I’m always baffled when I get a message from a reader that accuses me or my site as being “America haters.” Of course, I shouldn’t be. There’s always a strong element of “America: love it or leave it” in our popular discourse. It’s an element the government actively encourages.
There was a time I identified with the U.S. government because I was part of it. Having served in the US Air Force for twenty years — having worn this nation’s uniform with pride — I can understand those who think that the government and its actions represent them, or that patriotism somehow requires deference toward our elected representatives or government employees.
But this is indeed a dangerous attitude to have. It’s not we who are supposed to serve the government: it’s the government that is supposed to serve us. Even when I was in the military, I took an oath to defend the Constitution, not the government.
Governments are human constructions composed of imperfect humans. They are vested with power, which feeds corruption. So governments must always be kept in check. They must always be viewed critically. “Question authority” should be the byword of all true patriots.
Government is supposed to represent us. When it fails to do so, we should elect new leaders who will do their jobs as public servants. And if that fails, people need to organize and protest. Sometimes, direct political action is all that works to right wrongs. Think of union strikes; think of the civil rights movement; think of antiwar protests, as in the Vietnam War.
Government requires constant criticism. That is the very reason why we have rights such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press. It doesn’t help when people reject criticism as unpatriotic. Indeed, it just empowers the worst elements within government.
I know all of this is obvious to my readers, else they wouldn’t be here. Suffice to say our incredibly powerful government, which is increasingly shrouded in secrecy and therefore often unaccountable to the people, needs a lot more criticism.
Don’t confuse criticism with hate. In fact, criticism may indeed be driven by a kind of love.
Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours. Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state. As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had. (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.) The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.
My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview. I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.
Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:
1. People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing. (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)
2. The American people are no longer partners of government. We are subjects. Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.
3. Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power. They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them. This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism. Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11. They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere. This was a goal they achieved.
4. Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth. Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth. Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.
5. The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials. Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality. Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.
6. Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune). Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.” Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds. As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.
7. What is true patriotism? For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people. It’s not loyalty to government. Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.
8. National security and public safety are not synonymous. In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated. We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.
9. We live naked before power. Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them. It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).
10. “The system is built on lies.” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress. And there are no consequences. He goes unpunished.
11. We own less and less of our own data. Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government. It’s become a commodity. Which means we are the commodity. We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.
12. Don’t wait for a hero to save you. What matters is heroic decisions. You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.
In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes. He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.
For most Americans, patriotism means love of country. But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons. First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct. Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump. And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.
“Country” as an imaginary construct
“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?
In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.
Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.
Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California. I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)
Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe. Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.
The misuse and abuse of patriotism
Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war. Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”
To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.
If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity. This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back” to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens? Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.
Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality. And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.
We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet. Our real “homeland.” Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism. It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.
False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed. Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day. A dangerous myth, indeed.
This week a good friend sent me the image below from Mad Magazine.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Senator J.W. Fulbright’s book, “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine” (1970) and came across this footnote on page 57:
“Promotion of the display of the National Flag is one of the Navy’s service-wide public affairs projects. It is laudable enough if it remains unconnected with the current campaign of superpatriots that equates the display of flag decals on automobile windows with love of country and unlimited support for the war in Vietnam.”
And then I came across a photograph by Diane Arbus, “Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, NYC, 1967.”
It’s a fascinating photo. “Support Our Boys” is now rendered as “Support Our Troops.” Also, today’s flags are a lot bigger. The “Bomb Hanoi” pin speaks for itself.
All of this got me thinking about how “super” patriotism is linked to fanatical support for war, which draws from hatred of “the other,” whether that “other” is foreigners or various alleged enemies within (like those “liberals” and “pacifists” mentioned in the Mad Magazine cartoon).
As the Trump administration appears to promise more wars in the future (consider Mike Pence’s recent bellicose speech at West Point), perhaps in Venezuela or Iran, we need to be on guard against this idea that supporting wars is patriotic. Indeed, the opposite is usually true. “I’m already against the next war” is a good rule of thumb to live by.
How did “super” patriotism become synonymous with blanket support for destructive wars? One thing is certain: it’s nothing new in America.
When I was young, I kept a pamphlet in my room: “How to Respect and Display Our Flag.” It was from the U.S. Marine Corps, dated March 1968. I still have that pamphlet; here’s a photo of it:
Some of its guidance is now (it saddens me to say) obsolete. Consider the following: “Do not use the flag as a portion of a costume or athletic uniform. Do not embroider it upon cushions or handkerchiefs nor print it on paper napkins or boxes.”
Nowadays, flags are everywhere. They are on football helmets and baseball caps. They are on bathing suits (!) and shirts, jackets and tops. I once bought an ice cream cone at a baseball game in a paper wrapper decorated by the American flag.
Fifty years ago, there was a sense our flag was special, meaning you didn’t put one everywhere and on everything. All these representations of the flag that you see today, especially those flag lapel pins most often seen on sportscasters and politicians, strike me as opportunistic and self-celebratory rather than respectable tributes to Old Glory.
My flag handbook also says, “When carried, the flag should always be aloft and free–never flat or horizontal.” I suppose they couldn’t imagine in 1968 flags so gigantic that they could only be carried flat or horizontal.
