Saying goodbye to patriotism—II
We are part of the world
I want no part of the America that arrogantly claims that the lives and hopes and dreams of people who happen to live within the boundaries of the United States have more value than those in other places. Nor will I indulge America in the belief that our grief is different. Since September 11, the United States has demanded that the world take our grief more seriously. When some around the world have not done so, we express our outrage
None of what I have said should be taken as a blanket denunciation of the United States, our political institutions, or our culture. People often tell me, “You start with the assumption that everything about the United States is bad.” Of course I do not assume that. That would be as absurd a position as the assumption that everything about the United States is good. I can’t imagine any reasonable person making either statement. That does raise the question, of course, of who is a reasonable person. We might ask that question about, for example, George Bush, the father. In 1988, after the US Navy warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner in a commercial corridor, killing 290 civilians, Bush said, “I will never apologise for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
I want to put forward the radical proposition that we should care what the facts are. We should start with the assumption that everything about the United States, like everything about any country, needs to be examined and assessed. That is what it means to be a moral person.
There is much about this country a citizen can be proud of, and I am in fact proud of those things. The personal freedoms guaranteed (to most people) in this culture, for example, are quite amazing. As someone who regularly tries to use those freedoms, I am as aware as anyone of how precious they are.
There also is much to be appalled by. The obscene gaps in wealth between rich and poor, for example, are quite amazing as well, especially in a wealthy society that claims to be committed to justice.
In that sense, we are like any other grouping of people. That doesn’t mean one can’t analyse various societies and judge some better than others by principles we can articulate and defend — so long as they are truly principles, applied honestly and uniformly. But one should maintain a bit of humility in the endeavour. Perhaps instead of saying “The United States is the greatest nation on earth” — a comment common among politicians, pundits, and the public — we would be better off saying, “I live in the United States and have deep emotional ties to the people, land, and ideals of this place. Because of these feelings, I want to highlight the positive while working to change what is wrong.” That is not moral relativism — it is a call for all of us to articulate and defend our positions.
We can make that statement without having to argue that we are, in some essential way, better than everyone else. We can make that statement without arrogantly suggesting that other people are inherently less capable of articulating or enacting high ideals. We can make that statement and be ready and willing to engage in debate and discussion about the merits of different values and systems.
We can make that statement, in other words, and be true internationalists, people truly committed to peace and justice. If one wants to call that statement an expression of patriotism, I will not spend too much time arguing. But I will ask: If we make a statement like that, why do we need to call it an expression of patriotism? What can we learn by asking ourselves: What makes us, even people in the peace-and-justice community, want to hold onto the notion of patriotism with such tenacity?
When I write or talk with the general public and raise questions like these, people often respond, “If you hate America so much, why don’t you leave?”
But what is this America that I allegedly hate? The land itself? The people who live here? The ideals in the country’s founding documents? I do not hate any of those things.
When people say to me “love it or leave it,” what is the “it” to which they refer?
No one can ever quite answer that. Still, I have an answer for them.
I will not leave “it” for a simple reason: I have nowhere else to go. I was born here. I was given enormous privileges here. My place in the world is here, where I feel an obligation to use that privilege to be part — a very small part of, as we all are only a small part — of a struggle to make real a better world. Whatever small part I can play in that struggle, whatever I can achieve, I will have to achieve here, in the heart of the beast.
I love it, which is to say that I love life — I love the world in which I live and the people who live in it with me. I will not leave that “it.”
That “it” may not be specific enough for some, but it’s the best I can do. Maybe it will help to answer in the negative, for I can say more clearly what the “it” is not. I can describe more clearly what is the America I do not love.
The America I love is not this administration, or any other collections of politicians, or the corporations they serve.
It is not the policies of this administration, or any other collection of politicians, or the corporations they serve.
The America I love is not wrapped up in a mythology about “how good we are” that ignores the brutal realities of our own history of conquest and barbarism.
Most of all, I want no part of the America that arrogantly claims that the lives and hopes and dreams of people who happen to live within the boundaries of the United States have more value than those in other places. Nor will I indulge America in the belief that our grief is different. Since September 11, the United States has demanded that the world take our grief more seriously. When some around the world have not done so, we express our outrage.
But we should ask: What makes the grief of a parent who lost a child in the World Trade Centre any deeper than the grief of a parent who lost a child in Baghdad when US warplanes rained death on the civilian areas of Iraq in the Gulf War? Or the parents of a child in Nicaragua when the US terrorist proxy army ravaged that country? Soon after 9-11, I heard a television reporter describe lower Manhattan as “Beirut on the Hudson.” We might ask, how did Beirut come to look like Beirut, and what is our responsibility in that? And what of the grief of those who saw their loved ones die during the shelling of that city?
We should ask: Where was the empathy of America for the grief of those people?
Certainly we grieve differently, more intensely, when people close to us die. We don’t feel the loss of a family member the same way as a death of a casual friend. We feel something different over the death of someone we knew compared with the death of a stranger. But we must understand that the grief we feel when our friends and neighbours became victims of political violence is no different than what people around the world feel. We must understand that each of those lives lost abroad has exactly the same value as the life of any one of our family, friends and neighbours.
September 11 was a dark day. I still remember what it felt like to watch those towers come down, the darkness that settled over me that day, the hopelessness, how tangible death felt — for me, not only the deaths of those in the towers but also the deaths of those who would face the bombs in the war that might follow, the war that did follow, the war that goes on.
But humans are resilient; in the darkness we tend to look for light, for a way out of the darkness.
I believe there is a light shining out of September 11, out of all that darkness. It is a light that I believe we Americans can follow to our own salvation. That light is contained in a simple truth that is obvious, but which Americans have never really taken to heart: We are part of the world. We cannot any longer hide from that world. We cannot allow our politicians, and generals, and corporate executives to do their dirty business around the world while we hide from the truths about just how dirty that business really is. We can no longer hide from the coups they plan, the wars they start, the sweatshops they run.
For me, all this means saying goodbye to patriotism.
That is the paradox: September 11 has sparked a wave of patriotism, a patriotism that has in many cases been overtly hateful, racist and xenophobic. A patriotism that can lead people to say, as one person wrote to me, “We should bomb [Afghanistan] until there’s no more earth to bomb.”
But the real lesson of September 11, which I believe we will eventually learn, is that if we are to survive as a free people, as decent people who want honestly to claim the ideals we say we live by, we must say goodbye to patriotism. That patriotism will not relieve our grief, but only deepen it. It will not solve our problems but only extend them. I believe there is no hope for ourselves or for the world if we continue to embrace patriotism, no matter what the definition.
We must give up our “love and loyal or zealous support of one’s own country” and transfer that love, loyalty and zealousness to the world, and especially the people of the world who have suffered most so that we Americans can live in affluence.
We must be able to say, as the great labour leader of the early 20th century Eugene Debs said, “I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.”
I am with Debs. I believe it is time to declare: I am not patriotic. I am through with trying to redefine the term patriotic to make sense. There is no sense to it.
That kind of statement will anger many, but at some point we must begin to take that risk, for this is not merely an academic argument over semantics.
This is both a struggle to save ourselves and a struggle to save the lives of vulnerable people around the world.
We must say goodbye to patriotism because the kind of America the peace-and-justice movement wants to build cannot be built on, or through, the patriotism of Americans.
We must say goodbye to patriotism because the world cannot survive indefinitely the patriotism of Americans.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. This is the second and final part of a two part series. The first part appeared on Tuesday, January 7, 2003