The Flag, the Pledge, The Anthem: Patriotism or Nationalism

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This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Fascism in America

Patriotism or nationalism? Indoctrination with national symbols and rituals like the flag, the Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance have primed America for a fascist take-over.

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(10-10-2017, updated 07-11-2018)  Patriotism or nationalism. The American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem–these are supposedly meant to instill patriotism and unity in Americans. But they are not to be questioned, which goes against America’s basic values: freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Patriotism is a love of country. Nationalism demands conformity and incites hatred toward The Other.

Indoctrination: The process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.

In the previous posts in this series I circled around fascism, addressing elements of American society that are at least nationalist, but the line between nationalism and fascism is blurry. But now we’re getting there. One element of fascism is totalitarianism: the notion that the state (in the sense of country) is more important than individuals. Individuals have to submit to the absolute state authority and to the interests of the country as a whole.

I love my country, and, like most Dutch people,  I don’t know more than the first four lines of our national anthem:

Wilhelmus van Nasssau ben ik van Duitsen bloed, (I’m William of Nassau and I’m of German blood)
Mijn vaderland getrouwe blijf ik tot in mijn dood. (I will stay loyal to my country until I’m dead.)

Patriotism or Nationalism

The Dutch aren’t big on showing their patriotism or nationalism every day, if they even have any that Americans would recognize as such. My grandparents, and probably their generation in general, knew the anthem, but I guess that since WWII nobody felt much of an urge to sing about being of German blood. When the national anthem is played, it’s played instrumentally. It’s played at international soccer games, as the anthems of all the competing countries are. The players and the fans can sing along if they want, but like I said, most people don’t get very far if they do try and sing along. It’s also played–again,  only instrumentally–on May 4, our memorial day for the people killed by the Germans during World War Two, right after the minute of silence that’s held nationally at 8 pm. If there are more occasions the anthem is played, please let me know, Dutchies.

We aren’t big on nationalistic songs either. My parents’ generation were kids when the Germans marched through town, singing their Germany’s-the-best songs to the beat of their stomping jackboots. So anything like that is a no-no.

We don’t have the Dutch flag out everywhere and every day, in classrooms, churches, sports centers, stores, the entrances to subdivisions, or any of the other myriad places that Americans have the American flag out every day, as if we suffer from collective dementia and would be completely lost if we weren’t reminded at every corner what country we’re in.  We’re  generally aware of  our geographic location.

Those who have a Dutch flag stick it out when there’s something important to celebrate. On May 5–Liberation Day–we celebrate the end of World War Two and being freed from the German occupation. People also have it out on the King’s birthday, which is just one big party with street sales (like garage sales or yard sales, except most people don’t have garages or very large front yards) and music, and everything’s orange–orange pastries, orange faces, orange clothes, orange drinks–because orange is the national color. (By the way, the only other time Dutch people go ape in orange is, again, during international soccer games.) When someone graduates from high school, they usually hang their schoolbag from the flagpole holder above the front door (if they have one), and some people combine that with the flag. When my family and I came back from Australia, my paternal grandparents had the flag out in celebration. After 9-11 many people had an American flag out in solidarity with the United States.

The only time I ever felt the need for a Dutch flag was in Great Britain, after someone who gave my friend H and I a ride told us we looked like we could be German, and if we put a Dutch flag on our backpack, we probably wouldn’t have to wait quite so long with our thumbs up. Even then, it felt a little embarrassing, but I was willing to do it if it meant we could be in the mountains sooner. (Sorry German hitchhikers. I hope you get your rides eventually. Or you could pretend to be Dutch.)

Back to America

In my opinion, the Pledge of Allegiance in every public school, standing for the anthem, the flag–these ubiquitous, never-questioned nationalist symbols and rituals have primed the country for a fascist takeover. It was just a matter of time before a power-hungry demagogue with no respect for the Constitution or any of the values Americans claim to be so proud of came along, grabbed hold of those symbols and yelled, “Follow me!”.

To be sure, America is not a totalitarian state in the sense that it has a central, absolute authority like a dictator, and the United States Constitution’s first ten amendments–the Bill of Rights–lay out all the rights individual citizens have in relation to the government, but when it comes to the national anthem, the flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance, the majority puts tremendous pressure on individuals to join in, as if it’s a grave misdeed not to.

While Americans are offended when someone refuses to pledge allegiance or stand for “The Star-spangled Banner”,  to me, as a Dutch person,  it’s freaky that they do. I associate the image of students as young as three or four standing in unison, all making the same gesture while saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the Hitler Youth.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”

The Hitler Youth

Hitler got the idea for the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend) from the British Lord Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. He also got plenty of inspiration from the American government, and how it had systematically incorporated nationalist symbols and rituals into the very fabric of society.

