I went to a baseball game last night. (No, not at Citizen’s Bank Park.) I had a great time except for the seventh inning stretch. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I knew that we still have to listen to “God Bless America” because brown people with the wrong religion blew up a couple of our buildings a decade ago. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the Orwellian pep rally I witnessed.
It started with some very inspiring American style rock-n-roll pumping through the stadium while we all cheered for a uniformed soldier who has just returned from active duty in Afghanistan. With American flags and other “Army stuff” featured prominently on the big screen, we spent a good minute or so cheering our armed forces in general and the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. When that was done, we were treated to an inspiring (and substantially drawn out) version of “God Bless America,” with even more American flags displayed prominently around the stadium and the big screen. When all that was done, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” seemed like a quaint afterthought. Twenty seconds of fluff that I almost felt guilty for enjoying.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “When fascism comes, it will be wrapped in an American flag.” But I don’t know if we’ve stopped to take stock of just how strongly this notion of patriotism still infuses our public life and discourse. We may have been able to relegate some of this imagery to the back burner in Bush-free America, but it’s a mistake to think that things are OK.
We need to be asking difficult questions. Just how long do we have to swear allegiance to God and Country at our baseball games before we feel vindicated for 9/11? At what point do we start asking which God we’re swearing fealty to, and whether or not it’s in the spirit of the American “Melting Pot” to force non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists, and Wiccans to participate in a clearly Christian mini-service?
Let me be unequivocal. Patriotism is an ideology, and when it becomes insinuated into many areas of our daily life, it becomes thoughtless, which is damn close to faith-based. My companion at the baseball game was a little miffed at me for not participating in the God and Country rally. She believes (correctly) that a sense of shared culture and community is important, and (incorrectly) shrugs off the fascist elements of the culture as basically harmless.
Recall that our biggest failing as a nation was patriotic trust and obedience when we were told — without evidence, and with substantial counter-evidence — that Iraq was responsible for the attack on September 11th. We were shown moving images of coffins, flags, firefighters, and police, and told that too many questions would spoil our chance for victory over the enemy. You know. The clear enemy. The one who’s always been the enemy. You know… we were never at war with Eurasia…
We believed. Largely out of a sense of patriotism, duty, and solidarity. And we were wrong for doing so. We failed morally and as critical thinkers because we allowed patriotism to overcome evidence. Despite all the strong emotions, we owed it to ourselves to make sure that our bombs fell on the right targets — if they fell at all. Instead, we all put flags on our cars. We started singing “God Bless America” at baseball games. And we let ourselves continue believing in America, right or wrong.
Don’t lump me in with unthinking America-haters. I like a lot of things about my country, and the reason I’m an activist is that I think it’s worth trying to make it a better place. But when I think of blind devotion to country, I think of a lot of bad things. In fact, I’m trying to remember a major event in history in which large numbers of wildly patriotic citizens brought more good to the world than harm. I’m having a very hard time thinking of anything.
How much difference is there between devotion to a person who represents the state and the kind of unswerving reverence and loyalty we see whenever an American flag and a man in uniform are presented? Does it matter that “The Troops” have replaced a single leader? If I am shouted down for not respecting the troops and the flag, am I less in the wrong than if I refuse to swear fealty to Stalin or Mao?
The flag and the troops have become a modern substitution for the cult of personality. Maybe this shift was inevitable. It seems impossible to maintain the sense of hero worship for an individual when it is so easy to dig up dirt, expose an indecent photo or two, or pull up campaign records from twenty years ago. But the armed forces? The flag? They are above reproach in a way that no individual could be. Anytime America does wrong, we can blame it on the people and still maintain our patriotic sentiment. After all, it wasn’t the troops’ fault. And it certainly wasn’t “America’s” fault. If anything, a focus on the nebulous goodness of “God and Country” is far more flexible than ardent and unfaltering allegiance to a single person. Such a regime can outlive its leaders, and perhaps more importantly — it can create a kind of pseudo-fascism even in a country with ostensibly free elections, term limits, and multiple parties. It’s fascism for democracies.
We shouldn’t let ourselves be deceived into thinking that worship of the flag or the country is any less dangerous than worship of the President or the Chairman. We shouldn’t overlook the cultural impact of “God Bless America” being sung at a hundred sixty games in thirty different cities, with literally hundreds of them broadcast nationally. As long as something as American as baseball is infused with not only theism, but blatant theocratic patriotism, we still have a lot to worry about.