Tag Archives: patriotism

What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

Placing flags on Union soliders' graves at Vicksburg National Military Park. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a a last and necessary resort.

Flags on Union soldiers’ graves at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill-a-sauruses to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a jellybean-grenade launching Ronald Reagan, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

Okay, perhaps that’s not quite historically accurate, but the basic tenets of Independence Day are nonetheless there. The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and citizens of the U.S. are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

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Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To nineteenth century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.

Bowe Bergdahl, Desertion, and the Meaning of American Loyalty

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

On May 31, 2014, U.S. president (and secret Muslim-communist-fascist-anti-colonialist-dentist) Barack Obama announced that he’d negotiated for the release of Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last known POW, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Since at least July of 2009, Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s premier Muslim religious nutball cult, and the president’s actions ignited hope for the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year-long U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, which now ranks as America’s longest-running war.

Oh, but not everybody was happy about Bergdahl’s release. For you see, there’s a bit of controversy as to just how the sergeant disappeared from active duty back in June, 2009. Although Bergdahl remains a sergeant in good-standing, there have been allegations that he deserted his post. Some of his fellow-soldiers have accused Bergdahl of “deserting during a time of war” and costing the lives of many who searched for him. Accounts of Bergdahl’s disappearance — and the circumstances of exactly how he fell into the Taliban’s clutches — have been conflicting. Soldiers in his platoon have claimed that the sergeant walked away from his observation post, while other accounts claim that Bergdahl was abducted from a latrine by Taliban insurgents.

But whatever the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the usual hot gas-disgorging chorus of chest-puffing, self-righteousness-exuding, right-wing howler monkeys have taken to the media outlets to not only criticize President Obama’s handling of the prisoner exchange, but also to deride Bergdahl himself as an anti-American “traitor.”

Among the collective of expected conservative bloviators was former half-term governor of Alaska — and poster-child for the calcified state of American meritocracy — Sarah Palin. Yes, the Thrilla’ from Wasilla launched a scathing verbal assault from her Facebook page,  accusing Bergdahl of dishonorable service for harboring “horrid anti-American beliefs.” As Talking Points Memo reports, Caribou Barbie was referring to an e-mail message that Bergdahl sent to his parents just days before he went missing, in which the sergeant claimed to be “ashamed to be an american (sic),” and warned that “the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The e-mail was subsequently published in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile by the now-deceased journalist Michael Hastings.

Now, whether or not Bergdahl deserted is unclear, and if he did, then he’ll be court-martialed in accordance with military law. But I want to focus on the right-wing’s scathing reaction to the mere possibility that he might have deserted. After all, as Mother Jones’ Tasneen Raja notes, the army makes a clear distinction between soldiers who’ve gone AWOL by taking unauthorized leave from their duties, and soldiers who have been AWOL for over thirty-one days and are then summarily ‘dropped from the rolls’ and marked as deserters. If Bergdahl went AWOL and was then captured, then he wasn’t technically a deserter.

But these types of distinctions, and the fact that Bergdahl remains in good standing with the U.S. military, haven’t stopped conservatives like National Review jerk-in-residence, Ralph Peters from calling Bergdahl “a deserter already despised by soldiers” who is apparently now “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.” Wow. Notice how Peters doesn’t call Bergdahl an “alleged deserter.” No, to the right-wing, mere allegations that Bergdahl deserted mean that he unquestionably did desert, and if you suggest otherwise then you’re an anti-American pinko. Because nuance BAD!

U.S. Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

Conservatives consider Bergdahl a traitor because he (apparently) dared to question the unquestionable wisdom of U.S. military actions. As Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone, Bergdahl “had been enticed to join the Army…with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves,” but the sergeant quickly became disillusioned with the undisciplined nature of his platoon and the alleged callousness of American actions in Afghanistan.

According to Hastings, Bergdahl wrote e-mails detailing “his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war,” which seemed counter to the stated strategy of winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”  “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live,” read one of Bergdahl’s e-mails. He then related his disgust with seeing an Afghan child run over by an MARP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks,” Bergdahl wrote, “[w]e make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bergdahl’s comments may not justify desertion (if, in fact, he did desert) but do they really amount to “horrid anti-American beliefs?” Is criticizing possibly misguided national policy, especially military actions, tantamount to taking a position against America in general? The answer to both of those questions is an unambiguous “no.” Indeed, the right to criticize misguided or dangerous national policies is one of the most sacred rights Americans hold: the right to patriotic dissent is what makes the U.S. different from totalitarian regimes that deem any questioning of state policy as traitorous.

