Patriots Are Rebels, Not Bootlickers

(7:30PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Samuel Johnson famously wrote in 1775 that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce made the appropriate correction: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.”

The past eight years proves Bierce’s thesis once and for all.  

The remorseless gangsters currently in charge of the executive branch aren’t the first American leaders to falsely define patriotism to include torturing, racketeering, warmongering, privatizing, fraud, fecklessness, betrayal, incompetence, injustice, absolutism, corporatism, cronyism and horses’ assism. They aren’t the first to wave the red-white-and-blue while committing sedition against the nation’s citizens by lying them into a war. Nor the first to spy on dissidents of that war. Nor to treat the veterans of that war with public accolades simultaneous to budgetary disdain.

Nor, it must never be forgotten, the first to commit war crimes under a patriotic banner.

But these particular scoundrels have managed one new audacity: cramming the full roster of such behavior into two presidential terms. For this Herculean effort, the cabal of grifters who took over seven-and-a-half years ago surely deserve medals.  

To be fair, Bierce had a 135-year advantage over Johnson. He could look back at the history of a particular brand of patriotism – the American kind – which, like everything else American, our modern flag-wavers will explain to us benighted, is exceptional, unlike European patriotism, to them a lesser and ignoble kind. Jonah Goldberg told us just that in his Tuesday screed attacking Barack Obama’s patriotic bona fides. Goldberg himself is not exceptional. Most right-wing intellectuals are purveyors of what makes a true patriot and what does not in terms Il Duce would have loved, equating aggressive nationalism with patriotism, dissidence with treason, love of country with love of leaders. Such upsidedownism is a hallmark of right-think (liberals are fascists, according to Goldberg’s book and blog), so the attack on Obama – achieved by the most tendentious parsing of the Senator’s campaign speeches – is no surprise.

However, as Larisa Alexandrovna points out in her fine deconstruction of Goldberg’s essay, what he and fellow propagandists are about is not merely challenging a candidate’s love for country but rather demanding adherence of us all to Big Brother’s brand of patriotism, complete with spiffed-up Two Minutes Hate:

Make no mistake, this is a coordinated effort to deliberately replace substance with its symbol, meaning with an emblem, and essentially strip language down to nothing but trinkets. …

For a people to be controlled, they must first be robbed of honest discourse and open debate. Distorting language and stripping it of real and honest meaning is the first tool and the best mechanism for transforming a democracy into an authoritarian state. An informed populace is a dangerous populace.

Symbols, however, and false-definitions can provide the appearance of information without the truth of it. Ideas, substance and meaning – all things for which a symbol is simply a representation and a word simply a type of symbol – are far more difficult to control. There is nuance in individual ideas. There are shades of agreement and disagreement and a whole spectrum of understanding and believing. Such a complex system cannot be controlled, and therefore, must be reduced to only its symbol and then distorted.

Symbols and words-as-slogans can be mass produced, mass delivered, and altered from their original meaning, until the symbol becomes its own thing and the substance on which it is based is entirely lost. …

Patriotism is the word that authoritarians most like to distort and Goldberg demonstrates — once again — just how this distortion is created.

The distortion was clear when Goldberg plopped the phrase “patriotism problem” into his first sentence. Not just Obama’s problem, mind you. As putative nominee, the Senator is, of course, a real target, but he is also the right-wingers’ surrogate for citizens who dare claim that the United States needs more than a little tweaking around the edges. Citizens who deeply love their country, but recognize that, historically and now, it is a composite of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Who refuse to reiterate the latest version of my-country-right-or-wrong. Who acknowledge with condemnation that a jingoistic, exclusionary, authoritarian patriotism was in large part what helped make the United States “great” in the worst sense of the word. Who believe dissent to be the paramount patriotic behavior.

Who object to the idolatrous intermingling of militaristic nationalism with patriotism.

I can hear the hisses of those who – in the words of George Washington – practice the “impostures of pretend patriotism” and try at every opportunity to stifle dissent and fill the silence with propaganda. It’s the Fourth of July! How dare I disrespect patriotism on the very anniversary of the day 56 men signed what could have been their death warrant, the Declaration of Independence. Can’t there be just one day when we critics shut up, stand up and salute? Thus do the Goldbergians and other pretend patriots do as they have done throughout American history – confuse dissent with disrespect, critics with renegades, patriotism with obedience.

