Welcome back to another edition of The Bridge! Today’s topic is Unfettered Patriotism and what better way to dive into this issue than through the lens of...you guessed it, America First. If post-WWII history is any guide, it’s pretty clear to see where the ‘great generation,’ along with the boomers after them, align themselves when it comes to American Exceptionalism—USA all the way—. So it was easy for Trump to reel ‘em in, simple is as simple does. However, there was one generation a lot less willing to take the bait.
America First is juvenile, Us vs Them tactics, and its simplistic vision of a world in ever greater connectivity, just doesn’t have the same resonance with our globalized generation as it did with our begetters.
Today, we will talk about that red-blooded topic of all red-blooded topics—Patriotism—what it was, what it is, and what it is to us, the first generation to come of age in the post-nine-eleven-era.
After 16 years of continuous war, we are the generation truly willing to ask the question, what is it good for? Billions of dollars later and not a single victory to speak of, we have graduated deeply underfunded schools with debt like Saudi’s got oil. Looking at getting kicked off our parents' health care and into a bogus insurance market that’s about to have the rug ripped out from beneath it, we can ask, Hey, why did we just give 38 Bills to Israel when they got Healthcare like NYC’s got cockroaches—universal coverage.
It’s time to answer the question, what is it to be a patriot, how has the notion been cultivated, and how can we reclaim it? There are plenty of American values that are worth being proud of, freedom to assemble, speak and eat barbecue pork shoulder, but have we been trained not to be critical?
The Ground Rule today: we must begin valuing criticism of our global actions as a patriotic duty. We can be capable as a nation of being both patriotic, and critical of US military action worldwide. This is mandatory if we truly want to find our way to a discussion of peace.
"You still want to take me to prison, just cause I won’t trade humanity for patriotism."
If you don't like it here, Just leave!
Like a stubborn 5-year-old, America has only said sorry 5 times in our history. To Native Hawaiians, Japanese interned during WWII, the Tuskegee Experiment subjects, to France for hiding a nazi war criminal, and to African Americans for Slavery and Jim Crow laws. Considering that our country has murdered and oppressed Native Americans longer than any, it seems to me that we have a bit of a problem taking responsibility for our actions. When the 2016 Democratic Convention started chanting America over and over, while Michelle continued to force down our throats the idea that America is the Greatest Country on Earth, it became painfully obvious what patriotism really is -- Propaganda. A magic trick established by the government and perpetuated by media as a way to remove critique from the conversation.
So why is it so easy for us to buy into patriotism at the expense of our humanity?
This is because patriotism as we know it is a trap. It serves to be purposefully divisive propaganda that allows the powers that be scapegoat tough moral decisions in order to hide ulterior motives. It is used to hide a massive military budget, billions of which is un-auditable for taxpayers to see. Patriotism is the excuse for when we want to drop bombs instead of working to create domestic jobs, strengthen education programs, or address issues facing the hungry and homeless. The later is met with a resounding “But the money tho…”, while the former is met with a 90-3 unconditional bipartisan support.
In recent years, the Dems had left the #Merica response to the GOP, opting for a more under the table military support, but 2016 marked the switcheroo. As the GOP got away with calling America less than great, the blue team got the opportunity to point to the stars and stripes. It was backed up by a conversation of crushing ISIS and intervening in Syria. They had military personnel and parents of fallen soldiers speak to persuade the public of their patriotism. It was the easy rhetoric that was supposed to win them votes.
Never did they ask if U.S. lives were in danger as a result. Is it really supportive or even patriotic to put men and women at risk when we haven’t even considered all our options, much less exhausted them? Bush, Obama, Clinton, Trump, each one more excited to jump into military action, eager to partake in the patriotic pissing contest. Everyone told Bush he shouldn’t have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Obama expanded military action into Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. In fact, Obama continued military operations in both of Bush’s wars after his 2008 victory. Yes, Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, yes that Obama, dropped a bomb every 20 minutes of 2016.
People fell in love with Obama for his genuine tone and refreshing ability to actually tell the truth. Others hated him for his Muslim heritage, skin color, or “liberal” agenda. But did anyone actually critic the man? According to PolitiFact he lied every 8 sentences, told the truth every 5 sentences and fed us a bunch of filler in the middle. If he were my coworker, I’d be heated.
