Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Patriot Game: Looking for Patriotism Beyond Militarism

I work as a substitute teacher in the school district here in Montana. Regardless of your mental nightmares of substitute teachers from childhood, I can assure you that it's a rewarding job. For me, being a ‘sub’ combines the best of all worlds for someone who loves being an educator- I get to work with kids, I get to exercise one of my best talents which is making complex ideas simple to understand, and I’m an exotic, mysterious figure in their lives, which means I don’t have the familiarity that breeds their obvious contempt for the teachers they see every day. They have said things to me like, ‘We like you, Dr. Jon. You’re nice. Our regular teacher hates us. All she does is yell.’ I didn’t mention that they were probably miles better behaved with me than they are with her…

'Subbing', as well as the work I’ve done with a local after-school programme, also allows me some distance to think about the students, what they’re learning and how they learn it. I’m a keen student of Paolo Friere, Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky, all of whom have produced great scholarship that brilliantly critiques how we approach the education process. From them, I’ve come to see the education process as a way to help people learn how to think, not simply how to recall or remember. Thinking leads to critique, and hopefully on toward action and change. Recalling and remembering lead to acceptance of narrative, which can lead to more effective control. If you develop an education system around a list of ‘facts’ and ‘important’ dates, and then make it clear that success or failure is dependent on being able to recall them for an examination, THEN make it clear that any further education or employment is entirely dependent on how well you do on the examinations, you’ll have a fairly decent mechanism for ensuring that your pupils will shy away from criticism, philosophy, or dissent, but gravitate toward keeping out of trouble, paying their taxes and believing what they hear on television.

One morning, I had just gotten into school and was sitting at the absent teacher’s desk when I noticed a paper written by one of the pupils in the class on top of a pile of papers. It was titled, ‘What Patriotism Means to Me’- the very model of the type of assignment that we all remember from elementary school.

It’s certainly not my intention to negatively critique what the boy wrote; nothing he wrote was inappropriate or incorrect. Nor can I fault him personally for what I might have wished he’d included; I don’t expect to find old heads on young shoulders, and expecting nuanced argument and critical insight from a 12 year-old is unfair. But I do believe that what the student wrote might serve to help us critique what our children are tacitly taught by our society and culture- and how we might reflect on how it might be done better.

As I glanced over the paper, the one thing that stood out to me was that the student’s view of patriotism was a bit limited, top-heavy with militarism, war, soldiers and sacrifice.

Patriotism to him, he wrote, was about ‘soldiers fighting for our country in war’ and ‘the people who join the US Army.’ He wrote of war memorials ‘covered in names of the people that died in war… the only sad thing about it is that it has so many names on it.’ ‘Even though lots of people die in the US Army and don’t see their family again’, he wrote, ‘their souls will always be remembered as a hero that sacrificed his or her life for ours.’

The one thing that gave me greatest pause-  and that I did find problematic- was his belief that patriotism meant ‘to love the army and all the people that were in the wars’.  What he’s describing here is an idea of patriotism as not simply a love or respect for soldiers, but a love for the army itself. I’d argue that when the armed forces become a singular object of patriotic devotion, our society may have walked onto very dangerous ground.

What I started wondering was, if this was what patriotism meant to him, then why exactly?

The answer is probably as simple as this is how patriotism has been described and portrayed to him his whole life.

Most of America’s view of patriotism is framed militarily. Patriotism is tacitly understood to be the willingness to fight and to die- and ultimately to actually fight and die. Rarely- if ever- is any other form of public duty, altruism or other form of civic engagement framed specifically as patriotism.

And pacifism, conscientious objection, reconciliation work, and active war resistance are absolutely never framed as patriotic.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is seen as a patriot for his military service, not for his denunciations at the end of his presidency of what he described as ‘the industrial-military complex’. Dr. Martin Luther King is described as a ‘peacemaker’, but rarely, if ever, as a ‘patriot’. And his peacemaking is invariably seen through the lens of the Civil Rights movement; his call for economic justice and his implacable resistance to the Vietnam war are ignored.

I don’t wish to infer in any way that the service of the armed forces- past or present- is not patriotism. The recent 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address have reminded us of the thousands of men in the ground under the President’s feet as he spoke, men who gave- as he so eloquently framed it- ‘the last full measure of devotion’ to see their nation be more free and more equitable than it was previously. Similarly, we will forever be in the debt of the hundreds of thousands of men who gave their lives to stop the expansion of fascism in the Second World War.

But we cannot allow that debt to be a free credit to see every military action- before them and since- in the same light. Not every soldier is equally a patriot; not every war is equally a noble cause. 
And not every criticism of the military or foreign policy- or the desire to stop supporting it or even actively resisting it- is cowardice or treachery. To think so is to flirt with the fascistic tendencies of the South American ‘National Security’ dictatorships who brutally suppressed freedom and human rights by fetishising God, Fatherland, Military, Hierarchy… and yes, Patriotism.

I believe that we need to re-think the scope of what we think patriotism encompasses. As Christians, we need to take seriously Christ’s exhortation that Peacemakers are ‘blessed’ in the eyes of God. That means noticing that they are not particularly thought of as ‘blessed’ in the eyes of our civic society- and reflecting on why that is so.

How could we redefine patriotism beyond the boundaries of militarism?

I was sitting in an American airport gate waiting for my flight when the flight attendants began calling for passengers to begin boarding. I noticed that ‘uniformed members of our armed forces’ were given the privilege of being seated before the general boarding- a policy of several US air carriers.

I wonder what a world would be like where peacemakers and reconciliation workers were seated before general boarding.

At mass in my parish every week- as is similarly done in other churches all over the country- prayers are said for the safe return of the armed forces personnel who are overseas.

I wish that an equal number of prayers were said- every week- for the many peacemakers throughout the world, either cleaning up after wars or working to keep them from starting.
I’d love for an equal amount of prayers said for war resisters, ploughshares activists and other conscientious objectors.

For every statue of a man holding a gun or a general on a horse in our public parks, I’d like an equal number of statues erected to the memories of people like Jane Addams, Theodore Roszack, Utah Phillips, and Roger Nash Baldwin.

I wish every public memorial to Martin Luther King were inscribed, not only with his many words about human freedom and human rights, but also with his declaration, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’

If true patriotism is love of ones country, then it should be the love that is willing to see the value of the sacrifices that many of its citizens make for peace and peacemaking as much as the value of the sacrifice of war.

When I start seeing our schoolchildren describing their patriotism in those terms, I think I’ll be a little happier.

And I believe America would be a lot healthier.

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