Some thoughts on “patriotism” written on July 4

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BY BILL BLUM

Most important thought: I’m sick and tired of this thing called “patriotism”.

The Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor were being patriotic. The German people who supported Hitler and his conquests were being patriotic, fighting for the Fatherland. All the Latin American military dictators who overthrew democratically-elected governments and routinely tortured people were being patriotic — saving their beloved country from “communism”.

General Augusto Pinochet of Chile: “I would like to be remembered as a man who served his country.”[1]

P.W. Botha, former president of apartheid South Africa: “I am not going to repent. I am not going to ask for favours. What I did, I did for my country.”[2]

Pol Pot, mass murderer of Cambodia: “I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.”[3]

Tony Blair, former British prime minister, defending his role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis: “I did what I thought was right for our country.”[4]

I won’t bore you with what George W. has said.

At the end of World War II, the United States gave moral lectures to their German prisoners and to the German people on the inadmissibility of pleading that their participation in the holocaust was in obedience to their legitimate government. To prove to them how legally inadmissable this defense was, the World War II allies hanged the leading examples of such patriotic loyalty.

I was once asked after a talk: “Do you love America?” I answered: “No”. After pausing for a few seconds to let that sink in amidst several nervous giggles in the audience, I continued with: “I don’t love any country. I’m a citizen of the world. I love certain principles, like human rights, civil liberties, democracy, an economy which puts people before profits.”

_____________________

“Pledges of allegiance are marks of totalitarian states, not democracies…”

______________________

I don’t make much of a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Some writers equate patriotism with allegiance to one’s country and government, while defining nationalism as sentiments of ethno-national superiority. However defined, in practice the psychological and behavioral manifestations of nationalism and patriotism — including the impact of such sentiments on actual policies — are not easily distinguishable; indeed, one can’t exist without the other.

Howard Zinn has called nationalism “a set of beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands.”[5] … “Patriotism is used to create the illusion of a common interest that everybody in the country has.”[6]

Strong feelings of patriotism lie near the surface in the great majority of Americans. They’re buried deeper in the more “liberal” and “sophisticated”, but are almost always reachable, and ignitable.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the mid-19th century French historian, commented about his long stay in the United States: “It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.”[7]

George Bush Sr., pardoning former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others in connection with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal: “First, the common denominator of their motivation — whether their actions were right or wrong — was patriotism.”[8]

What a primitive underbelly there is to this rational society. The US is the most patriotic, as well as the most religious, country of the so-called developed world. The entire American patriotism thing may be best understood as the biggest case of mass hysteria in history, whereby the crowd adores its own power as troopers of the world’s only superpower, a substitute for the lack of power in the rest of their lives. Patriotism, like religion, meets people’s need for something greater to which their individual lives can be anchored.

So this July 4, my dear fellow Americans, some of you will raise your fists and yell: “U! S! A! U! S! A!”. And you’ll parade with your flags and your images of the Statue of Liberty. But do you know that the sculptor copied his mother’s face for the statue, a domineering and intolerant woman who had forbidden another child to marry a Jew?

“Patriotism,” Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Ambrose Bierce begged to differ — It is, he said, the first.

“Patriotism is the conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” George Bernard Shaw

“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.” George Orwell[9]

“Pledges of allegiance are marks of totalitarian states, not democracies,” says David Kertzer, a Brown University anthropologist who specializes in political rituals. “I can’t think of a single democracy except the United States that has a pledge of allegiance.”[10] Or, he might have added, that insists that its politicians display their patriotism by wearing a flag pin. Hitler criticized German Jews and Communists for their internationalism and lack of national patriotism. Along with Mussolini in Italy, the Führer demanded that “true patriots” publicly vow and display their allegiance to their respective fatherlands. Postwar democratic governments of the two countries made a conscious effort to minimize such shows of national pride.

(Oddly enough, the American Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a founding member, in 1889, of the Society of Christian Socialists, a group of Protestant ministers who asserted that “the teachings of Jesus Christ lead directly to some form or forms of socialism.”)

