The folly of patriotism
In the essay Patriotism: Menace to Liberty, Emma Goldman tells us that “Patriotism … is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that robs man of his self-respect and dignity, and increases his arrogance and conceit.” There is considerable weight to the truth of this statement.
Those who adhere to the doctrine of patriotism would argue differently, of course. They might be more inclined to agree with George Orwell’s assesment, in his essay Notes on Nationalism, that patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people” and “is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.”
Such a patriotism does, of course, exist. However, such patriotism is inconsequential in political terms. Though a powerful sentiment, its effect in the political realm – positive or negative – is negligible. It is a vague, intangible thing, that many feel yet few can put into words. When speaking of the real world and the machinations of power and state, however, “patriotism” becomes indistinguishable from nationalism.
On which subject, in the same essay, Orwell is far less understanding;
By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. … Nationalism … is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.
In “democratic” societies, where the threat of massive and sustained force cannot be used to gain obedience from a population, such “stimulation of nationalistic loyalties” is priceless. Though they have always existed in some or other form as long as there has ever been a state, the use of idols and totems to inspire such sentiments are ever more important when the ruling classes must control through propaganda alone.
The key to stimulating such blind, unthinking loyalty as this requires is the use of iconography so powerful that to even contemplate not showing reverence towards it earns one instant stigma and pariah-status. The most sacred, most untouchable of idols atop the altar of patriotism are the Flag and the Military.
That, attached to the national flag, there is so much ritual, protocol, and even superstition is a sign of just how revered it is as a focus for statist worship. Essentially, a flag is nothing more than a design on a piece of cotton or nylon meant to represent the state that exerts control over any given piece of land. And yet, to burn or desecrate it is tantamount to sacrilege. Title 4, Chapter 1, § 8 of the United States Code demonstrates just how far some countries take the demand of “respect” for the flag;
No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.(e) The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
The near-religious dogmatism surrounding the flag, as a symbol of state, was summed up by Ron Lewis, of the U.S House of Representatives, when he declared; “Freedom of religion is a principle that is central to our Nation’s Declaration of Independence. Congress has taken this positive step to protect our freedom to express allegiance to America’s flag and the ideals it represents.”
But the “ideals” that any flag supposedly represents are nothing more than subterfuge. The truth is that the flag is nothing more than a talisman, a charm used to deflect criticism and distract from crime and folly perpetrated by the rulers. It is when the actions of the government are called into question that the flags will come out, a clarion call for the “patriotism” of an end to critical scrutiny.
When the issue at hand is war, and the crimes the government is complicit in are not domestic but international, then the other idol comes out. The military, more specifically the soldiers who constitute it, serve both as a convenient deflector of legitimate criticism and as a focus of reverence and blind obedience to the ruling class.
Opposition to war is greeted, predictably, with the accusatory demand that the protester of activist “respect our troops” or, with greater emotive value, “back our boys.” Were it not for the cloak of mystique and worship that surrounds the armed forces, such calls would be recognised for the transparent strawmen that they are. Instead, it is quite often a debate ender.
Dissent on popular wars can be quickly silenced with the charge of not supporting the armed wing of the state vigorously enough. Even when there is a concession of wrong doing, “I know that we shouldn’t be there in the first place,” the demand for blind loyalty still remains, “but now that we are we should back them completely.” The idea implicit in this absurd non-sequitur being that questioning the motives for the war, or suggesting that those on the other side may have legitimate reason to fight back against invaders and occupiers, is the equivalent of wishing that the soldiers who have been deployed there die.
The whole mantra of “respect our troops” or “back our boys” is nothing more than dogma meant to inspire an almost religious fervour for war. It robs people of all logical and inquisitive faculties and creates malleable, obedient subjects of the state as it fights to strengthen the interests of the elite. If that’s “respect,” then I’ll have nothing to do with it.
As far as I’m concerned, genuine respect for those pushed, dragged, or led into army life is the desire to see them at home, disarmed, and alive, not dead and flayed on the altar of that most abhorrent of false gods, patriotism.