But to the right-wing authoritarian personality, patriotism is synonymous with unconditional fealty to the military arm of the state and the willingness to commit violence in the name of the state’s nationalist goals. Conservatives love to tout their antipathy towards the U.S. government, but they loathe any fool who dares question that ambiguous, amorphous, vaguely defined-but glorious concept known as “America;” a precious gem that must be sanctified via blood sacrifice in the form of military operations that bomb the shit out potential terrorists. For conservatives — and a good-many Americans in general — loyalty to the concept of “America,” if not its institutional governmental structure, should be unconditional. And because military service is culturally considered to be the highest form of patriotism, soldiers who shirk that duty by deserting have always been treated with extreme derision.

I don’t know if Bergdahl deserted, but let’s be clear: in terms of individual conceptions of loyalty, desertion has never constituted simple, clear-cut evidence of “anti-American beliefs.” Indeed, the circumstances of why American soldiers deserted or went AWOL in the past, and why they continue to do so today vary depending on individual conceptions of what constitutes a “just” and “necessary” war. Deserters have fled their posts in the past because they’ve questioned the established notion — a notion embraced by Palin and the right wing in general — that national loyalty is predicated on unconditional support for American war policy and demands total loyalty to the military as the agent that carries out that policy.

Take desertion during the American Civil War. During the course of that bloody, four-year conflict, thousands of men on both sides deserted from the armies, and Union and Confederate officials generally deemed them contemptible traitors for doing so. Confederate authorities in particular claimed that, in shirking their duty to defend the southern cause with a sacrifice of blood, deserters had expressed a de-facto rejection of the national cause itself.

Consider this 1863 anti-desertion proclamation by Confederate North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. “Now therefore, I…do issue this my proclamation, commanding all such evil disposed persons to desist from such base, cowardly and treasonable conduct,” Vance warned, adding that deserters would face “indictment and punishment” by Confederate courts as well as “the everlasting contempt and detestation of all good and honorable men.” The assertion was, of course, that deserters were by definition not honorable. “Certainly no crime could be greater, no cowardice more abject, no treason more base, than for a citizen of the State, enjoying its privileges and protection without sharing its dangers…to desert the colors which they have sworn to uphold,” Vance concluded, warning that deserters deserved at worst “a miserable death,” and at best a “vile and ignominious existence.”

An 1864 despiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper's Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

An 1864 depiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper’s Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

But contrary to the claims of Vance and other Confederate officials and pundits, Confederate soldiers deserted for a whole host of reasons. Many simply didn’t agree with the Confederacy’s right to exist and were conscripted into the army against their will. To them, deserting wasn’t a crime since they believed that the state illegally forced them into military service. Other Rebel deserters thought that since wealthy slaveholders had started the war to preserve their human property, then they, rather than poor white men, should do the fighting. Still other Confederates deserted out of disgust with what they considered to be poor Confederate policies regarding the treatment of soldiers; while others merely wanted to return home to their families rather than die in what increasingly looked like a pointless war.

But Zebulon Vance’s proclamation includes themes that Sarah Palin and other right-wing goons have dredged up from the historical basement to lob at Bowe Bergdahl. Like Vance, they view military service as the utmost form of patriotic devotion, and to question American war policy is tantamount to treason. Just as Vance claimed that there was “no treason more base” than desertion, the National Review’s Ralph Peters claims that, as an (alleged) deserter, Bowe Bergdahl is “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.”

The views of Vance in the 1860s and conservatives in 2014 all center around a simple idea: that the nation is the supreme authority, and as a citizen of that nation, you must observe (if not fight as a member of) it’s most hallowed institution, the military. Failure to do so means you’re against the state. For America’s right wing, national loyalty functionally equates to unconditional obedience. Gee, how American of them. This is, of course, a very dangerous idea. To equate patriotism with subservience to the state is to squelch one of the most essential of all democratic freedoms: the right to patriotic consent.

If Bowe Bergdahl did desert, then he violated military policy and should be charged accordingly. But, to promote the idea that criticism of U.S. policy, verbal or otherwise, equates to an “anti-American” stance is a simplistic notion with disturbingly authoritarian undertones. When we, as a culture, associate national loyalty with unqualified acceptance of American war policies, we’re effectively acting like an authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might be against the law to desert, but it’s not against the law to critique war policies — especially if you’ve witnessed the shortcomings of those policies first-hand.