January 24, 2018

Whose land is it, anyway? Reflections on patriotism

From our overstocked archives, A shorter version appeared in Yes Magazine

Sam Smith, January 2002 - Before September 11, patriotism wasn't doing all that well. You might have noticed it at the ballpark, as the "Star Spangled Banner" was turned into a novelty number and the guy next to you continued munching on his hot dog as you stood at attention. Less obvious, however, was that in the media and the nation's talk it just didn't seem to matter that much.

One reason was that learning about the country and its values had been widely displaced in school by things like driver, drug, and sex education. Social studies, history, and civic education were in decline as we taught our kids how to behave as individuals rather than how to be part of a community.

Immigrants didn't get much help either, as neither of the two great acculturating institutions of the past - the church and the political machines - held the influence they once had.

Richard Croker, a tough 19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, had grown almost lyrical when he spoke of his party's duty to immigrants:

"They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state . . . There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citizen. Who else would do it if we did not? . . . [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them."

Alexander B. Callow Jr. of the University of California has written that Boston pol Martin Lomansey even met every new immigrant ship and "helped the newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives. James Michael Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare newcomers for the citizenship examination . . . Friendly judges, anticipating election day, converted their courts into naturalization mills, grinding out a thousand new Americans a day. . . . Flags were waved, prose turned purple, celebrations were wild on national holidays. . . . Patriotism became a means for the newcomer to prove himself worthy."

But there was a darker side, one that often comes to the fore when patriotism is prominent: "Enemies of the organization and reformers in general were identified as opponents of true patriotism and American ideals." Like other isms, patriotism is easily driven more by hatred of the Other than by positive love of one's own. This is why Osama bin Laden, the KKK, and various movements of American nationalism have typically recruited from among society's weakest and most insecure.

Today, immigrants, like other Americans, are far more likely to learn their civics from TV - the main source of news of three-quarters of the public - than from a ward boss, priest, or teacher. The results make Tammany Hall look good. For example, a 1998 poll found that while three-quarters of all teenagers knew the zip code for Beverly Hills, only 25% could name the city in which the Constitution was written. Ninety percent could identify Tim Allen as the star of "Home Improvement" but only 2% knew that William Rehnquist was the Chief Justice. And it's not getting better; just recently the Boston Globe reported that MTV has begun playing excerpts of videos because when they play the whole thing - all three and a half minutes - ratings start to go down.

It is worth noting that those pols who "grafted immigrants upon the Republic" were all Democrats. They saw no conflict between their love of country and an economic populism so radical it would ban them from today's C-SPAN. To them, the palaces of the Morgans and Carneigies were not the same as the place called America. Americans had not yet been indoctrinated into the false notion that the revolution was fought to let corporations do whatever they want. And Democrats had not yet turned over bragging rights for faith, family, and home to the right wing.

Consider these words from a Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, speaking to a group of newly naturalized citizens: "You have just taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Of allegiance to whom? Of allegiance to no one, unless it be God. Certainly not of allegiance to those who temporarily represent this great government. You have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great body of principles, to a great hope of the human race."

By the end of the century, our presidents saw it differently. Bill Clinton told a 1995 Michigan State University commencement shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, "There's nothing patriotic about hating your government or pretending you can hate your government but love your country." And in a few years, George Bush's attorney general would imply that even criticizing government policy was unpatriotic.

How had loyalty to government come to replace loyalty to ideals, place, and people in the pantheon of patriotism? In part because the American elite had decided that nations no longer mattered all that much. It was government we needed to honor lest our parochialism interfere with corporate multi-nationalism. In 1992, Strobe Talbott had written in Time Magazine, "Within the next hundred years . . . nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority . . . All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances. No matter how permanent and even sacred they may seem at any one time, in fact they are all artificial and temporary."

Talbott was expressing a centrist consensus later confirmed by that Washington favorite, Francis Fukuyama: "Globalization will not be reversed." And by Vaclav Havel, approvingly quoted in the New York Review of Books referring to nations as "cultlike entities charged with emotion."

It was not just a matter of words. No assault on American sovereignty has been more successful than that carried out in recent years by the globalization movement, using such mechanisms as NAFTA and the WTO. That which, over the course of our history, the British, Mexicans, Confederates, Spanish, Germans and Japanese had been unable to do was now being accomplished by a handful of lawyers armed only with cell phones, fax machines and the support of politicians willing to trade their country's nationhood for another campaign contribution.

And it wasn't just happening to America. By the 1990s, about half the top economies of the world were not nations, but corporations. Trade had replaced ideology as the engine of foreign affairs. Politics, nationhood and the idea of place itself was being supplanted by a huge, amorphous international corporate culture that ruled not by force but by market share. This culture, in the words of French writer Jacques Attali, sought an "ideologically homogenous market where life will be organized around common consumer desires." o

Yet now, suddenly, we speak of patriotism again. Why did so many need the Viagra of violence to demonstrate love for their land? Where was this love when NAFTA and the World Trade Organization were being forced down our throats? Where was it as corporations raped our waters and forests and infected our crops? Where was it when the young took to the streets to defend old American values against a new world order? And where was this love of America during the long "war" on drugs as a growing number of politicians, police, and financial institutions served as allies to the drug lords?

It now feels odd to this Vietnam era vet, whose great-great-great fought with his four brothers in the Revolution and whose parents both lost brothers in World War I, to be lectured on patriotism by those who until the morning of September 11 had evinced so little interest in loyalty to any larger entity than themselves and their careers.

