A somewhat different version of this essay first appeared on July 4, 2008.
Samuel Johnson famously wrote in 1775 that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce made the appropriate correction: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.”
To be fair, Bierce had a 135-year advantage over Johnson. He could look back at the history of a particular brand of patriotism—the American kind—which, like everything else American, our modern flag-wavers will explain, is exceptional. Unlike European patriotism, which to them is a lesser and ignoble kind.
They make this claim as if—besides giving us impressive and justifiably revered notions of liberty and justice—our Founders and their successors did not expand the nation from sea to shining sea (and beyond) with a century of mass murder and grand larceny against indigenous peoples, a ginned-up war to grab more than half of Mexico, another to snag Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and a few lesser skirmishes by which places such as Maui became territory where the Stars and Stripes now flies.
In the words of George Washington, those who practice these “impostures of pretend patriotism” try at every opportunity to stifle dissent and fill the silence with propaganda. This week we commemorate the Fourth of July! How dare I disrespect patriotism on the very anniversary of the day 56 men signed what could have been their death warrant, the Declaration of Independence. Can’t there be just one day when we critics shut up, stand up and salute? Thus do pretend patriots do as they have done throughout American history—confuse dissent with disrespect, critics with renegades, patriotism with obedience.
All too many know-nothings scarf up the red-white-and blue propaganda turds of our right-wing punditocracy as if they slid directly off the parchment signed by the Founders. Our nation is awash in purveyors of what makes a true patriot and what does not in terms Mussolini would have loved. They equate aggressive nationalism with patriotism, dissidence with treason, love of country with love of leaders. Such upsidedownism is a hallmark of right-think. For three and a half years, a boatload of pretend patriots have been fabulously well-paid to spread their poison about liberals, in general, and Barack Obama, in particular. Unlike the purveyors of Manifest Destiny who had no need to hide their desires for a white man's America, today's pretenders, all too many of them grifters, wink, nod and dog-whistle their way through the script.
But we cannot ignore the fact that pretend patriots are not confined solely to one political party. We have the bipartisan-passed Patriot Act, which should have been named the Pretend Patriot Act, as proof of that.
Four years ago, Larisa Alexandrovna pointed out how one of these right-wing "intellectuals," Jonah Goldberg, demanded adherence from us all to Big Brother’s brand of patriotism, complete with a shiny polished version of the Two Minutes Hate:
Make no mistake, this is a coordinated effort to deliberately replace substance with its symbol, meaning with an emblem, and essentially strip language down to nothing but trinkets. ...Nothing has changed in that regard. Oh, sure, we've seen the tea partiers prance around with their Don't Tread on Me banners. And with the Civil War sesquicentennial, we've got the spectacle of a Southern governor who ran a failed GOP nomination campaign hinting at a new secession. And we have other neo-Confederates outrageously celebrating the slave states' sedition as if that effort to keep people in shackles deserves the same respect as "all men are created equal."
For a people to be controlled, they must first be robbed of honest discourse and open debate. Distorting language and stripping it of real and honest meaning is the first tool and the best mechanism for transforming a democracy into an authoritarian state. An informed populace is a dangerous populace.
Symbols, however, and false-definitions can provide the appearance of information without the truth of it. Ideas, substance and meaning—all things for which a symbol is simply a representation and a word simply a type of symbol—are far more difficult to control. There is nuance in individual ideas. There are shades of agreement and disagreement and a whole spectrum of understanding and believing. Such a complex system cannot be controlled, and therefore, must be reduced to only its symbol and then distorted.
Symbols and words-as-slogans can be mass produced, mass delivered, and altered from their original meaning, until the symbol becomes its own thing and the substance on which it is based is entirely lost. ...
Patriotism is the word that authoritarians most like to distort ...
I’ll admit that calling oneself a patriot is damned hard for someone whose Seminole ancestors were killed in three wars by soldiers flying the Stars and Stripes, with amends and apologies yet to be made. But I call myself a patriot because patriots are rebels. That is not a cry for overthrow and the guillotine. It is an optimism that patriots can and must remake the United States, just as in the past it was repeatedly remade by dissidents who rejected slavery, women’s second-class status, workers’ impotence, racism’s reign.
There is, it goes without saying, much left to achieve. And these days, much to re-achieve, as the oligarchy tightens its noose around the necks of the working classes and its puppets in Congress and, increasingly in the Supreme Court, continue their assigned task of dismantling the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society.
Nothing, of course, offends right-wingers more, seems more disrespectful and disloyal, than when we dissenters, our criticisms barely escaped from our lips, claim ourselves to be patriots. They go apoplectic when we say it’s not patriotism that we disrespect but rather the pretenders who have made a fetish of it, twisted it and commodified it. These idolaters love the idea of dissent, the iconography of it, but jeer its reality. To them, patriots must be bootlickers. In extreme cases, jackboots. Proof, if more were needed, that even the word itself, "patriot," must be recaptured from those who have hijacked it.
Sixty-seven years ago, George Orwell taught us how words are transformed to con the citizenry into accepting definitions which often are the opposite of their real meanings. In Notes on Nationalism, written in May 1945, he said that patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.”
Nationalism, however, is something else, he said, presciently zeroing on the pretend patriots of then and our own time:
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.A patriot will defend what s/he loves without hatred or any notion of superiority. But nationalism demands a belief that others are inferior, which makes it aggressive by nature, the enemy of peace, and thus the enemy of patriotism. Nationalism frames everything in "us" vs. "them" terms.
... Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side. ...
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. ...
In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one's own mind.
U.S. nationalism pretending to be patriotism has led to imperialist wars, the slaughter of indigenous peoples, the repeated suppression of dissent. In times of global tension, nationalism masquerading as patriotism demolishes the capacity of people to assess the reality of threats as well as to object if they find those threats less than apparent.
Fighting for a better country is what patriotic dissidents have done from the beginning of the United States. Arrayed against them and their high principles in every case were the pretend patriots, those for whom dissent was anathema, who saw attempts to expand the nation’s democracy as a violation of their rights, who labeled opposition to expansionism and imperialist war outright treason.
Despite the pretenders who engaged in naked aggression against abolitionists, suffragists, trade unionists, civil rights workers and others, these dissidents made America better. They remade America. In our time, they are lauded, but in their own, they were vilified, assaulted and even, sometimes, murdered for their audacity, for their patriotism, for their belief that the ideals in the Declaration were not pretend. We owe them. The best way to repay our debt is to imitate their example, to show our patriotism by fighting to remake America once again.