Back in 2016, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, the location of the US military’s first of two atomic bombs, back in 1945. He also visited Laos giving $90M towards clean up of the 80 million bomblets left by US forces in the late 60s. However, the President did not issue an apology, not to Laos, not to Japan, or to any of the countries we have murdered people in.
Awkward…because instead of apologizing we seem to resort to more military action.
Since I was born (1990), our government has helped overthrow governments in Bulgaria, Albania, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Ecuador, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Over 60 countries since WWII have had some type of US military intervention ranging from CIA organized coups to fully declared war. We think we are the saviors of the world and yet young people traveling outside the US contemplate telling people we are Canadian.
So War must be what makes us great because America tops the charts in very few categories these days. Of OECD (think developed countries) the US ranks first in population (check out our last three editions on Mass incarceration!), Obesity, and Military Spending. Yet we are expected to feel some sort of pride?
Patriotism has never been in a discussion of peace, only a discussion of war. But yet it's easy to swallow because we all want to believe we are special, taught through religion or history class of our superior morality. Cognitive dissonance, the way of coping with a reality that conflicts with the societally planted worldview.
We talk about it often at the bridge, our generation being the most connected and the most traveled of any group of humans to ever walk the earth. Our access to information, exposure to other cultures, and mixed ethnicity backgrounds makes it hard to ignore the glaring discrepancies between what older people describe as “America the Greatest” and the reality, America the corporate military industrial bully. It’s sobering to think, how in two years, we will have young adults capable of voting that have never lived a day without War and yet Peace is further away than ever.
But hey, MERICA!!!!
"Love of one’s country—its culture, its people, its history, etc.—is an understandable human phenomenon, perfectly natural and not inherently problematic. A healthy patriotism would reflect that attachment without simultaneously stirring up egotism, aggression, and hostility. Sadly, such is not the state of American patriotism today."
David Noise from Psychology Today
The Construction of Threats, Power and American Foreign Policy:
Reflections as an IR student in Germany
As social beings, the way that we experience and understand the world stems from the environment, culture and society in which we find ourselves. The way we as individuals of the millennial generation perceive U.S. relations with the rest of the world has roots in our experiences. How we experienced 9/11 as adolescents, our high school and university lessons of US history and the current war, President Bush and President Obama talking to us through the television, our parents talking to us about their Cold War upbringing, our own experience with classmates going to Afghanistan as soldiers, then coming back again. All of these relations and perceptions melt together like different flavors of ice cream to form our own construction of reality-- how we identify ourselves in relation to nationalism. These perceptions create our own definition of American patriotism.
To get a little autobiographical, I currently have the unique experience of studying International Relations as a master’s student in Germany. Although this decision was met by my peers with a lot of confusion, for me it made sense for several reasons. From a logistical sense, when I ended my Peace Corps service it matched up nearer to the German application period, but more so than that (1) education in public institutions in Germany are tuition-free (but this is a topic for a different newsletter) and (2) I felt like if I truly wanted to understand international relations, it makes sense to have an international perspective on the IR. Throughout the past two years, I have been able to reflect a lot upon my American education of IR and politics in comparison to the German lens. These differences play a very concrete role in how we, as Americans, view the world in a very….. let’s say hawkish or militant…. way.
The dominant view of IR in the US, and one that is very much highlighted in the academic field of studies, is called Realism. To be succinct, this is the idea that the world is “dog eat dog”, and we want to be the strongest and most powerful dog in the kennel. It makes you feel like there always was conflict and that there will always be conflict. America builds up its army and makes decisions that will directly benefit America, not the global community,because at the end of the day, it is most important to help ourselves be stronger—says realists. It sees interdependence between nations as a vulnerability. This also bleeds into a rational-choice “game theory” model of viewing the world. Other countries are seen as chess pieces, having a limited number of moves available to them, and we need to figure out what move they will make to stay strong, powerful and ahead of the game. We feel indispensable as citizens of America because we belong to “the greatest country on earth” and need to do whatever it takes to keep it this way.
