Ants don’t buy into symbolism. We can’t. Our language is chemical and purely functional. Does that lack of metaphor, etc., leave something to be desired in terms of our ability to conceptualize, to create art and the like? I admit it: you humans trump us there.
But I’ll tell you one way in which our linguistic shortcomings places us far above Homo sapiens sapiens: we never confuse empty rhetoric for patriotism.
I don’t know whether the United States is the worst place in the world for the practice (my anthill is somewhere in Southern California, from atop of which I can see the U.S. more clearly than I can other countries (though my friend Sarah Paliant swears she’s got a sweet view of Russia)), but it’s got to be in the top 10, with your singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”—and, on occasion, “America the Beautiful”—before every stupid sporting event, your flare-ups of politicians pushing a Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, and the God-invoking loyalty oath you basically force upon your children even in public school.
This moronic march to the same dopey drummer was on full display recently on Fox News—an appropriate place for morons if ever there was one—when Fox News labeled former American Idol contestant Chris Daugherty “Fool of the Week” over his refusal during a Fox & Friends appearance to be pressured into an impromptu version of a “patriotic song” in honor of D-Day.
Instead of taking to the airwaves and telling Fox and all its friends to fuck off, Daughtery spinelessly went all mea culpa, posting a video during which, with his saddest puppy-dog eyes, he castigated himself for being “absolutely disrespectful” and literally begged forgiveness for his “lack of judgment” and “stupidity.”
“The worst part of all,” Daughtery says: “I didn’t honor our troops, I didn’t honor our vets, who so deserve it, who sacrifice everything, their lives, have sacrificed everything for our country. […] I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed. […] Everyone has a moment in their life that they regret very deeply, and this is at the top of my list. […] I wish that I could have pulled it together and sang my heart out to honor our troops.”
While Daughtery comes off like a douche, you can’t completely fault the guy, who is, after all, a product of a culture that lionizes empty displays of patriotism. Really, what else should we expect from someone who on every school day from ages 5 to 18 was made to swear loyalty not just to the United States, but also to the piece of cloth that represents it? “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands…” (emphasis added).
The central idea driven home by such programming is not loyalty to a country, but a confusion between displays of patriotism and actual patriotism. It’s the kind of confusion that turns sincere gestures into empty ones. Take the tradition of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting events. While it didn’t start out as the de facto requirement it is today, ESPN spells out the story of how during the 1918 World Series the song—still over a decade away from becoming the U.S.A.’s national anthem—was performed out of respect to the 100,000 soldiers who had already died in World War I, as well as the many baseball players who were about to join the fight.
In such contexts (during World War II, immediately post-9/11, etc.), even my non-symbolizing ant brain can perceive that perhaps there’s something to be said for the genuineness of the gesture. And hey, singing it on the Fourth of July is a slam dunk. But the way in which the song is crammed down Americans’ throats chokes the very life out of its sincerity.
Patriotism is not singing or reciting paeans to one’s homeland. The Nazis were great at that, and no-one remembers them as great patriots. A patriot is someone who forwards the worthy ideals of one’s national forefathers (patrios, Gr., “of one’s fathers”). Those ideals can be found in many places. They are contained in the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, in the philosophies that have helped our country to become more inclusive, increasingly broadminded, and freer. It’s in the work we do to protect the weak and speak for the voiceless. It is in the open exchange of ideas and collective decision-making.
Where you won’t find them is in hollow gestures and mindless recitations, no matter how tuneful, no matter what Fox News says.
Allegiance should not be static, not a “my country, right or wrong” sort of stance. You should align yourself only with the angels of your nation’s better nature. The United States of America has committed many sins since being founded largely on genocide and developed largely via slavery. In many ways this is a country deserving as much derision as patriotic fervor.
But the United States is no single thing or time or group of people. It is the most complex society the planet Earth has ever seen. And because even a simpler country must always be a becoming, it is only reasonable to take a Sartrean view the U.S.’s essence: We are what we do.
Singing your own praises is not a good use of voice. What is far more important is to speak up when your homeland does bad than it is to pledge allegiance to the republic. Raising your voice in opposition to the status quo may be greatest use of the First Amendment. It’s certainly the first step to making whatever changes need to be made.
This is not unpatriotic talk. There’s a spectacularly large and nuanced chasm between blind loyalty and betrayal. You’re not either with us or against us.
You are, however, better off spending time teaching your citizens to think for themselves than you are programming them to pay lip service. Because as it is you have a nation full of people who have trouble telling the difference between a flag and what it represents, or between when a gesture serves a genuine purpose and when it is a mindless expectation.
Love and formic acid,