its present and past injustices. We would recognize that only someone who loves our country would ask that it live up to its creed. That is patriotism I can support.

[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, also blogs at Texas Freethought Journal and about death and dying at the Good Death Society Blog. This article © Texas Freethought Journal, Lamar W. Hankins.]

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