Problematizing Patriotism

“For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, ‘patriotism’ means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That’s a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It’s one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do? But the kind of “patriotism” fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long.”

-Noam Chomsky

I became an Australian citizen last week. I wore a pretty outfit, took a pledge with my hand raised, and instantly adopted a new country, its traditions and culture as my own. Some of my closest friends attended…people whom I liken as family because they have loved me more fully and accepted me more wholly than some of the people to whom I’m actually related. Many of them also come from different parts of the world…Canada, Ireland, The United Kingdom, Finland, Serbia, Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and then there were, of course, my true blue Aussie-born mates, who have shared this insane journey with me for the past 7 years [to the day].

They told me it would be an emotional affair…and they were right. When I walked across the stage to receive my naturalisation papers, my friends stood up and cheered the loudest out of anyone else in the ceremony, and it made my heart soar. It’s not a decision I took lightly. Where I come from, nationality is a serious topic of conversation – not just in its proclamation but in how it’s often wielded in matters that promote commercialisation, dangerous rhetoric and shameless propaganda…the kind that sends young men and women to fight an inception of wars that were never meant to end. I’m not in any rush to engage in this kind of political self-aggrandisement again here.

In undergrad, I demonstrated more times than I can count with some of the most intelligent minds I’ll probably ever meet against the whole ideology of nation-states, against the Iraq War, against a government that manipulated the utopian idea of patriotism into something ugly, xenophobic and violent. They were hardly the first administration [or government] to do it, but they did it post September 11…and I think we can all agree on how easily human vulnerability is exploited to disastrous effect when sentimentality obstructs critical thinking.

I was inconsolable when my brother decided to join the army, and when he volunteered to go to Iraq. I was so sad. I was so angry. In America, we openly condemn women who terminate their pregnancies because they were raped…and we do it with the most acrimonious of hate speech, but we applaud people who choose to pick up a weapon, go to another country and kill people. We call them heroes. We don’t even stop to think about what that word means. We have a justice system that says it’s wrong to kill under any circumstance, even if it’s revenge against someone who has murdered your spouse and was caught red-handed with the murder weapon…except in times of war. You put on a uniform, you’re assigned a weapon, and suddenly there’s a new set of rules.

I understand that sometimes [although less often than some political figures would have you believe] wars do need to be fought. Nothing transformative has ever taken place a single day in history without bloodshed. But I cannot reconcile the fragile meaning of the word “hero” with the pure arrogance, entitlement and danger with which mindless soldier worship has imbued it. And I do believe that we should be more sparing with how we apply that term so as not to distance ourselves from the moral burden of actions that would contradict its meaning.

It’s difficult for me to call myself a patriot, when…to a lot of people [many of whom are the ones defining what it means to be patriotic and how we should best slot ourselves into that narrow definition]…being a patriot means never saying a single word of what I just said.

That’s not to say, however, that I don’t feel patriotic. There are times when I feel a deep, primal kind of patriotism. Living abroad has deepened that…and lessened it at the same time. I feel deeply patriotic about the Civil Rights movement. I feel deeply patriotic about the crazy, beautiful incomprehensibly diverse multiculturalism that makes America, and I say this without airs of any sort, one of a kind. I feel a deep sense of patriotism about the education that I received at THE Florida State University [get it right] a state school brimming with some of the most talented individuals I will ever meet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t think I will ever receive a better education anywhere else. I remain eternally grateful to the professors who encouraged my table-flipping aggression when it came to defending ideas, as long as I did so intelligently and thoughtfully.

I felt patriotic on September 11…as me and my dorm-mates sat on the couches of Broward Hall bonded not by any other tangible similarity, save for our nationality, wondering what the hell this meant moving forward. Up until that point, patriotism had been a dated sentiment of WWII, a bit of curious nostalgia that carried my grandfather and thousands of others across the Atlantic Ocean to fight Nazis in France.

And then there it was, inside of me, an indescribably virulent emotion that had been dormant for 18 years that came roaring to the surface with a ferocity that’s hard to describe.

Likewise, I felt patriotic when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I know that’s not the most progressive thing to say, and I respect a few certain conspiracy theories around it all, but fuck it…some people need to die and he was one of them. I imagine I would have felt the same way if I had been around when Hitler put a bullet through his skull. I don’t feel proud in saying that. I understand how deeply flawed that argument is coming from someone who also opposes the death penalty [another story for another day] but my emotions subvert logic sometimes. I’m human. It happens.

I felt immensely patriotic the night Barack Obama was elected president. I lived in Chicago. I volunteered on his campaign. I cried in Grant Park with thousands of other hopeful Americans, and into the phone where I listened to my father flood with emotion because he never, ever thought a day like that would come.