For me as a student of this field, this way of seeing the world disturbed me in many ways. It is very pessimistic. It did not leave any room for diplomacy, and it only views the world in terms of threats rather than mutual understandings. There is a paranoia about this world-view. It focuses on power, security, and sovereignty. When learning in this discipline, I felt that the choices available to America as a country were so limited. Everything is about power. Strikes and counter- strikes. It doesn’t take human rights or cooperation into much account, let alone high regard. Virtually all students of IR in the US begin their studies with Realism. This has real consequences. Many past and present strategic advisors to American Presidents are strict realists: Henry Kissinger being one of the most notable, but also: George Kennan during Truman and Eisenhower, Brent Scowcroft under Nixon, Ford and Bush Sr., James Baker under Bush Sr., Colin Powell under Reagan and both Bushes, Obama was advised by realists Thomas Donilon, Denis McDonough and John Brennan, and Michael Flynn (formerly) under Trump. It informs a diplomatic strategy that is, arguably, one of the most war-prone visions with which to see the world and global relations. Although there is no fault in ascribing to a realist world-view, I do not think it should play such a dominant, almost exclusive, role in how we think of international relations.
In Germany, this is not the case. None of my professors are realist. Of course, it is something that is brought up, but almost as something without relevance here in central Europe. We are encouraged to explore wide ranges of different theories. More than anything, I am now equipped with academic terms for concepts that I believe, but don’t have a place in the normal American discourse. It’s not that I am un-learning realism and American foreign policy, it is that I am not constrained by its parameters.
Humans are social beings. The way we perceive norms, threats, ourselves and others will have direct consequences to the actions we take in response. In the US, the dominant discourse is tightly wound around a notion that threats are all around us. In order to keep America strong, we have to keep America armed and vigilant to secure ourselves from attacks. Any time we interact with other nations we have to watch our back because they are probably going to try to sabotage us in some way or another. This is not a problem of partisanship. This has deeps roots in American foreign policy, and Trump is making it even more en vogue according to one of my former Professors (you guessed it, a neoclassical-Realist): Realism's Time in the Sun. But what if we were not taught to think this way right off the bat?
I wish there was more diversity in the way we teach international relations and political science in America. We have been entrenched, literally, in warfare for the past 16 years. Our foreign policy is completely defined by a paranoia of power, security, and sovereignty, and this very paranoia is taught in our university systems as soon as one declares an IR major. I think that a bigger variety in political thought could be extremely influential in how we, as Americans, and how our politicians understand the world. We do not have to be a military powerhouse that values winning wars over international law to be safe and secure in this world. The belief that we have war to thank for our American freedoms and rights-- “And I won’t forget the men who died, Who gave that right to me”-- is a realist way of thinking. With a broader discourse and understanding of the world, I believe that it could have a direct affect on how we view our own country and our relationship to patriotism.
On Patriotism: An Interview with Dr. Roy Karadag
Dr. Roy Karadag
Executive Director of the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies in Bremen, Germany
These are segments of a longer interview that can be found on the Expanded Content page of our website: thebridgeconvo.org/features/
Christen: What is patriotism to you?
Dr. Karadag: A feeling of connectedness to the people one grew up with. That would be, for me, patriotism. Of course, these people have to be in the same spot, they have to be bounded spatially. And these people, these groups of people, have to have made the same experiences and grow up with the same stories and narratives on what made that group come together. Even though that may be totally contingent and probably came together based on luck and chance-- there was no plan to do this of course. Though plans by governments and by states to create new peoples and attach these peoples with new identities and sense of purpose.
And there is this German word called Schicksalsgemeinschaft, which may become, at some point, maybe as prominent as Zeitgeist and all the others, Schadenfreude.
Christen: Yeah all the hip German words
Dr. Karadag: Because they are not translatable. And Schicksalsgemeinschaft means that being aware of the fact that there are connected futures. So I see patriotic feelings around me means people want to feel they belong to the other piece besides them, to develop notions of trust, trustworthiness, etc. And it will be successful if people feel good about themselves in that particular group. Of course, there are many problems attached to that because you can only be patriotic to some kinds of people and not to others. Meaning if you don’t trust people because of their identity and their sense of patriotism, the question is hard to solve peacefully and maintain good relations with others.
But there is a particular German experience. The German experience is that, at least until the 80s and 90s, being patriotic was seriously uncool. I grew up in Kiel in the north of Germany and I went to school in the 80s and 90s and nobody waved a German flag. There were no German flags.
Christen: Yeah that wasn’t until the Weltmeisterschaft in 2006 right that it became acceptable?