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, we could read that there’s “now a high degree of patriotism in the Soviet Union because Moscow acted with impunity in Afghanistan and thus underscored who the real power in that part of the world is.”[11]

“Throughout the nineteenth century, and particularly throughout its latter half, there had been a great working up of this nationalism in the world. … Nationalism was taught in schools, emphasized by newspapers, preached and mocked and sung into men. It became a monstrous cant which darkened all human affairs. Men were brought to feel that they were as improper without a nationality as without their clothes in a crowded assembly. Oriental peoples, who had never heard of nationality before, took to it as they took to the cigarettes and bowler hats of the West.”   H.G. Wells, English writer[12]

“The very existence of the state demands that there be some privileged class vitally interested in maintaining that existence. And it is precisely the group interests of that class that are called patriotism.” Mikhail Bakunin, Russian anarchist[13]

“To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.” George Santayana, American educator and philosopher


Dr. Strangelove
There have been numerous books published on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. I have not read one of them. There’s another one just out: “One Minute to Midnight,” by Washington Post writer Michael Dobbs. I will not be reading it. The reason authors keep writing these books and publishers keep publishing them is obvious: How close the world came to a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union! Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian and adviser to President Kennedy, termed it “the most dangerous moment in human history.”[14] But I’ve never believed that. Such a fear is based on the belief that either or both of the countries was ready and willing to unleash their nuclear weapons against the other. However, this was never in the cards because of MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction. By 1962, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had grown so large and sophisticated that neither superpower could entirely destroy the other’s retaliatory force by launching a missile first, even with a surprise attack. Retaliation was certain, or certain enough. Starting a nuclear war was committing suicide. If the Japanese had had nuclear bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been destroyed.

Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev was only looking for equality. The United States had missiles and bomber bases already in place in Turkey and other missiles in Western Europe pointed toward the Soviet Union. Khrushchev later wrote:

The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine. … After all, the United States had no moral or legal quarrel with us. We hadn’t given the Cubans anything more than the Americans were giving to their allies. We had the same rights and opportunities as the Americans. Our conduct in the international arena was governed by the same rules and limits as the Americans. [15]

Virtually every president from Truman on has been exhorted by one Dr. Strangelove or another, military or civilian, to use The Bomb when things were going badly, such as in Korea or Vietnam or Cuba, or to use it against the Soviets directly, unprovoked, to once and for all get rid of those commie bastards that were causing so much trouble in so many countries. And not one president gave in to this pressure. They would have been MAD to do so. Which is why all the scary talk of recent years about Saddam Hussein and Iran and all their alleged and potential weapons of mass destruction was just that — scary talk. Hussein was not, and the Iranians are not, MAD. The only modern-day leaders I would not make this assumption about are Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney. The latter is a genuine Dr. Strangelove.

In a few weeks we’ll once again be marking the anniversary of the two nuclear bombings of Japan. Remarkably, the bombings are still highly controversial. I believe that the evidence clearly shows that the Japanese were already defeated and trying to surrender, thus obviating the need for the bombings. My essay on this can be found at http://members.aol.com/essays6/abomb.htm

The Cold War was a marvelous era for Armageddon humor. Here is US General Thomas Power speaking in December 1960 about things like nuclear war and a first strike by the United States: “The whole idea is to kill the bastards! At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!” The response from one of those present was: “Well, you’d better make sure that they’re a man and a woman.”[16]


Economics 101 remedial
The economists who defend the perpetual crises of the capitalist system — the sundry speculative bubbles followed by bursting bubbles followed by a trail of tears — most often turn to “supply and demand” as the ultimate explanation and justification for the system. This provides an impersonal, neutral-sounding, and respectable, almost scientific, cover for the vagaries of free enterprise. They would have us believe that we shouldn’t blame the crises on greed or speculation or manipulation or criminal activity because such flawed human behavior is overridden by “supply and demand”. It’s a law, remember, “the law of supply and demand” is its full name. And where does this “law” come from? Congress? Our ancestral British Parliament? No, nothing so commonplace, so man-made. No, they would have us believe that it must come from nature. It works virtually like a natural law, does it not? And we violate it or ignore it at our peril.