To be sure, the sudden rise in patriotic self-branding is not entirely a spontaneous reaction to the tragic events. It has also been the direct result of intense government and corporate propaganda capitalizing on these events and on a long-cultivated shift by which Americans have been reduced to being spectators and consumers, rather than actual citizens, of their government. We have been taught to cheer rather than act, to wear logos rather than think, and to purchase rather than control and influence. At a moment calling for the most rational vision and thought, our leaders - from the White House to CNN - have instead chosen to turn this tragedy into a Super Bowl of national affairs in which our only assignment as Americans is to choose the right team and cheer it on.

This is a dirty business that does a huge disservice to the country they purport to honor. Remember: these are the people who, in the months before September, not only were assuring us that our future lay in giving up our national independence for the greater good of a corporate-dominated global culture, but who arrested our young people who dared suggest this was not right, and who ridiculed anyone who spoke with feeling of the need to protect America's sovereignty on behalf of its workers, its environment, and its civil liberties.

These people have further failed us by creating a world so filled with hatred for our land. They have failed us by not protecting us against the consequences. They have failed us by selling out our interests to the highest multinational bidder. And now they fail us again, by presuming that they know how best to love this land and imputing disloyalty to those who doubt them. They are in no position to say who is a good American. While we pledge allegiance to the republic for which America stands, we do not have to pledge allegiance to the empire and its failed policies for which America is now suffering. There are few finer, albeit painful, expressions of loyalty than to tell a friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent that what they are doing may be dangerous or wrong. If our country is about to run into the street without looking, there is absolutely nothing disloyal about crying, "Stop!"

Besides, true patriotism is an act of love, not hate. It is service not revenge, contributions not cheers, participation not prohibition, and debate not salutes.

To find the real America buried in our hearts, we have to turn off the amps of propaganda and hype, the reverb and distortion of our fears and failures, and listen to the country unplugged. Some of the best things can only be heard when everything else is still.

There are lots of different ways to think about America. Some people like to call America a "nation of laws," but that sounds like we just spend our days obeying regulations - the sort of place only an attorney could love.

Other people think of America as a government, or as a geographical subdivision, which is fair enough but fails to give the real flavor of the place or explain the strong feelings many Americans have for their land.

But it is also a triptych of environment, people, and ideals

An Environment
An environment is more than a place; it is a condition, it is sustenance, it is shelter, it is a thousand invisible threads tying us to that which lies way out there.

The natural habitat of America long overwhelmed anything that could be built by mere humans, a fact that shaped our character and our culture. It has, to be sure, created oddities: we have become the most ecologically wasteful of nations yet have given the world some of its finest environmental writings. We have preserved some of the world's great natural spaces, but only after virtually exterminating those who lived there. The grandeur of our land has at times made us profligate, at other times humble and religious. We are deeply romantic about the wilderness yet have been ruthless in its exploitation.

In the past one hundred years or so we have learned how to replace nature with systems, technology, machines and institutions. For a long time it seemed to work. It appeared that America had a lifetime pass to progress. That Americans could do even better than nature.

But a few decades ago, things started to go awry. Our cities began to disintegrate. Families broke up with startling frequency. Real income slid and jobs drifted overseas. The environment became less a cornucopia and more a problem. Our non-natural systems no longer seemed as wonderful as they once had.

As these artificial systems failed us, some Americans began returning to natural ones, finding in them a wisdom and sustenance the constructed systems could not provide. Farmers rediscovered non-chemical ways to protect their crops. Communities and businesses began to recycle and seek self-sufficiency. Individuals began downshifting their consumption and lifestyles. And planners discovered long-ignored benefits in treading more softly on the earth.

Even after two hundred years of frequent and massive mistreatment, the American environment is still vital enough to welcome us back, asking only that this time we play by its rules. Its message is simple: that we do not have to belong to artificial systems; we can belong to the land itself.

A People
We can also define ourselves as a people. Because of the variety of our backgrounds, it is not, however, a primeval past or cultural similarity that binds us but rather a shared present and future.

Sometimes -- such as in times of massive disaster -- we act on this communally. We suddenly and without instruction mobilize ourselves to help those miles away, recognizing for a few days or a few months that they are also one of us. We do the same thing when we're having fun; at a concert or a festival we feel a bond with everyone sharing the same experience. And when an admired leader dies, we grieve together.

As with the environment, though, we are inconsistent. America remains one of the most favored destinations for those seeking freedom and a better life, yet the newcomer often finds hostility as well as freedom, discrimination as well as opportunity.

In the end, it is not the culture from which we came but the one each of us is helping to create that will matter. It is our common fate rather than our disparate pasts that will ultimately describe, redeem, or destroy us.


What we take for granted -- that a nation and a people should be organized around a set of principles -- was once considered revolutionary and even today remains remarkable. It also takes a lot of work and a lot of argument. But it is one of the things that best defines America.

As with our personal ideals, our country has repeatedly failed to live up to what it proclaims. But while we may not always practice what we preach, at least we do not preach what we practice. The mere existence of our principles and the willingness of large numbers of Americans to work for them gives the country a special character.

In short, America is not the answer; it is only a good place to look for the answer. America has never been perfect; it's just been a place where it was easier to fix things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves has long been one of our great characteristics as a people and a nation.

Each of us can express love for America in their own way. The Green may do so through care of our environment. The libertarian or anarchist may do so by preserving our faith in liberty. The progressive or socialist may do it by insisting that America's promise of social justice be fulfilled. The conservative may do it by preserving the good. The deeply religious may do it through personal witness. The oppressed may do it through protest and leading us towards our ideals. The cop may do it through upholding the laws of the land - including the most important one, the Constitution. The artist may paint it, the musician sing about it, the teacher teach it.

Most of all, being an American means nobody gets to tell you how best to be an American. As Woodie Guthrie pointed out, this land may be your land, but it is mine as well.

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