Fortunately, 15 years after the Declaration was signed, the Bill of Rights was adopted and, in its First Amendment, freedom of speech was enshrined. Allowing us all, so far, usually, to say what we want. In a disrespectful voice if we so desire.

That amendment is one reason I love my country and am a patriot.

I’ll admit, that’s damned hard for someone whose Seminole ancestors were killed in three wars by soldiers flying the stars and stripes, with amends and apologies yet to be made. But I call myself a patriot because patriots are rebels. That is not a cry for overthrow and the guillotine. It is an optimism that patriots can and must remake the United States, just as in the past it was repeatedly remade by dissidents who rejected slavery, women’s second-class status, workers’ impotence, racism’s reign. There is, it goes without saying, much left to achieve.

Nothing, of course, offends right-wingers more, seems more disrespectful and disloyal, than when we dissenters, our criticisms barely escaped from our lips, claim ourselves to be patriots. They go apoplectic when we say it’s not patriotism that we  disrespect but rather the pretenders who have made a fetish of it, twisted it and commodified it. These idolaters love the idea of dissent, the iconography of it, but jeer its reality. To them, patriots must be bootlickers. In extreme cases, jackboots. Proof, if more were needed, that even the word itself, “patriot,” must be recaptured from those who have hijacked it.

They are not unlike Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, who, in January 1938, said: “We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press. Every time I hear these words I say to myself, ‘That man is a Red, that man is a Communist.’ You never hear a real American talk like that.”

Chinese and Russian capitalism have cost the accusation “Red” its punch, but even in the age of the millennial generation, the “real American” canard carries weight. We’ll continue to hear variations on that theme against Senator Obama right up until November 4.

Nevertheless, Obama is a lucky guy. His patriotism, he said on Monday, was challenged “for the first time” when he began his presidential campaign. The first time? Many citizens didn’t make it past their 20s before they were called unAmerican by the pretend patriots.    

As Goldberg makes clear, much of what the idolaters and fetishists heard in Senator Obama’s speech in Independence, Mo., was an abomination, especially:

Now, we may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, stand up for what’s right, and there are many times in our history when that’s occurred. But when our laws, when our leaders or our government are out of alignment with those ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.

If you hear echoes of the Declaration in those lines, you’d not be alone. Music to the ears of those of us for whom the Declaration and Constitution are the flawed start, not the end of American ideals.

But while Obama struck many sweet notes Monday, he also seemed compelled not to be discordant in the arena which most epitomizes today’s pretend patriots, an empire fueled by the military-industrial-congressional complex. Whether he is not ideologically inclined or merely not yet ready to offer even an indirect challenge on this score will have to wait for his swearing-in. His proffered addition of 92,000 new troops – as Bob Gates has sought for 19 months, at an additional cost of $11 billion annually – is not a good omen.

In terms of elections, it’s understandable. Who can contest the patriotism of someone who says he will expand the military? Even the military of a country that spends more money on its armed forces than all the world’s other countries put together? Why feed the age-old Democrats are weak on defense theme – itself a way to say Democrats are unpatriotic – by raising uncomfortable questions about the 118,000 U.S. military men and women in Japan, Korea and Germany? Will the day come when a president or presidential candidate divorces militarism from patriotism? Or will the pretenders always hold sway?

Sixty-odd years ago, George Orwell taught us how words are transformed to con the citizenry into accepting meanings which often are the opposite of their real meanings. In Notes on Nationalism, written in May 1945, he said that patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.”

Nationalism, however, is something else, he said, presciently zeroing on the pretend patriots of then and our own time:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.

… Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side. …

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. …

In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.

A patriot will defend what s/he loves without hatred or any notion of superiority. But nationalism demands a belief that others are inferior, which makes it aggressive by nature, the enemy of peace, and thus the enemy of patriotism. Nationalism frames everything in “us” vs. “them” terms.

U.S. nationalism pretending to be patriotism has led to imperialist wars, the slaughter of indigenous peoples, the repeated suppression of dissent. In times of global tension, nationalism masquerading as patriotism demolishes the capacity of people to assess the reality of threats as well as to object if they find those threats wanting.

To adopt the unconditional support the Goldbergians ask of us could never be an expression of love for our country, the core definition of patriotism. Indeed, it would be extremely unpatriotic. For who recklessly allows harm against that which s/he loves?