A book of more recent vintage (2001), “United We Stand,” celebrates efforts during World War II to bring the nation together by marking the Fourth of July in 1942 with images of the flag on magazines. One of my favorites from that time showcased Veronica Lake:
From this book, I was reminded of the original “Pledge of Allegiance”:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag
and the Republic for which it stands,
one nation indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.
The phrase “under God” was only added in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism.
I favor the original pledge. If it was good enough for the “Greatest Generation” who fought and won World War II, it should be good enough for these times.
I was also reminded of a song that I rarely hear nowadays: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan (played, of course, by Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as mentioned on the cover above). Remember the opening stanza of that song?
You’re a grand old flag.
You’re a high-flying flag
and forever in Peace may you wave.
“Forever in peace may you wave” — how come we don’t hear that sentiment today?
Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up. It seemed so incongruous. My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood. I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so. The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.
Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.” Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins. Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn. But are they not patronizing to the audience? W.J. Astore
I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.
But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself. I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity. Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.
So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:
One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival. Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.
But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).
Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.
Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Music is real in a way that nations are not.
Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.
Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.
Back in July 2011, I wrote an article on how sports were being militarized in American life. On this subject as well as protest by (mostly) Black athletes, there’s a new book out, The Heritage, written by Howard Bryant, a journalist for ESPN. The book is excellent and is truly required reading for all sports fans, and indeed for all concerned Americans.
Sports have become infected by often pro forma, often coerced, often empty displays of “patriotism” that consist of gigantic flags, flyovers by combat jets, the wearing of faux camouflage uniforms by players, and similar displays. (There’s nothing wrong, I should add, with teams and players supporting military charities and the like.) These so-called patriotic displays are celebrated and applauded even as rare and respectful protests by players are attacked as unpatriotic and un-American.
Every military member knows that our oath of office is to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The enemies of our Constitution are not those players who take a knee in protest when they know it’ll prove unpopular; the enemies are those who attack those players while hiding behind the military and the troops.
Dissent and protest is American; it’s what our founders dared to do against long odds when in 1776 they declared their independence from a powerful empire. Isn’t it astonishing that in these days so many Americans need to be reminded of this vital fact? W.J. Astore, 6/10/18
The Militarization of Sports — And the Sportiness of Military Service
Connecting sports to military service and vice versa has a venerable history. The Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won on the playing fields of Eton, Wellington allegedly said. Going over the top at the Battle of the Somme (1916), a few British soldiers kicked soccer balls in the general direction of the German lines. American service academies have historically placed a high value on sports (especially football) for their ability to generate and instill leadership, teamwork and toughness under pressure.
But in today’s America, we are witnessing an unprecedented militarization of sports, and a concomitant emphasis on the sportiness of military service. With respect to the latter, take a close look at recent Army recruitment ads (which I happen to see while watching baseball). These ads show soldiers lifting weights, playing volleyball, climbing mountains and similar sporty activities. The voice-over stresses that army service promotes teamwork and toughness (“There’s strong. Then there’s army strong.”) There are, of course, no shots of soldiers under direct fire, of wounded soldiers crying for help, of disabled veterans. Army service in these ads is celebrated as (and reduced to) an action-filled sequence of sporting events.
Today’s militarization of sports is even more blatant. Consider this excellent article by U.S. Army Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich, which highlights the “cheap grace” available to crowds at major sporting events. For-profit sports corporations and the Pentagon join hands to orchestrate pageants that encourage (manipulate?) us to cheer and celebrate our flag, our troops and our sports and military heroes, as the obligatory fighter jets roar overhead.
Now, I’m sure there are well-meaning people who see such pageantry as an uncontroversial celebration of love of country, as well as a gesture of generosity and thanks to our military. And this retired veteran admits to feeling my heart swell when I see our flag flying proudly and our troops marching smartly. But the co-joining of corporate-owned sports teams and events (which are ultimately about entertainment and making a buck) with the military (which is ultimately in the deadly business of winning wars) strikes me as more than disturbing.
To cite only one example: The San Diego Padres baseball team takes “tremendous pride” in being “the first team in professional sports to have a dedicated military affairs department,” according to a team press release quoting Tom Garfinkel, the Padres president and chief operating officer. But is it truly “tremendous” for sports teams to be creating “military affairs” departments? As our sporting “heroes” celebrate our military ones, does not a dangerous blurring take place, especially in the minds of America’s youth?
War is not a sport; it’s not entertainment; it’s not fun. And blurring the lines between sport and war is not in the best interests of our youth, who should not be sold on military service based on stadium pageantry or team marketing, however well-intentioned it may be.
We’ve created a dangerous dynamic in this country: one in which sporting events are exploited to sell military service for some while providing cheap grace for all, even as military service is sold as providing the thrill of (sporting) victory while elevating our troops to the status of “heroes” (a status too often assigned by our society to well-paid professional athletes).
Which brings me to a humble request: At our sporting events, is it too much to ask that we simply “Play Ball?” In our appeals for military recruits, is it too much for us to tell them that war is not a sport?
Think of these questions the next time those military warplanes roar over the coliseum of your corporate-owned team.