The concept of ‘pledging allegiance’ to some imagined community of countrymen has blazed the trail for inciting nationalistic, xenophobic, jingoistic sentiments — more often than not, coming from a country’s topmost beneficiaries.
Okay, I have to preface this by conceding that you’ll find some examples where patriotism is not a problematic concept — rather, a far more heartwarming one. There are refugees who love their new country for being a place of sanctuary and salvation, for giving them a chance to live a life not under a persistent threat of persecution. There are immigrants who express gratitude towards their new home for giving them a stronger chance at life — perhaps providing a better education, an eclectic set of career opportunities, or more capital to start a new business. By the way, I certainly have been in the latter group — I am an immigrant who has sang America many praises for providing me a strong education and prospect to do whatever it is I want to do than my country of origin would have allowed.
This is not the type of patriotism that typically manifests. Usually, those who express the most unabashed patriotic sentiments are those who are already at the upper echelons of society’s racial, gender-based, and religious hierarchy. And the best part of it all is, its such a *weak* patriotism. I mean — is it really such a head scratcher that these folks excessively lionize a country that was institutionally designed to benefit them over everyone else? The ultimate irony is that the bulk of these people don’t actually seem to celebrate the one thing about their country that supersedes the rest of its potentially positive attributes: the diversity of its people — the cultural richness that ensues when a country embraces all. The most patriotic often have an archaic mindset and obsession with an “idyllic” past, often harkening back to tales of their country’s origin to justify who truly belongs and who doesn’t. They “love” their country — but only the part that resembles them.
I can’t write this in good faith without talking about America. I wanted to keep this piece generalized, as America certainly isn’t the only country that has this issue — its just the country I’m most familiar with where I see this at play. And okay, yes, its likely one of the worst examples of toxic patriotism I can think of. Its become a point of actual fear for minorities here to see white, often Christian, straight men express such extreme reverence to America. Antagonizing chants of “USA!” “USA!” “USA!” aren’t innocuous rejoices of a people simply proud of where they’re from — its a dog-whistled affirmation that this country is superior to others. And why is it superior? Again, the unwritten dog-whistled answer is that white, Anglo-Saxon men have “built” this place, therefore no other demographic has the right to interject its culture, ideas, and values where they clearly don’t belong. O America — the new cradle of Western civilization — perpetually rocks the charts at “#1”. #1 out of 296, apparently based on a scorecard only these diehard patriots seem to have clandestinely devised. They’ll say that they love America because they love “freedom”, not recognizing the irony that they, as white, Christian, men have the most freedom because they’re the ones with the power. So, yes, congratulations — you have freedom for days, my dudes. Its much harder for an empire’s peasants to shackle its king.
And let’s talk about the flag. The sacrosanct flag. We herald this country for our (FREEDOM!) of speech, yet lose our minds when someone “disrespects” the flag (and by the way, there appears to be a really arbitrary definition of “disrespect” here). Hell, the fact that its even referred to as “THE flag” shows how far beyond reason this country goes in worshipping what is, at the end of the day, a piece of cloth that evokes painful things to many people. As it is a symbol of freedom for one, its a symbol of oppression for another. But when we silence the likes of the Colin Kaepernicks of this country, we betray which feelings towards the flag truly matter.
Flag waving in general has become a huge extension of toxic patriotism. Its no coincidence that countries becoming increasingly nationalistic (and unsurprisingly authoritarian) also increasingly awash public places with the national flag. I recently saw this in a trip to Turkey — Erdogan’s growing grip and overreach of power is most certainly interlinked with this grosser display of national pride. People in social media comments sections bombard emojis of Israel’s flag to intimidate and silence Palestinians. And anytime you’ll see a white man with the American flag plastered all over his Facebook page — you dont need to scroll further down to know what he thinks about the Muslim ban, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Charlottesville, or March for our Lives walkouts. Way more often than not, you already know.
And what’s so problematic to me about pledging allegiance to a country or flag is it becomes implied that with this pledge, the country then becomes above all reproach. Unless, you’re talking about its minorities, women, LGBT community, or immigrants, of course — then reproach away. Today, they would hand Betsy Ross the spinning wheel and needle to sow the Stars and Stripes but God forbid she ever accuse a powerful man of sexual misconduct. We unanimously celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, but God forbid he ever took a knee. We somehow can’t condemn the wrong things we see in this country without being deemed as “unpatriotic” or “traitors” [us brown folk usually just get “terrorist”] but we can condemn the aforementioned groups all we want. Why? Are they not a part of America?
Patriotism is the reason we are able to mourn 3,000 deaths in the aftermath of 9/11 far more than we mourn the 3,000 deaths of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Its the reason we are so troubled by scary, brown immigrants “invading” our borders, but have no hesitation in invading their lands when we have no moral right to occupy them. Its the reason we feel inclined to rush to America’s defense, despite 63 million of its people just having recently voted for an every-“ist”-and-“ism”-in-the-book bigot. Its the reason Erdogan’s Turkey waves its flag galore while stripping more constitutional rights from its people. Its the reason that Hindu nationalists of the BJP can tweet out a call for ethnic cleansing of non-Hindu “infiltrators”. Its the reason Zionists feel they can annex a land thats already been stolen.
Patriotism, in the form it predominantly presents itself in today, is inextricably intertwined with racial, religious, and cultural supremacy. And if we’re not celebrating a country for how well it treats and provides for the people at its lowest rung, we probably need to rethink why we are celebrating at all.