Dr. Karadag: Yes that’s when it began, and that’s why my generation was so shocked and a bit appalled by all that was happening there because that was not even thinkable in 2003 and 2004. Patriotism was not something that connected with young people and verses of young people that would not want to look like Nazis.
That was a very easy discourse to patriotism and nationalism before that. It was clear that you could feel pride or so in the country, but even if you felt that you would not publically demonstrate that. That’s a very German thing.
And I have experienced this shift now after 2006 it was okay—well at first it was okay—you see people trying to do that in a context where it is cool to be German and to demonstrate how cool it is to be German by having the flag.
Christen: Do you think that is healthy?
Dr. Karadag: I am not sure. I do not think it is healthy in the States. It could be healthy if one taught these people what that particular German flag stands for. That particular flag does not only stand for national unity and national belonging, but that is the flag of the ’48 revolution marked by radical demonstrations for liberty and democracy. If one could attach that feeling to that symbol more than it is used by these people, that would be something
The troubling thing is not that the flag is racist. The flag is not racist. One can attach new meanings to that symbol. Most political parties and the government and civil society organizations try to do that, and that is fine. But the flag can turn into a fetish that intends to overplay all of the differences in one population. Meaning that in the end, it could become dangerous if one could not argue critically against the flag in public anymore. And that has become an impossibility in the States I would say.
Christen: Oh yeah, definitely not.
Dr. Karadag: And that is why I fear it could be the case in German in two generations or so. I would say that is an American thing. This reemergence of the flag in Germany may have to do with the fact—you know we grew up with an American culture industry—the flag being everywhere, in every movie, a cultural expression, positively or negatively.
In 2006, this public gathering of thousands of people, even that did not occur before then. So even that was the first time that had occurred. There wasn’t this national responsibility to look welcoming, to look cool, and to look patriotic. We did not like that. So when I watch football (soccer) I do not support the German national team, so I kind of reserve that non-patriotic behavior. I think at some point people should just not go along with that behavior and it’ll fine. That was okay in the 80s. In the 80s it was okay to not be “for” the German national team. And even in media coverage the 80s and 90s were much more reserved not to have this sense of national pride and make it something visible on TV.
Christen: I think that, obviously in Germany, there is a lot of guilt for the past that makes its way into how people view patriotism. In the US we do have a checkered past of slavery, of genocide of the Native American population, a lot of other things, but we do not incorporate that into our self-identity. What do you make of that?
Dr. Karadag: That is a great mystery how that is possible. For me, I would say that is a great expression of power not to have to deal with that.
Of course, as an academic, one has read a lot about American history and about slavery and about the relationships with people: blacks and whites and other ethnic minorities. That there are no—that there are just so few instances of some symbolic, collective recognition. Recognition in terms of ‘yeah we did that, and that was bad’ and for a German that is unthinkable, for a German after 1945. In a Germany after one or two generations that have processed the War, the genocide, everything-- it is unthinkable to have that American kind of experience with its past. Past aggressions, past prejudices, past genocides, past mass killings. You know slavery was not a thing of one generation; it was there for decades and hundreds of years. It's horrifying to even think of that, that political elites in the United States obviously thought that we can just forget about that. And that is what one would not understand from this German position.
The German position is a very particular position, let’s be fair. If the Germans had not lost the war in such a destructive manner and had not been forced by the occupiers afterwards, and the victors afterwards, to actually be confronted with that-- that is to re-input the genocide against the Jews in Europe—they would probably have found some variety of the British version [of patriotism] or the French version, I don’t know the Polish version or so. You would concede yes, it was not a cool thing, but let's focus on the future. Which is what America is so great at [laughs] focusing on the future and forgetting that.
So this is not something that the Germans did as Germans, but something that Germany was forced to do because it lost that war in such a destructive manner. One could not find one reason not to do that, not to confront oneself with that. But, that was that generation, the generations afterward were, of course, ashamed of what has happened. And it is more shame than guilt because you can't feel guilty for something maybe you or your parents had done, but shame… that something in your name has been done. That shame may not go away. Even in 50 or 100 years, we hopefully will still grow up in public schools and every institution that we deal with in everyday life, that reminds us what can happen if these patriotic passions take over.
To read the full interview, go to thebridgeconvo.org