Friday, February 11, 2011


     I am not a patriot. I was born in the United States and have never lived anywhere else, but I don’t “love” the United States. I don’t hate it, either. It’s just a country—the one I happen to live in. I wish it well, but no more well than any other country. I wish my fellow U.S. citizens well, too, but no more well than I wish the people of China, Uganda, and Ecuador. I don’t care a fig which country wins the most Olympic medals or the final hockey game. I want infant mortality to drop everywhere.
     I actively dislike public shows of patriotism. When they play the national anthem at baseball games, I arrange, if I can, to be under the stands. There I don’t have to stand still or take off my hat or put my hand over my heart or look at the flag. That is, I don’t have to act the hypocrite. If I am stuck in the stands when they play the national anthem, I will stand quietly, but only to avoid offending strangers and provoking a confrontation with people who just came to see a ball game. If other people care that much about the national anthem, I have no wish to debate them about it before the first pitch. Their standing means something to them; mine means nothing to me. I won’t sing the national anthem under any circumstances—not because I can’t or because it’s a silly song, with hilariously out-of-touch lyrics, but because national anthems are symbols of repetitive blind nationalism. Blind nationalism offends me. Asking me to participate in repetitive acts of blind nationalism insults me.
     When I was in the tenth grade, my school paper did a poll of students regarding the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in homeroom, which act we were all required to perform. I still remember my exact words when asked about the morning pledge: “Mandatory patriotism is meaningless.” The quote appeared under my picture in the school paper. I was proud of that, and I still believe what I said. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I said the pledge every morning in homeroom, anyway, cowardly little hypocrite that I was, but it meant nothing to me. In fact, today I would go further in my school-paper quote: “Patriotism itself feeds on ignorance and narrowmindedness,” I would say. “It is dangerous and misbegotten.” There are schoolchildren today who refuse to say the pledge. I admire them. They’re braver than I was. The Pledge of Allegiance is a loyalty oath, plain and simple. Loyalty oaths are the tools of despots and should be rejected at every turn.
     Patriotism is a goose-stepping sort of attitude. It wears a brown shirt, whatever flag it comes wrapped in. 

Patriotism is a goose-step, brown-shirt sort of attitude.

     Occasionally I’m asked to speak to civic groups like the Rotary. Most such groups begin their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, a patriotic song (sometimes the insipid “God Bless America,” which, given that I’m an atheist, discomforts me twice over), and a prayer (ditto). I will stand at such meetings because I am a guest. I will not speak the pledge or sing the patriotic song. I will not say, “Amen.”
     Sometimes, hearing me express these attitudes, someone will ask me what country I would like to live in instead of the United States—what country, they want to know, do I think is “better”? Well, I like the Netherlands for its sense of humor and its bicycles. I like England for its pubs and understatement. I like Russia for its love of literature and chess. I like China for its shyness. I like Australia for not being shy. I like New Zealand for its landscape and sheep. I like France for its art and food. I like the weather in southern Spain. I like the politics of Sweden and Denmark. I like the way Finland treats its teachers and its old people. I’m sure I would like many things about countries in Africa and South America, but I’ve never been to either one.
      The question of what country I “like better” than the U.S. misses the point. I would feel no more loyalty toward any other country I lived in, no matter how much I “liked” it. It’s patriotism itself I find inane. There would be no flagpole in front of my house in Amsterdam, either.
     Most of the time my lack of patriotic feeling is irrelevant to the issues of the day. The abortion and stem cell debates, for example, are rarely argued in patriotic terms; not even the most extreme right-winger, so far as I have heard, has ever said, “It’s unpatriotic to have an abortion” or “a true patriot would never work with fetal stem cells.” Often, however, patriotic sentiment is relevant to the public debate. I find myself shaking my head, for example, when politicians talk about “saving American jobs.” I would like everyone, not just U.S. citizens, to have a soul-satisfying job that pays decently. I don’t care if a good job goes to India or Thailand or South Korea, as long as someone gets a good job—the more the better, throughout the world.
     I find it equally inane when people present political positions as either “American” or “un-American.” (Forgive us, Canadians, for using “American” so carelessly.) Restricting gun possession is “un-American”? That argument—to the extent that it is an argument at all—means nothing to me. Is it “un-American” to tax the rich at a higher rate than the middle class? Is the regulation of banks “un-American”? When people make such claims, I imagine they expect me, not to address the issue, but simply to stand up and salute.
     Speaking of saluting, I must, of course, acknowledge the innumerable acts of bravery committed by U.S. soldiers in the name of “patriotism.” Millions have died “for the flag.” Americans are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq today to “protect America.” Many have died fighting terrorists in the name of “homeland security.” (The word "homeland” for me, however, has unfortunate echoes of Nazi Germany.) Thousands of men and women have enlisted to fight wars because “Uncle Sam Needs You.” The courage of Americans on the battlefield has been extraordinary and admirable.
     But did U.S. soldiers in World War II fight the Nazis and the Japanese just for the United States? Are they fighting terrorists to protect just one country—their own? Of course not. It serves a certain motivational purpose to tell soldiers that they are “fighting for their country,” I suppose, but I’d prefer it if they were told that they are fighting to protect people everywhere from tyrants and terrorists.

