04 April 2009

An Open Letter to Someone Who Called Me Unpatriotic

On facebook, my icon is an upside-down American flag. An upside down flag is a symbol of distress. I, along with a number of other people, originally started using this as my user icon when Obama was nominated, for reasons obvious to anyone who knows my opinions. I've taken periodic flak for it, and in particular, one recent facebook message that led me to decide to submit a lengthy response.

In this message, the sender suggested, immune to the obvious irony of messaging a complete stranger on facebook about such a thing, that I "get a life and grow up," after suggesting that I go to Russia, or any other country and try such a thing, which action, he said, would result in my head being forcibly inserted into a certain area of my body.

Insults aside, this message got me thinking about what it means to be patriotic. Is it unthinking assent to limitless power, or thoughtful dissent and calling for limitations on power, no matter how unpopular such a position may be?

My response is reproduced in full, with light editing.

Mr. S.A.,

I have been to other countries, and that's why I don't believe the "Best country in the world" song and dance. In rural Canada, I saw just as modern infrastructure as in the United States, and none of the shocking poverty that characterizes places like Louisiana or Mississippi. Now, I'm certainly not a fan of the welfare state, but at this point, the US government takes nearly as large a percent of GDP as does the Canadian government, so the difference in governments seems like a rather moot point to me.

But think about this: let's say I had turned the Mexican flag, or the Chinese flag, or any other flag upside down?
Would you have sent me this message? I don't believe so.

But you did. And why? What makes this particular collection of lines on a map "your" country, which must be praised, protected, and if necessary, killed for? Why, but for an accident of birth, isn't Mexico, or France, or Uzbekistan "your" country?

You can insult me, and tell me I should leave, but you should also consider the ways, often inflammatory, in which some of the most brilliant writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a much freer time in many ways, mocked and parodied the government.

Consider, for instance, the woman who, during the war of 1812 when the capital was being burned, drove her carriage to the White House, stopped it, loosened her long, blonde hair, and commented loudly to everyone in earshot that her fondest hope was that her hair could be made into a noose with which the president could be hanged (for getting the country into a disastrous war.)

Or Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings, such as the War Prayer, in which the true meaning of killing strangers for an abstraction is unveiled, or his version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, included in full below.

These mockeries and attacks upon the pretenses of government, of which my upside down flag is but the barest reflection, for 150 years, beat the expansion of government back, and are what REALLY kept us free. The mess in which we now find ourselves is not due to me or anyone like me, but to people who bowed before patriotic symbols, cowered like whipped dogs in front of state officials, and refused, at any cost, to question their own government.

In other words, to put not too fine a point on it, to people like you, who condemned dissent and demanded unquestioning, immediate loyalty and obedience.

Ben Kilpatrick

The Battle Hymn of the Republic Updated
by Mark Twain

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps--
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom--and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich--
Our god is marching on.

* NOTE: In Manila the Government has placed a certain industry under the protection of our flag. (M.T.)