Back in 1775 Samuel Johnson famously declared that, “Patriotism is last refuge of a scoundrel.” James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, claimed that Johnson was not condemning patriotism as a whole, but only those “patriots” who used it to manipulate and control the masses and to inflate ones own power, wealth and authority. There seems to be a large amounts of this type of patriotism on display now. It seeps down from our so called leaders and through the hardening layers of our stratified social and economic classes. It’s a fountain of hate, pride, control, idolatry and deception whose goal is to alienate and undermine any hint of dissension.
I don’t think that it is a new phenomena. It’s probably been happening since our tribal natures were being psychologically fixed into our ancestors’ skulls as they lived in their small hunter gatherer groups on the savanahs of Africa. Other groups of people with different customs, or who were different physically different, or who communicated using a different language or who who worshiped different gods have, all too often, been perceived threats, sometimes for good reason. They sometimes competed for resources and in doing so became enemies. They were made easy targets to scapegoat and blame. When bad things happened to a tribe, be them diseases, floods, crop failure or other natural disasters, in pre-scientific times the most natural thing to do was to blame a neighboring tribe for the suffering. The disturbing thing is is that it still happening today.
Remember when Donald Trump said that global warming was a just a hoax concocted by the Chinese, or when he cast the undocumented Mexicans that are in America as murderers and rapist? In his next sentence he said nonchalantly that, ” …some were probably good people”. It was an unconvincing caveat that didn’t hide his bigotry. But now, with the tools of mass communications, powerful monopolies and top heavy wealth distribution, vilification can be laid on with a very wide and heavy trowel. It’s firing up our passions and undermining are individual abilities to reason. For proof just look at who sits in the oval office and at the large numbers of people who still support his brand.
I use the word ‘brand’ as opposed to person because that is what I believe people are attracted to. Yes, politics has become wedded with marketing. Demonizing anyone who is not labeled a patriot is reaping huge profits especially among Johnson’s ‘scoundrels’. Add to the mix heaping doses of god-talk and we have boom times for the oligarchs, the tyrants and the kleptocrats. If history has shown us nothing else, it has shown us that blind patriotism can lead societies in disastrous directions where the hatred of others can blind us from our own moral shortcomings.
Choreographed displays of patriotism, self-righteous and excessive religious fervor, group social projection that focus on symbols and hyper-ideology more than they do the ideas that those very symbols supposedly represent, be them spiritual or political, have been cast willy-nilly into the wind now. We are living in an attention span deleted society where identity politics and bumper stickers seem to carry more weight than does any attempt at nuanced thought and which thwarts any attempt at an honest search for truth. For instance, Jesus’s message of peace, nonviolence, selfless servitude, and anti wealth accumulation seems to have gotten lost in the cacophony of ideological noise coming from many factions of the Christian evangelicals. Greedy elements of corporatism and militarism hold power there. People are blinded to their hypocrisy as they shake their fists from a high. As long as they clutch tightly to the cross and hug the flag to their breasts they are granted immunity and power. Seems that’s all they need to do to gain our subservience. Maybe it’s time that we think more skeptically about our own deeply ingrained ideologies, consider more the social conditioning and tribalism that went into the forming of those ideologies.
I believe that each one of us is a part of many tribes. Some we identify ourselves with more than others. Some people hold their religious affiliations above all others, some their family bonds, some their cultural bonds and some their political bonds. With some it’s their bonds that they have developed with their pets, tribes are not restricted to just those that take place with in ones own species. Why are some tribes more important to us than others, even though we feel a part of each?
I’m a skeptical guy. Those who know me would probably label me as a contrarian. And to prove the point I would argue voraciously that I am most definitely not one. This, often times unreasonable mode of being, has to some degree or another shaped my skepticism of symbol worship. It goes back a long way. I was raised in my own little tribe, a secular family. It was sometimes dysfunctional, often times enlightening, occasionally downright mean and at it’s best loving and understanding. Up to a certain point we were encouraged to speak our minds around the dinner table. At times it caused fractures and animosity. I think as my siblings and I have aged we have learned not to wade in too deeply into the churning waters of the rhetorical current. We know that if we do there will be a possibility that there would be no one there to pull us up to the surface.
We didn’t go to church growing up accept occasionally with grandparents or friends. My parents weren’t that active in local politics though they held firm beliefs and always voted, mostly Democrat. They kept up with the news and it was often a main topic of conversation. The rituals that we did have were all very benign and of a secular nature. For whatever the reason, I’ve always been leery of following along with the crowds unless it was to stand in the lunch line or anxiously waiting in line to enter the arena to the rock concert. In those cases, I knew there was a payoff involved at the end. It seemed a good deal. Thinking back now far too often I was a selfish little bastard. But I also did my duty. I stood with my hand on my heart at the beginning of the school day and mechanically said the pledge of allegiance with all my little classmates. It felt a little weird but it was just something that you did. I couldn’t figure out exactly why. Not that I wasn’t proud when I did remember the pledge by heart. We were all taught at school to be proud that we were Americans. It was an unquestionable given.
But when I reached the age that I could understand what the words meant, the whole ritual became a little creepy, especially when I saw adults doing it. I began to question to myself why saying the words should make me love my country anymore than I already did. In fact, it made me angry that those in charge were making me repeat myself so often. Looking back now I don’t think that I gained anything from it. Maybe all that time spent glassy-eyed and robot-like repeating those words could have been better spent by learning about civics and moral philosophy. How about just watching one episode of Sesame Street? That would have been more effective at building healthy little minds and developing better citizens. It would be more educational than staring and mumbling at a piece of colored cloth. Saying the pledge didn’t make me feel any closer to my family, my friends or my country.
It’s not like I was forced to do it at any other time in my daily life. I could at least kind of understand other rituals that I was made to do, be them at home or at school. Memorizing math tables, learning and discussing history, grammar and science lessons made some sense even in my young unrefined mind. Once home from the school day I played outside with friends, did homework and chores, had dinner, talked with my family, watched some TV and went to bed. All were part of my daily ritual. They were, if not always enjoyable things to do, at least there was some sense of utility to them and at times they evoked great joy.
I couldn’t say the same for having to stand five days a week, put my hand on my chest and recite the pledge of allegiance. And why did we stand before the football games and sing rockets and bombs? Why did we not have to do it before the school play or the band concert? I can’t recall standing before the tennis matches or track meets either. Did they do it before the debating matches? Why is the national anthem played at team sporting events at all and not at other cultural events? And now at this time, why are so many people feeling threatened by some football players in the NFL who are kneeing as the anthem plays before the games? It seems to me that taking a knee should be the least threatening thing that a person could do. I believe that the players taking part in the kneeling are doing it to draw attention to brutality and excessive violence done by some police against people of color. What’s wrong with bringing attention to injustices as long as they are done nonviolently?
I feel self-righteous uberpatriotic forces are at work, and what better place for these forces to rise into the public conscience than the multi-billion dollar industry that is the NFL.
Patriarch to be continued, or better yet, brought to an end…
Tin Can Jim