Monday, December 19, 2005

The US Blues

Is it possible to maintain even a façade of democracy, when hype, fear, and mindless flag-waving have replaced informed debate and a commitment to the democratic process and social justice? Whether it’s the morning callers from across the country on C-Span’s Morning Journal program, or morning drive programs carried on local radio and television affiliates, the acceptance that American’s are willing to abide by to perpetuate blatant lies is astounding.

Recently, I read Michael Parenti’s pithy book, Superpatriotism (City Lights, 2004), in which he deconstructs the meaning of patriotism, or love of one’s country. I thought he did an excellent job in showing how those who appeal to a lower common denominator, such as patriotism (based on raw emotionalism), are actually the least patriotic of people. Of course, Parenti’s definition of what patriotism is, as acceptable as it is for me, might not be acceptable to those who equate it with God, guns, and flag.

What I like about writers like Parenti, is their skill at taking ideas commonly held and then using the same definition or idea to illustrate the paucity of their position. What exactly is patriotism, leaving aside Sameul Johnson’s, “the last refuge of scoundrels?”

Here are a few of many instances that Parenti uses to illustrate the futility of the form of patriotism promoted by many on the right, as well as significant numbers on the left.

--Is it patriotic for plutocratic power brokers to hail a “healthy America”, yet defund public health services and work closely with big pharma and insurance corporations to line their pockets?

--How about insisting that middle class Americans shoulder public debt, while excusing the weathiest Americans from paying their contribution, and extending tax cuts to them?

--Is it patriotic to pay lip service to our nation’s environmental heritage and natural beauty, while doing little or nothing to prevent it being plundered by mining, timber and oil interests (see drilling in ANWR)?

--How patriotic is it to routinely overcharge the U.S. government for supplies and services, or submit false bids (noncompetitive, at that) for government contracts, and then turn around and provide shoddy products and supplies to our military personnel in Iraq? That, of course is Halliburton’s contribution to patriotism.

And while we’re on the subject of the troops, and the ubiquitous and meaningless (I’d add, sickening) mantra “support our troops”, how the hell can anyone claim they are supporting them by warehousing our wounded for months in places like Fort Stewart, Georgia, where the conditions for men and women who paid a significant physical price for the flag, were absolutely squalid. In addition, wounded military members are seeing their pay and health benefits severely reduced, while no longer active for duty. I imagine this has something to do with the fact the few members of our ruling elite or their children have to face battle conditions, so they know little about what sacrifice is when it comes to waving the flag.

So what exactly does “real” patriotism stand for? As Parenti wrote, “Real patriots do not easily succumb to popular fears about external menaces that are propagated by the plutocracy.”

He goes on to note the things that people ought to be fearful of such as,

--Global warming
--The caustic effect that money has on our political process
--Recent examples of voting fraud, election thievery, as well as outright intimidation of voters, right in our own “democratic” country
--The looting of our public treasury by rampant corporate crime.

Paraphrasing Parenti, real patriots understand that the spirit of liberty and freedom in our country was displayed by those willing to speak truth to power. The early leaders of the labor movement, Socialist candidates for president such as Eugene Debs, Thomas Paine and Harriet Tubman and all those who were willing to risk the safety of a comfortable life, to challenge the status quo of power and property that extends back to our founding as a nation.

True patriotism is knowing our country’s history and true legacy and not succumbing to emotional grandstanding and the symbolic shamanism that passes for loving one’s country. Those willing to run with the true patriotic crowd will receive their share of vilification and catcalls, but the company that you’ll keep will be much more interesting and a hell of a lot more authentic. The stakes are higher than ever to cut through the shroud of superstition and drill deeper for truth.


weasel said...

Don't forget one of the best epigramatical writers on patriotism, Mark Twain. From (I think I remember rightly) A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: "My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office-holders."

I often feel than unalloyed flag waving that does not allow mature reflection on both the good and bad in a country is just the public face of an insecure and nervous nation. Its the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "blahhblahhblahh!" when someone tries to pass on unpleasant information.

weasel said...

PS: its nice to be able to agree with you on something again!

Jim said...

Twain has much to commend him to current day readers--sadly, I'm afraid some of his best material is left off from our public school instruction.

Can you imagine the charges that would be lobbed Twain's way, if he were alive today? How about the irrepressible H.L. Mencken for flogging the national psyche and refuges of the scoundrels of his day?

At least in former days, the writings of Twain, Mencken and other critics, received an audience; hell, Twain went on a international speaking tour.

If you and Country Mouse ever have the opportunity to stop in Hartford, CT, visit Twain's home and museum. Definitely one of those hidden treasures of New England.

It's always good to have a contrarian running about, keeping me honest and preventing me from wallowing in pomposity and spewing too much hot air!

weasel said...

"sadly, I'm afraid some of his best material is left off from our public school instruction."

There you go again, you grumpy old nostalgist, you... Did you have a hand in writing this?

Kidding aside, I reckon they would treat Twain like they treat Sean Penn or George Clooney- minimize him as part of the cultural elite, a "Paddle Steamer Liberal" or similar.

Oh, and if you haven't already, I'd read Bill Bryson's "Lost Continent" for a great (and very funny) hymn to the loss of the Norman Rockwell scenes of his boomer childhood from modern America. He goes to Hannibal to see Twain's birthplace- priceless writing.