Should I be patriotic because we have giant sequoias and other countries don't?

     The very word “patriotism” offends me. It is sexist, for one thing, deriving as it does from Greek and Latin roots meaning “father.” “The Fatherland” is a term long used by tyrants to suggest that nations somehow have a right to exert a kind of parental control over their citizens, presumably because they also “protect” their citizens like a parent (even when they suppress more than they protect). With alternative sexism, the term “Motherland” is equally used and abused, meant to suggest, I suppose, that we should love this country which has taken us to its “bosom” and “nurtured” us. I have no idea where the bosom of the U.S. is (though we do have the Grand Tetons—look up the meaning in French), and I can’t imagine being “nurtured” by any country. My country taxes my income, and that’s fine with me if it is the best way to help the poor and the sick, but that hardly counts as nurturing. My country has a military to protect me, but so does nearly every other country in the world. It has lots of good things, the U.S., but very few I can think of that are unique—unless I should be patriotic because we have the world’s only Giant Sequoias and Bristlecone Pines. (Of course, many “patriotic” companies are doing their best to rid us of such things by befouling the air and defiling the land.)
      I think I know what you’re about to say, and my answer is this: No, this country doesn’t “give” me my freedoms; it is simply one of the many good countries that don’t take too many of one's freedoms away.
      Sometimes I’m accused of being a “one-worlder.” But that term usually means someone who wants a single world government. I don’t want that. I rather like the variety of governments the world now has. I certainly don’t like the totalitarian governments, and I hope they change, but I don’t want everyone to be governed in the same way, either. In government, like food, variety is a good thing. There are many ways to cook up a reasonably good government.
      In the end, my loyalty is to people, not abstract concepts like “country.” What is this “country” I’m supposed to be loyal to, anyway? Is it the federal government? Those flag-wrapped patriots the Tea Partiers would certainly say no to that. Is it the land itself—the mountains and the prairies that “patriots” like to sing about? Well, every country has its interesting landscapes, so it can’t be that. Is it the Constitution and the laws of the land? Our Constitution is pretty good as constitutions go, and our laws are about as good as those in other democracies, but I don’t think soldiers have died because of some strong feeling for legal philosophy.
     I wouldn’t even know how to feel patriotic if I wanted to. “God Bless America”? Whose god? What America?
     Salute the flag? I might as well salute the fog. 


  1. Pretty courageous post Ed. I'm old enough to not care that I say it resonates with my feelings.

    But I see the evolution of this notion of patriotism. I'd bet it derives from an essential need to form an allegiance to a tribe. In a primitive society you had better espouse your love of your tribe or you might be out in the cold staring at some grizzled gnarly stranger with an axe. Similarly when we lived in city states, survival meant hooking up with a mob.

    Theology too served a purpose in providing an explanation of the world's mysteries for the primitive mind ("God makes it so!"). Religion followed by overlaying rules of behavior.

    But, like the Second Amendment, some things just lose their utility with time- they even become a bit perverted.

  2. I agree with most of what you say, Ed. I also agree with Tom that our feelings of "patriotism" are rooted in primitive impulses toward tribalism. I think we are hard-wired to think in terms of "us" and "them". Just the nature of the beast. However, we do seem to be able to modify our notions of who qualifies as "us". As the tribe's education, communication and transportation technologies advance, as we perceive shared interests, as people read posts like yours, we seem to be able to identify with wider geographical areas and transcend superficial cultural appearances. Villages do become city states, city states become states, states become "united" states or countries, countries become continental unions. Maybe the next step is a unified world identity where "we" become "them" and vice versa. Imagine....What are your thoughts, John and Yoko?

  3. Interesting Larry - maybe all this "social networking" stuff is to satisfy the notion of "tribe" where the old familiar mechanisms (country, physical community and even family) don't work anymore. The problem with virtual communities is that there is "no there there." The physical experience of tribalism is, I think, important.

    But then again, what do I know?

  4. Great, thoughtful posts, Tom (high school friend) and Larry (college friend). Federal judge Richard Posner has a wonderful chapter in his book *Literature and the Law* about the history of revenge and how law-based societies were designed essentially to "channel" the revenge impulse. In that chapter he points out exactly what you are both saying: when straight revenge was the only "law," you needed a family or, better, a tribe to assure that you would be avenged if you were killed or injured. The tribe was the deterrence. It still is, in a way. But Posner points out that one problem with the tribal-based system is that it tends to lead to ethics based on a rather strict "honor is all" system (do not threaten my honor or I will kill you! [see the works of Faulkner about the post-Civil War "us-vs.-them" South]). A revenge-based system also leads to, as you say, extreme physical and emotional reliance on the tribe and the tribe's territory. This, as you say, is just an early form of nationalism. Maybe we need the aliens to land for the world to start thinking in a "we're all in this together" way.

  5. Hey, Egypt is in just the right position to do this! They really don't have the scaffolding for a democracy yet. Perhaps Egypt will be back in the limelight again after a 3 millenium snooze!

  6. Just read this, Ed, and find that so much if what you write mirrors my own beliefs. Have you read John Shelby Spong on Christianity (and all other religions) as tribalism? You would likely agree with him. Thanks for this.