Thursday, July 05, 2007

Independence Day musings: The dangers of patriotism

By Nancy Jane Moore

"I don't love my country."

Law Professor Brian Tamanaha wrote those words in a post on Balkinization called "Blood on the Hands of the State."

In the post, he points out that states, "in the name of some ideology, or some image of national purity or dominance, or in the name of religion, or simply to plunder," kill their own citizens or call them up to fight others, causing untold deaths.

He goes on to observe:
Learn this history and you will see the price patriotism exacts. For many reasons, I feel fortunate to have been born in the United States, but I don’t love my country. It has no love for any of us.

As you might expect, he drew a lot of reaction to those comments, including comments from another law professor who observed on his blog:

Brian you may not love your country, but your country loves you, even if you don't know it. You are its raison d'etre. The fundamental purpose of a democratic country like the United States is to serve you and your fellow citizens. Representative democracy means that our elected officials are trying (albeit imperfectly) to look out for your interests, your benefits, your needs, and your wants. Your country seeks to protect your safety, your economic well-being, your property, and your freedoms.

In reply, Tamanaha -- after asking "Does my country’s heart beat faster when it thinks of me?" -- went on to make an important point:

I know he did not mean “your country loves you” literally (right?), although he did wax at length. But it is precisely talk like this that makes patriotism so dangerous, substituting metaphor and emotion for reason and careful evaluation. Much of his post consists of glorified abstractions of the state, slogans we repeat unthinkingly so often that they become truths in our mind.

I've been pondering Tamanaha's post. Like most Americans, I was brought up to see my country as "different." We are truly free; our government is chosen in the fairest possible way; history as taught touts our inevitable progress toward the greatest possible freedom; McCarthyism and Jim Crow laws were aberrations, eventually corrected.

So of course we should love our country, shouldn't we? That's real patriotism, right?

The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War all made me cynical about the U.S. But for years I've still thought of our country as flawed, but fixable. Despite our excesses in the world, our hearts were in the right place. Eventually we would live up to our potential.

The Bush years destroyed my optimism. I have seen my country at its worst and it's an ugly sight -- the blatant abuse of raw power, without even lip service to the core principles on which the US was founded.

Perhaps this is inevitable, as Tamanaha hints in his posts. Perhaps a state can never really be "good" in that moral sense. Tamanaha suggests that the state will disappear, which makes me wonder what powerful institutions will replace it. Corporations, perhaps? Even in this day and age where government does little to rein in corporations, I find myself shuddering at what they might become with no state power to keep them in line. A powerful institution in which my voice might possibly be heard strikes me as preferable one in which my ideas will be stomped into the ground.

Perhaps I lack imagination, because I have trouble imagining a world without some large power structures unless I also imagine massive destruction and chaos.

But I digress, because what Tamanaha's post really made me think about were Shakespeare's history plays, particularly the ones set during the War of the Roses. People declared their loyalties to a king or a lord who wished to be king, and called that patriotism. Such patriotism became treason, of course, if the other man won. And none of those who sought power really had the good of England at his heart; none ever did anything for the common people who fought in his name.

Our country is supposed to be different, but is it? Our young people are dying in Iraq not for the greater good of us all, but because of the power dreams of those running the U.S. It is a farce to say they are serving their country, because the Iraq War is doing our country so much harm. Bush has exploited their urge to serve and used it for his own desires, much like all those kings and would-be kings of England.

In a democratic state, it is way past time we learned that patriotism does not simply consist of following leaders blindly. If we would have a country that we can love -- if we would have a country that might actually love its people -- we must stand up against it when it goes astray. While I completely understand why some people feel the urge to serve their country through the military -- particularly in these troubled times -- the misuse of that service is appalling. The country would be better off if people who want to serve put their energies into opposing our current leadership instead of following its orders.

There are more ways to serve one's country than with a gun.

No comments: