Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Patriotism Considered

I'm not a fan of patriotism. It makes me uneasy.

This is sentiment you are best advised to keep to yourself, most of the time, most places, because patriotism these days, and for most people, is regarded as a virtue second to none. But I find patriotism to be a dangerous sentiment. During the playing of the national anthem at public events,  I stand and take off my cap, out of respect to military servicemen, mostly, and in celebration of joining with like-minded people in a large public gathering.  But I do not sing, and the flag does nothing whatsoever to moisten my eyes.

At the time, this was regarded as unpatriotic.....
I arrived at my uneasiness regarding patriotism, I suppose, as a result of living my formative years through the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam and Watergate years, where it became evident that blind support of the policies of one's nation caused too many people to ignore its problems.  When I was a late teenager and young adult, there was a common bumpersticker that said "America, Love it or Leave It."

To which my silent response was always "Fuck you, buddy."  If you truly loved your country, it seemed to me, the adage should be "America: if you Love it, Change it for the Better." The people who unconsciously waved the flag at every opportunity always struck me as simply too lazy to really think hard or see clearly. In the satiric novel Cat's Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut defined a grandfalloon as a false "karass"—a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. His example: any nation, any where, any time. To this day, that seems to me an excellent way to look at blind patriotism. It is an automatic emotion that can too easily be manipulated.

.....while this was the epitome of patriotism. 
I see it as a short step from blind patriotism to blind nationalism, and it was rabid nationalism, after all, that allowed the National Socialist party to rise in Germany in the 1930s. Following your nation's leaders wherever they go is a potentially dangerous enterprise. It's no surprise that it's a form of blind patriotism/nationalism that political parties are using today to try to garner support. So many people wave the flag without thinking about it, that the candidate who manages to identify himself as the patriotic candidate will almost always win.

Civic devotion, it seems to me, should be aimed at the higher values that are hopefully part of the nation's mission statement, or aimed at individuals within that nation and their rights to pursue those values. There is nothing whatsoever holy about the imaginary lines that create national boundaries, or about the flag used to symbolize that artificial territory, for that matter. A true patriot would celebrate a foreigner coming to America to join us in freedom; they would not want to build walls to keep folks out.

A gathering of John Wayne and other "patriots" in 1969. 
So I have some sympathy for actors, musicians, athletes and other prominent people who take a stand on national stages to point out when national hypocrisy raises its head. In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith upon winning the 4 x 100 relay event in the Olympics bowed their heads and raised fists covered with black gloves to protest the treatment of black people in America. Their reward was to be stripped of their medals and publicly humiliated—for a while. History now suggests their move was a heroic one, and both men are now rightly respected as folk heroes.

This week, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick says he will not stand during the national anthem this season, out of protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I honestly don't know what his motivation here is, but before ridiculing him we'd be well advised to realize this protest carries significant professional risk for Colin, and we'd also be well advised to remember John Carlos and dozens of others for whom true patriotism was not about waving the flag, but about expressing their public shame of it when the nation was behaving shamefully.

The Woodstock festival, I'd submit, was a far more patriotic
demonstration of democracy than any Donald Trump rally. 
John Wayne made dozens of movies in which he played military heroes. But John Wayne also supported McCarthyism, and seems to have ratted out colleagues in order to advance his career. History shows that John Wayne was no patriot at all. The judgment of history is much different for people like Arthur Miller, whose play The Crucible lampooned McCarthyism; or Edward R Murrow, who always saw McCarthy for what he was and had the courage to say so.

I will continue to rise for the national anthem, but the warmth of my feelings will be for the fellowship of the people around me, for the memory of those who have served to preserve my ability to enjoy that fellowship. It will be out of respect for human values, not dedication to a nation or flag.


  1. Right on the mark! The same thing applies to the pledge of allegiance, which is fundamentally a loyalty oath with a religious clause. Notwithstanding a decision of the Supreme Court that the pledge cannot be compelled, the same "patriotic" reaction results against those who choose not to recite the pledge, generally in a captive setting where they are easily identified. It is nationalism to the extreme, as we are now seeing this election year. McCarthy would be proud.

  2. There was recently a bit of discussion on my hockey site of all places, wondering why Americans were so much more patriotic than Canadians. Actually, I don't know if it is that so much as for the fact that Americans are much louder about it. Hands on hearts during the anthem was mentioned, which kind of seems like going over-the-top to most other nations. Anyway, I like your ruminations and your alternate motto: "America: if you Love it, Change it for the Better"

  3. Symbols become cudgels, and more, in this country. Barack Obama tried to avoid the flag pin, and lost the intellectual battle. I think his first campaign symbol was a unity logo, that quickly was identified as an Islamic head covering. I think it slipped quietly out of view. The symbols that have not gone away are the McCarthy era introduced "under God" in the pledge, and "In God we Trust" on currency. Attempts to reverse these are drummed down as pure liberalism, and worse.

  4. I agree, but then I grew up during the Vietnam/Watergate era, too. Around 1940, John Beecher, a poet, wrote a series of poems about why African Americans are being called on to step forth into the war that's on the horizon when they've treated so poorly. I should dig that book--it still needs to be heard.

  5. Excellent points, well argued. I wish Kaepernick would have done the same thing Carlos and Smith did.
    That is still a powerful way to make a point, and more visual.

  6. It is good to know I am not alone in my thinking. It is even better that you express it so well. Thank you!

  7. Agree wholeheartedly with you, your commenters have expressed it well.
    I met John Carlos once, he and I had flown into Palm Springs from LA on the same plane, we were both waiting for rides outside the small airport. He was wearing a old style 'lettermans's jacket with the iconic picture above on the back. I asked if he was John Carlos. We had a nice conversation for around a half hour; he was then coaching track for a high school in Palm Springs. Seemed a real gentleman.


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