Fighting for a better country is what patriotic dissidents have done from the beginning of the United States. Arrayed against them and their high principles in every case were the pretend patriots, those for whom dissent was anathema, who saw attempts to expand the nation’s democracy as a violation of their rights, who labeled opposition to expansionism and imperialist war outright treason.

Despite the pretenders who engaged in naked aggression against abolitionists, suffragists, trade unionists, civil rights workers and others, these dissidents made America better. They remade America. In our time, they are lauded, but in their own, they were vilified, assaulted and even, sometimes, murdered for their audacity, for their patriotism, for their belief that the ideals in the Declaration were not pretend. We owe them. Not least to imitate their example and remake America once again.


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  1. I had to take my hat off.

    And I’ve read Stones’ Biography of Clarance Darrow.

  2. …willing to fly the flag is like this:

    • Robyn on July 4, 2008 at 23:20

    Thanks, MB.  The day has been full of them.

    I’ve got feelings of inadequacy and mine posts in 43 minutes or so.  Ack!

    • RiaD on July 4, 2008 at 23:25

    blow me away why doncha?

    excellent essay mr blades, sir….simply excellent!

    • kj on July 4, 2008 at 23:44

    i stayed behind in the peace and quiet while my husband went to spend the weekend with his anti-Obama rightwing Christian conservative family at the lake.  after all these years and all these battles, and last Christmas especially, i just couldn’t handle another round of “Missourha” battle.  lucky for patriots everywhere, my husband is loud, vocal and smarter than the average bear.  he’ll do fine battle for the language without my help.

    thanks MB.  language is a subject dear to this heart that lives and beats as a poet, first and foremost, and patriot and progressive second.  you’ve written another fine essay that i’m privileged to read.

    • kj on July 4, 2008 at 23:52

    speaking of Missouri, it’s time for:

    Bumper Sticker Report from the Highways and Byways: (only this time from a city instead of rural red)  Several Obama bumper stickers sighted recently.  None for McCain yet.  An old one for GWB that nearly caused me to crash the car, I didn’t know there were any of those still around.  

  3. not only in contrast to the wearers of masks of nationalistic patriotism on the Republican right, but also to some of the hard line Democratic Partisans. They too have shouted down criticism and dissent. They too don the boots a marching at times. What to do about that?

    I look forward to a day when we can move beyond nationalism and partisanism, patrimony, and patriarchal patriotisms and into something more cohesive, which draws on the commonalities of our species and the challenges we face together. Yep, I’m a dreamer alright, an idealist too. And yet that seems like the most down to earth common sense approach one could take in this time of diminishing tangible survival resources.

    Beautiful as ever MB. It is a joy to share a computer screen with your depth of knowledge and your skill with the word.

  4. … adrenaline-rush inducing than others. Many fronts on the fight for National Energy Independence are seen as being too dull to really get stuck into.

    • jim p on July 5, 2008 at 04:25

    that could be their death warrant, today, in our political class?

    Last one I could think of was Sen. Wellstone. When he did his first run for President, he gave a speech, shown on C-Span. He argued that since children, up to age 3, who are given full attention and nutrition, grow up to be smarter, healthier, and better adjusted, any serious discussion of national security and national interests have to start with reality.

    Apart from bringing up the name of that great patriot, notice the argument is one that simply will never be heard again. I can never think about any problem without seeing the hand of Media in falsifying, not only the details of the debate, but also the very basis of the debate. Even the consideration of which debates are worth having. All lies, trivialities, and manipulation.

    Don’t see how we restore the Republic without breaking up the neofeudalist’s agitation/propaganda unit: that is mass media’s control over content.

    And btw, Ron Paul was a “presidential candidate [who] divorce[d] militarism from patriotism. In fact, with Gravel, the only ones. These two have been painted by both the left and right as crackpots. Which is actually irrelevant to the question of “should we be making wars the world over” and what that does to our life at home. Apparently, only crackpots are unwilling to sign up for the truly insane agendas.

  5. …very well presented, sadly true!

    • robodd on July 5, 2008 at 18:02

    Ha!  I’m smarter than Ambrose Bierce.

    • OPOL on July 6, 2008 at 15:12

    Thank you for this.  Much respect.

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