This World Is Too Big for Patriotism

This World Is Too Big for Patriotism

by polynya
The summer season always brings with it those outbursts of patriotism–Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Olympic celebrations–plenty of reasons to fly a flag and shoot some fireworks.  For many radicals these occasions are deeply cynical times; reiterating, “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” seems like an understatement.  With deadly wars being waged and an ongoing history of oppression, anti-patriotism is a logical reaction, but despite this we will still see millions of Americans waving the red, white and blue this summer.  For a long time the Left has treated nationalism like a spell, as if the image of a burning flag would awaken us from a collective hallucination.  But if we are to overcome the current reality we must seriously understand the positive impact patriotism has on the lives of citizenries around the world.

As communities gather for parades and barbecues while children light firecrackers, as veterans bond over common personal struggles and as new citizens finish naturalization ceremonies, there are always points and places where patriotism goes well beyond nationalistic chauvinism.  Love of country is not based simply on place but also on principles, both aspired to and acted upon.  At its best patriotism allows the collective solidarity we seek to briefly find expression within the restricted confines of the nation-state.  Community, camaraderie, altruism, struggle, newly enjoyed freedoms, newly shared equalities, creativity and pageantry.  These are values that most activists would rejoice in bringing to life, even if only temporarily.  Is it not understandable that any citizen has this same reaction even as such sentiments are later turned into grist for a much more cynical and dangerous political machine?

“Thinking men and women the world over are beginning to realize that patriotism is too narrow and limited a conception to meet the necessities of our time. The centralization of power has brought into being an international feeling of solidarity among the oppressed nations of the world; a solidarity which represents a greater harmony of interests between the workingman of America and his brothers abroad than between the American miner and his exploiting compatriot…”

-Emma Goldman, 1908

The breaking point for patriotism is always at the borders.  Even as some previously marginalized populations are brought into the national identity as good Americans (although the cruelties of exclusion and oppression are by no means over), even under the most utopic patriotism, there will always be an “Other” on the opposing side of the fence.  Nowhere else does the state more quickly drop its ideals than at the border, the checkpoint, the port security zone.  For those in power the exact size and proportions of national divisions is not the issue, but rather the continued existence of some divisions within the global population in order to guarantee their control.  Politicians and capitalists have always been jetset and cosmopolitan, happy to play golf or dine in any country’s capital; for them the threat is not a more benevolent nationalism, but rather internationalism.

Patriotism has historically been tasked with interrupting migration flows and preventing the formation of grassroots social orders from below.  It is no surprise that almost all time-honored American patriotic traditions arose at the end of the 19th century.  The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, the Star Spangled Banner, the Pledge of Allegiance, flag standardization and desecration laws were all products of a time when propertyless men, adrift after the Civil War, launched the first mass labor movements and as peak levels of immigrants freely crossed borders uninterrupted.  The new national symbols explicitly aimed to coalesce previously divided populations into an American identity, while the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Anarchist Exclusion Act (1903) instituted the first restrictions on immigration in order to prevent subversion of this new identity.  Despite these pressures, growing numbers of anarchists and socialists organized across national and racial lines to confront global capital and imperialist wars.  By 1917 international solidarity overwhelmed patriotic sentiments in many countries, as revolutions swept through Russia, Hungary, Germany, and Italy.  Massive general strikes in the U.S. were only quelled by the arrest of over 10,000 workers and deportation of over 500 immigrants.

While socialist internationalism continued to have its fits and starts, with clandestine networks rising to fight Spanish fascism in the 1930s and imperialism in the 1960s, modern barriers to mobility drastically undermine political organizing.  Most Leftists have since abandoned the goal of international liberation in favor of personal liberation abroad, the compensatory crumbs of elite cosmopolitanism in return for toeing the political line.  The thirst to rise above the confines of American xenophobia, to experience cooperation and community with other people’s is sated by the hollow “cultural experiences” of the ecotourism market and token donations to international NGOs.  If mass patriotism is the saccharine facade of national community after any authentic bonds have been thoroughly dissolved away, liberal cosmopolitanism is its international counterpart.

The cosmopolitan world citizen looks at their flag-waving compatriots with disdain, “Why don’t they see it’s all a charade?  There is such a wide world available beyond our borders!  Handcrafted baskets, beautiful keffiyehs…they probably don’t even know how to drink yerba mate right!”  For too long the main counterpoint to patriotism has not been a demand to remove the structures that confine solidarity to the nation, but rather the cynical liberalism that confuses its own privilege for a higher philosophical plane of reason.  Crafting a self-identity that crosses borders and symbolizes values has become the goal instead of enacting our values in action with others and reaching outside the consumerist self.

“We have always chosen our friends, our companions-in-arms, as well as our enemies, because of the ideas they profess and of the position they occupy in the social struggle, and never for reasons of race or nationality. We have always fought against patriotism, which is a survival of the past, and serves well the interest of the oppressors; and we were proud of being internationalists, not only in words, but by the deep feelings of our souls.”  -Errico Malatesta, 1914

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.  Resistance is what will surpass it.  Patriotism continues to hold its appeal because it is free to supplement its propaganda with deeds, with the nationalistic solidarities that find expression within its narrow confines.  With this enemy it is no longer sufficient to be internationalist only in words, to restrain our own propaganda to symbolism and contempt.  Action is needed to allow an internationalist community to exist in more than our screeds.  Four decades of complaining about the system, of pointing out its flaws, of proclaiming our higher ideals, have not created alternatives within the reach of most people.  Nationalism was forged by attacking those who dared to transgress borders, but it would be a mistake to assume it will be eroded merely by our personal transgressions.  The nation will only be overcome when those borders are torn to the ground and all people are free to explore beyond their walls.  Detention centers, prisons, poverty, cops, ecological wastelands…there are a lot of hard painful walls in our society, but among us we have many hands.  Let’s actually put them to use…


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