Thus have we all been raised. But great cracks in the levee have been appearing in recent years, in unlikely places, such as the Senate of the United States, which issued a lengthy report in 2006 (when a gallon of gasoline had already passed the three dollar mark) entitled: “The role of market speculation in rising oil and gas prices”. Here are some excerpts:

“The traditional forces of supply and demand cannot fully account for these increases [in crude oil, gasoline, etc.]. While global demand for oil has been increasing … global oil supplies have increased by an even greater amount. As a result, global inventories have increased as well. Today, U.S. oil inventories are at an 8-year high, and OECD [mainly European] oil inventories are at a 20-year high. Accordingly, factors other than basic supply and demand must be examined.”

“Over the past few years, large financial institutions, hedge funds, pension funds, and other investment funds have been pouring billions of dollars into the energy commodities markets … to try to take advantage of price changes or to hedge against them. Because much of this additional investment has come from financial institutions and investment funds that do not use the commodity as part of their business, it is defined as ‘speculation’ by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). According to the CFTC, a speculator ‘does not produce or use the commodity, but risks his or her own capital trading futures in that commodity in hopes of making a profit on price changes.’ [Futures contracts gamble on the price goods will fetch on a particular date in the future; the contracts are traded like stocks.] The large purchases of crude oil futures contracts by speculators have, in effect, created an additional demand for oil, driving up the price of oil to be delivered in the future in the same manner that additional demand for the immediate delivery of a physical barrel of oil drives up the price on the spot market. … Although it is difficult to quantify the effect of speculation on prices, there is substantial evidence that the large amount of speculation in the current market has significantly increased prices.”

The prices arrived at daily on the commodity exchanges (primarily the New York Mercantile Exchange — NYMEX), for the various kinds of oil are used as principal international pricing benchmarks, and play an important role in setting the price of gasoline at the pump.

A good part of the Senate report deals with how the CFTC is no longer able to properly regulate commodity trading to prevent speculation, manipulation, or fraud because much of the trading takes place on commodity exchanges, in the US and abroad, that are not within the CFTC’s purview. “Persons within the United States seeking to trade key U.S. energy commodities — U.S. crude oil, gasoline, and heating oil futures — now can avoid all U.S. market oversight or reporting requirements by routing their trades through the ICE Futures exchange in London instead of the NYMEX in New York. … To the extent that energy prices are the result of market manipulation or excessive speculation, only a cop on the beat with both oversight and enforcement authority will be effective. … The trading of energy commodities by large firms on OTC [over-the-counter] electronic exchanges, was exempted from CFTC oversight by a provision inserted at the behest of Enron and other large energy traders into the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.”[17]

A tale told many times. While you and I go about our daily lives trying to be good citizens, the Big Boys, the Enron Boys, are busy lobbying the Congress Boys. They call it “modernization”, or some other eye-rolling euphemism, and we get screwed.

The Washington Post recently had this to report on the Enron and Congress Boys: “Wall Street banks and other large financial institutions have begun putting intense pressure on Congress to hold off on legislation that would curtail their highly profitable trading in oil contracts — an activity increasingly blamed by lawmakers for driving up prices to record levels. … But the executives were met with skepticism and occasional hostility. ‘Spare us your lecture about supply and demand,’ one of the Democratic aides said, abruptly cutting off one of the executives. … A growing number of members of Congress have reacted to public outrage over skyrocketing gasoline prices by introducing at least eight bills that restrict the ability of financial companies to buy futures contracts, [require companies to] disclose more about those investments or stiffen federal oversight of energy trades.”[18]

Some further testimony from the 2006 Senate hearing:

“There has been no shortage, and inventories of crude oil and products have continued to rise. The increase in prices has not been driven by supply and demand.” — Lord Browne, Group Chief Executive of BP (formerly British Petroleum)

“Senator … I think I have been very clear in saying that I don’t think that the fundamentals of supply and demand — at least as we have traditionally looked at it — have supported the price structure that’s there.” — Lee Raymond, Chairman and CEO, ExxonMobil