I feel immensely patriotic when I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X, The Black Panther Party for Self Defence and a million other people who dedicated their lives to righting the wrongs of institutionalized racism, to debatable effect. Yes, I’m aware of how problematic it is to use the word “patriotism” when invoking the teachings of these historical figures, many [if not all] of whom would have [understandably] spat on the term. I feel patriotic because they, as people born in America, held my country to task in brutal ways and, I have benefitted directly from their sacrifices, bloodshed and tragic ends. And I benefit first and foremost, as an American, whether I like it or not. I attended an integrated school because of them. I wasn’t arrested for kissing a white boy in middle school because of them. I can eat at a restaurant counter without being dragged behind a shed and lynched…because of them.

I have rights, even if they are 3/5ths of the rights of others, because of them.

Still, the battle is long from over when innocent children can be gunned down in the street by power-tripping cops, and an entire government body assembles to cover it up…progress has a long way to go. I suffer no illusions about this.

I don’t feel patriotic about the rise of ISIS, a monstrous death cult that was the result of a perfect storm of Syrian unrest and shitty American foreign policy. I don’t feel patriotic about the countless proxy wars America has waged all over the world to overthrow governments that would seek to threaten their interests in a particular area. I don’t feel patriotic knowing that President Obama’s drone strike presidency has killed countless women and children…or that US airstrikes can hit a Médecins Sans Frontiers trauma center, and that nobody asks questions about it one week later.

I don’t feel patriotic about the fact that we still have to have movements that address social injustice, instead of just getting it through our thick skulls the first goddamned time around. I don’t feel patriotic…no, I don’t feel patriotic and I feel disgusted, when I think about the inaction around mass shootings…three years after Newtown served up 26 dead innocents, most of which whom were between the ages of 6 and 7. I don’t feel patriotic when I think that my forebears were slaves, and how people today tell me to just “get over it,” simply because they don’t want to acknowledge that a country that they love could have allowed something so horrible to continue for so long. I don’t feel patriotic when I think of the rife institutional racism that allows people like George Zimmerman to walk free because his attorneys were able to successfully paint his dead victim as a thug, instead of as a teenage boy walking home while carrying skittles and an iced tea. I don’t feel patriotic when I think of how encouraged and supported rape culture is in American society, to the point where the media is so much more enthused to empathize with the perpetrator who recorded the attack and shared it with his online friends, than with the victim who made the mistake of getting drunk, or wearing a short skirt or staying out too late. Because really, she should have known better.

There’s a lot that makes the word “patriot” a problem for me.

I guess I have a problem with patriotism, because the word itself is problematic. We think of nationality in terms of superlatives and absolutism, when there is nothing absolute about nationality. When I hear someone say “XXX is the greatest country in the world,” their follow up evidence usually makes as little sense as their initial declaration. I won’t go into the inane list of examples, but suffice to say it’s the same old pabulum of insipid retorts you’d expect from a child.

There is a kind of patriotism that asks so much of us, and gives so little back. There is a kind of patriotism that demands that we abdicate our skepticism and assimilate into a state of mindless groupthink for the sake of an identity that is meant to fit us all equally, when it fits many of us poorly. There is a kind of patriotism that is like a religion, and the ones who adhere to it defend it like one.

I left religion behind a long time ago. I’m willing to give patriotism a chance, if it’s willing to adapt.

Economic superpowers rise and fall every single day, and yet we insist on our almost childlike attachment to the idea of nation absolutism without acknowledging that India is rising, Australia doesn’t innovate, and America spends more on its military budget than the next ten countries combined, while also having the highest infant mortality rate of the developed world.

There’s no room for the college student who opposes a war that solely serves the interests of private corporate bodies to be patriotic. There’s no room for a person who is pro-gun control to be patriotic, even if their child was murdered in a mass shooting. There’s no room for people fleeing war-torn countries and who are desperate to integrate into a new, safer society, to be seen as patriotic…if they look, speak or believe differently.

I remember being 8 or 9 and hearing music by Rage Against the Machine for the first time. I remember watching their videos of protests and burning flags. I remember the cover of their first album was a self-immolating monk. I had no idea what these symbols meant, but I knew they weren’t exactly what is popularly described as “patriotic.” They felt dangerous, like I would get in trouble for watching them. And I hid my infatuation accordingly.

I remember the inset of the cover booklet to their second album was books – tons and tons of books about black rights and feminism and Panama and the Middle East. I remember reading all of those books, or as many of them as I could get my hands on. I remember reading “By Any Means Necessary” when I was 10, and someone turning around in class and saying to me that Malcolm X was a racist. So he called me a racist.

I was the only black kid in the class.

Symbols matter, because we codify them to determine what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable in how we define our behaviour. RATM was about destroying those symbols, because they saw them as forms of imprisonment that constipated free thought and critical discourse and, therefore, tangible change. There’s no need to criticise your government if you’re a patriot. See? I’m a patriot! Here’s my flag!

If symbols are significant, then destroying them can be even more so. Iconoclasts understand this because they understand that some things cannot be said with words, so they’re said with actions. Some of these actions may not be popularly described as patriotic…but I think that should be up for debate.

Surely there must be room here for a more nuanced view of patriotism…then again, maybe not.

That’s not up to me.

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