Friday, July 04, 2008

Why Patriotism is Nonsense

Barack Obama and John McCain have forced me into declaring my own stance on patriotism once again. Patriotism is for the birds and there's no better day to say so than the Fourth of July. The only reasonable stance is to be not merely unpatriotic, but antipatriotic.

Countries don't really exist.

There is no such thing as the United States of America. Or France. Or Thailand. Or Canada. Or Argentina. All of these are mental constructs.

Sure, there are lands where certain languages and customs tend to prevail among their inhabitants. But these are fluid things.

According to patriotic theory, the United States is a nation of laws, founded on the Constitution, with definable borders and territory and citizens. In fact, the United States is not a nation, its laws are widely flouted (even by the lawgivers), most of its citizenry do not have a clue what the Constitution actually says, our borders are as porous as any others as the boundaries themselves are imaginary and citizenship is concept that is up for grabs.

Pace patriots. Most of this applies to France, Thailand, Canada, Argentina or almost any country. (I say "almost" because there's nearly always, as John Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile crisis, "some sonofabitch who didn't get the word.") Let's examine each of these items in turn.

A nation is best understood as human community that shares an identity, history, ancestry and extends back generations. The best known example is the Jewish people, who as a nation were stateless, from the time of the Maccabees to 1948, demonstrating that a nation is not the same thing as a state or nation-state.

The United States is most notably not a nation in that its population is entirely composed of immigrants. Yes, Virginia, even the Indians, who came to the American continent through over the Behring Strait, are immigrants, not native inhabitants.

We do not share a common ancestry, nor even a common history and certainly not a common identity.

This is equally true of every country in the American continent, from Canada to Chile. It may seem less true of European countries such as France (although ask the Flemish or the Bretons), but the wars in the former Yugoslavia amply attest to the notion that most European nation-states do not represent nations.

When the civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Galicia and Catalonia declared themselves independent and Generalissimo Francisco Franco had to suppress their languages for four decades to hold them in his tight fist from 1939 onwards.

As to our country, the United States doesn't even have a name that is a name, like Morocco or Poland, but a legal description of a particular legal agreement, which brings us to the mishmash of British custom, court precedent when it has proven convenient and sheer invention on the spot when it has not, that we call "law."

All of it, in the USA, is supposedly grounded in a document few understand. Lawmakers in Congress routinely flout the law -- in matters small and large -- and so do nearly all U.S. inhabitants. Moreover, there are abundant theories that say that states' laws supersede federal laws and do not bind across state lines. Good luck to you with "a nation of laws."

When I call our borders "porous," I do not mean that the Mexicans and Canadians (let's not forget whitebread Canadian illegal immigration to the USA) cross the Rio Grande or the 49th parallel without visas. I mean that the population, customs, climate of San Diego and Tijuana, as well as that of Bellingham, Wash., and Vancouver are very similar and that there has always been easy and close transit between the two.

The same is true between the bordering French Basque country and the Spanish Basque country, in which they speak Basque first and foremost and consider themselves of a common ancestry distinct from French or Spanish citizenship.

And think of it, how much more imaginary do things get than a boundary line drawn along a parallel, such as that which separates most of the western United States from Canada? How do you tell a Canadian tree from a U.S. American tree? Does one yield maple syrup and the other peanut butter?

Even legal citizenship is a fluid concept. Anyone born in the USA is a citizen, unless he is not. For example, the children of diplomats. The 14th Amendment calls for birth in the territory and under the jurisdiction of the United States.

But what about the nondiplomatic children of U.S. citizens born abroad? Many are "registered" in the local consulate and considered U.S. citizens, even though there is no tenable claim for jurisdiction or territory. Again, citizenship is a fluid thing nearly everywhere.

Patriotism, to round things up, was intended to refer to the love of one's patria, Latin for "land of the father." My father was not born, nor did he own land here -- or anywhere else -- which is not all that uncommon in these modern days. Where is the patria for me?

Sure, one can adopt an imaginary human community in which one feels more or less comfortable. One can decide that a certain piece of cloth with certain colors stands for this imagined social grouping and a certain piece of music speaks for everyone in the land the group has most likely stolen from someone else.

But let's not call these series of acts of maudlin convenience a noble thing, a reason to justify murder and mayhem -- let alone land and resource grabbing.

Before he was mercifully stopped, John McCain murdered Vietnamese by the dozens from the comfort of his cockpit. That's not noble. Nor is it particularly wonderful of Obama to wear a flag lapel pin, which he did not customarily wear before being a presidential candidate, just to show that he is "patriotic."

A pox on patriots and patriotism.


Anonymous said...

Also noted during the Cuban missile crisis was, "This starry eyed brand of national pride in the Cuban revolutionary is a characteristic no observer can afford to ignore in interpreting events."

Anonymous said...

To be unpatriotic or antipatriotic is a luxury for wealthy people. It is well known that poor people who have nothing want at least to be something: Serbe, Kosovar, Croate, Slovene ...

Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said...

True, Anonymous, true. A "starry-eyed brand of patriotism" is found in many such countries, where imaginings of what the country stands for far exceed the real possibilities. This applies to Cuba -- and other countries -- before and after their revolutions. The citizen of the poorer, more powerless country faces a greater challenge to his patriotic imagination.