“What’s been happening since 2004 is very high prices without record-low stocks. The relationship between U.S. [oil] inventory levels and prices has been shredded, has become irrelevant.” ——Jan Stuart, Global Oil Economist, UBS Securities (which calls itself “the leading global wealth manager”)

In 2008, when a gallon of gasoline had passed the four dollar mark, OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri stated: “There is clearly no shortage of oil in the market.” El-Badri “blamed high oil prices on investors seeking ‘better returns’ in commodities after a drop in equity prices and the value of the dollar.”[19]

Finally, defenders of the way the system works insist that the oil companies have been experiencing great increases in their costs, due particularly to oil running out, so-called “peak oil”. It costs much more to find and extricate the remaining oil and the companies have to pass these costs to the consumer. Well, class, if that is so, then the companies should be making about the same net profit as before peak oil — X-dollars more in expenses, X-dollars added to the price, same amount of profit, albeit a lower percentage of profit to sales, something of interest primarily to Wall Street, not to ordinary human beings. But the oil companies have not done that.  Their increases in price and profit defy gravity and are not on the same planet as any increases in costs. Moreover, as economist Robert Weissman of the Multinational Monitor has observed: “While the price of oil is going up, these companies’ drilling expenses are not. Oil can trade at $40 a barrel, $90 a barrel, or $130 a barrel. It still costs ExxonMobil and the rest of Big Oil only about $20 to get a barrel of oil out of the ground.”[20]

The above is not meant to be the last word on the subject of why our gasoline is so expensive. Too much information is hidden, by speculators, oil companies, refiners, and others; too much activity is unregulated; too much is moved by psychology more than economics. The best solution would be to get rid of all the speculative markets — unless they can demonstrate that they serve a human purpose — and nationalize the oil companies. (Oh my god, he used the “N” word!)


NOTES
[1] Sunday Telegraph (London), July 18, 1999

[2] The Independent (London), November 22, 1995

[3] Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), October 30, 1997, article by Nate Thayer, pages 15 and 20

[4] Washington Post, May 11, 2007, p.14

[5] “Passionate Declarations” (2003), p.40

[6] ZNet Magazine, May 2006, interview by David Barsamian

[7] “Democracy in America” (1840), chapter 16

[8] New York Times, December 25, 1992

[9] “Notes on Nationalism”, p.83, 84, in “Such, Such Were the Joys” (1945)

[10] Alan Colmes, “Red, White and Liberal” (2003), p.30

[11] San Francisco Examiner, January 20, 1980, quoting a “top Soviet diplomat”

[12] “The Outline of History” (1920), vol. II, chapter XXXVII, p.782

[13] “Letters on Patriotism”, 1869

[14] Washington Post Book World, June 24, 2008, review of “One Minute to Midnight”

[15] “Khrushchev Remembers” (London, 1971) pages 494, 496

[16] Fred Kaplan, “The Wizards of Armageddon” (1983), p.246. For many other examples of Cold War absurdity, see William Blum, “Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire”, chapter 12: “Before there were terrorists, there were communists and the Wonderful World of Anti-Communism”

[17] “The role of market speculation in rising oil and gas prices”, published by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, June 27, 2006.

[18] Washington Post, June 19, 2008, p.D1, “Wall Street Lobbies to Protect Speculative Oil Trades”

[19] Washington Post, May 10, 2008, p.D3

[20] “What To Do About the Price of Oil”, Multinational Monitor, May 28, 2008, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/editorsblog


William Blum, Cyrano’s Senior Editor for Foreign Policy, is the author of:
Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2
Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower
West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir
Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire
       Portions of the books can be read, and signed copies purchased, at <www.killinghope.org >
Previous Anti-Empire Reports can be read at this website at “essays”. 

6 comments on “Some thoughts on “patriotism” written on July 4
  1. Another great essay by Blum. He nails this corrosive self-righteous ideology to the wall in conclusive terms. Wish it could be read aloud on tonight’s prime time “newscasts”–but we know that ain’t gonna happen, and that’s why we are here. All forms of nationalism are nothing but tribalism and should be shunned.

  2. Well said, Loren. Mr Blum does a very nice job exposing the baseless assumptions that inform “patriotism.” Isn’t it interesting that the vast majority of really great human beings were uncomfortable with the restrictive notion of patriotism and nationalism and preferred to see themselves as merely members of the human family? “Patriotism”–like tribalism, which is making a comeback due to world confusion–is doomed IF humanity progresses morally to a higher plane. The EU, for example, is creating the foundations of a trans-european identity, and that may in time give way to a global identity. War at least may be weakened with the arrival of such concepts. Till then, if we want to do the right thing, eschew “patriotism” and all the manure it entails!–W. Merevik, Glasgow

  3. Fine anti-empire report, as usual.

    I had no idea Bellamy had written the Pledge of Allegiance. How ironic!

    Also liked the bit on the sculptor of the Statue of Lib.

    The training in fascism/patriotism I got from elementary school onward: First, there was the daily Pledge of Allegiance, which I hated doing even at an early age. Eventually, I just mouthed the words. Then there was the weekly “Assembly”–big deal of the week–all boys in white shirts, ties and dark trousers; girls in white blouses, dark, pleated skirts that came down to the knees, and socks that came up to the knees. The “honor guard” would bring in the flag (US first, followed by state and city) to “Pomp and Circumstance.” I was in the band so I could watch it all unfold. Once the flag was in place at the front of the auditorium, someone would rise from the orchestra pit–sometimes moi–and play “Taps”! Jesus! Then the whole assembly would sing “Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (I thought, early on, my country’s name was “Tizovthee); then, “America, the Beautiful,” followed by a rousing (if off-key, with mangled words) “Star-Spangled Banner” (which the boys would inevitably call the Star Spangled Banana). Add the monthly “Take Cover!” drill during which we dropped pencils, notebooks–whatever–to wedge our little bodies under our little desks, believing that the Russians were about to vaporize us all with atom bombs–and it’s no wonder we’ll all nuts now!

    Fine quotes, by the way. Especially liked Wells’ and Orwell’s. There’s a fine documentary that’s has been playing this week on PBS–“The War of the World,” building on Wells’, but showing how, in the 20th century, we turned each other into aliens–worthy of annihilation.

    Part 2, re MAD

    I’ve taken it into my head recently that what our idiot leaders most want is a New Cold War. They just want to keep up the show as long as possible. While we may not have MAD to worry about from Iran, they can cause enough damage to really set the world back a few decades. Best, therefore, to just keep up the drumbeat of Iran developing a nuke, and how terrible that would be, and so we need our 20,000 nukes and Israel needs its 200, and we need to continue to spend $1 trillion on all the various killing shit.

    Part 3

    Heartily agree: The best solution would be to get rid of all the speculative markets and nationalize the oil companies. (Oh my god, the “N” word!)

    I think it’s about to happen, too, here in La-La Land. Just as soon as hell freezes over.

    Oil speculators, etc., through options, etc., can control $1 million with $100,000. If the price of oil goes up 10%, they make $100,000–or 100 percent profit. (They can also protect themselves on the downside–all a game of “puts” and “calls.” But only the filthy rich can play and their hired-guns brokers can play.)

    Yours in Pottersville–

    GC

  4. I can’t decide which one is more of a mental cancer: patriotism or religion. But no need to split my head trying to decide as they often travel together!

  5. Great comment, Gary! And Bill also inspected that reliable source of wonderful quotes, de Tocqueville, and found a superb description of our afflictions in this self-righteous land:

    “It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.”

  6. Patriotism is always a deeply held value by those who control property or wish to control it (and acquire lots of it). Immigrants are usually conservative–by default. It’s no accident that the unwashed masses of Europe (and rest of the world) washed ashore in America and gave this nation such a conservative/reactionary backbone, even though many of its official documents aspire to some utopian egalitarianism–maybe a distant memory of what the same masses wished for in the lands of their provenance, where they were mercilessly exploited by their respective upper classes.
    That America is the pre-eminent nation of fierce immigrants is often a bad bad thing.

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