Established in the 1920’s, the Hitler Youth lured German children with fun outdoor activities and then indoctrinated them, teaching them the “values” of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. The kids pledged allegiance to Hitler and to the Nazi Party and swore their willingness to die for their country. Germany was the best and it was destined to rule the world. Aryan people were the best (Übermenschen) and all other ethnicities were inferior (Untermenschen). By 1939 all other youth organizations had been banned, and Hitler Youth membership was mandatory for children between ten and seventeen years old. Children learned to put country and the Nazi Party first. It was so effective that sometimes children would report their own family members if they voiced opposing views.

The Pledge of Allegiance

It’s telling that Hitler borrowed American indoctrination strategies. Mind you, I don’t use the word indoctrination lightly. In the conversation (if we can call it that, about patriotism v. nationalism) on one side are Americans who consider the Pledge of Allegiance to be a sacred oath and who practically foam at the mouth at the very notion that patriotic symbols and American rituals of liberty and equality are compared to the symbols and rituals of Nazi Germany, and on the other side are Americans who claim they just said the pledge in school because they had to, but they didn’t take it seriously and they don’t think it’s important enough to make a big deal out of it. If you’ve read this far, you might belong to the latter group. In which case you are so, so wrong!

To begin with, there is no liberty when teachers or principals force children to say the pledge, as they do in many if not most schools, even though that  the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. So they’re pledging allegiance to the ideas of liberty and justice that are literally being trampled as they speak, giving them a skewed sense of what liberty means: “You should be grateful that you live in a country where you get to say the Pledge of Allegiance, boy!” And justice clearly means that the bully and the majority always win, so it’s best to be on their side.

This is assuming students even ask themselves what the words mean. Most kids in America start pledging allegiance to the flag around age four or five, when they go to kindergarten. At that age the only words they really understand in the pledge are “I” and “flag”. The rest is gobbledygook, like a prayer in Latin was to medieval peasants. And yet they are pledging allegiance to the American flag and to the country. They are unwittingly promising that they will do whatever their country asks of them.

Allegiance: 1a. The obligation of a feudal  vassal to his liege lord  b. the fidelity owed by a subject or citizen to a sovereign or government / the obligation of an alien to the government under which the alien resides  2. devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause – allegiance to a political party

In addition, although they make that promise, it’s not concretely clear who or what they are promising to follow, obey, possibly die for. “The flag and the republic for which it stands”. The flag is a piece of cloth–a symbol.  And the republic? Who or what is that when it comes down to it? Is it the president when he says the kneeling NFL players should be fired? Or is it the Constitution that gives those NFL players the right to free speech? Congress maybe? But in that case, which side? Is it every concerned citizen who demands that Trump leave office because he’s a danger to the country? Or is it every concerned citizen who wants him to stay because they feel that the country is being overrun by outsiders?

So, practically speaking, as actual promises go, the Pledge is rather useless. Really the only thing  it’s good for is indoctrination. From their first day in school, children in America learn that the American flag is important. So important that they have to stand and face it first thing every morning and say solemn, important-sounding words to it, and at every sports event they stand and sing a song to and about it.

The National Anthem

That the indoctrination is effective is clear. Just look at how hysterical half the country reacts to the NFL players not standing for the  national anthem as a way of protesting police violence against people of color: They’re disrespecting the stars and stripes! They should be forced to stand! They should apologize! They should be fired! They should be lined up and shot!

They should be lined up and shot.

There is a code of conduct regarding the flag and the national anthem. Technically it’s a federal law, but the penalty for breaking it is not enforced because the Supreme Court ruled “mandatory patriotism” unconstitutional. So in practice the code merely describes the etiquette: Soldiers should salute while the song is being sung and everyone else should stand with their right hand over their heart. But it’s etiquette. It’s also etiquette to say “Thank you” when someone hands you something, but if someone hands you a turd, it’s not a crime to say “What the fuck” instead.

Even though according to the Supreme Court teachers and principals can’t force children to pledge allegiance to the flag, there are plenty of schools and individual teachers who have never given hoot one about that. Which is un-American, right? Because the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional? But no, this is a case where the majority makes the individual submit to their will, to the supposed  greater good of the country, Supreme Court be damned.

I would argue that, even though there is no law on the books forcing children to say Pledge of Allegiance or forcing people to stand for the national anthem, the government has been extremely successful in indoctrinating not everyone perhaps, but enough folks who then run with it and force it on the rest. Country over individuals: You’d better not criticize this country, you’d better respect the flag, you’d better pledge allegiance, you’d better stand for the national anthem, or else the wrath of the masses will rain down upon you. And in this case, by masses I don’t necessarily mean only the “poorly educated”.

This indoctrination made it easy for George W. Bush to get the country “to unite” behind him when he unilaterally decided to go to war with Saddam Hussein instead of waiting for the results of the international committee investigating the existence (or non-existence) of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He held a solemn speech full of the right words, with the American flag in the background, and Bob’s your uncle. The same indoctrination made it easy for Trump to get elected and, ironically perhaps, to proceed to stomp all over the supposed values of the United States.

To me, as a relative outsider from a country that was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two, Trump’s hostile takeover was no surprise. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. American citizens did this to themselves, long before Trump became president. This happened through pure indoctrination, which then led to the vicious majority bullying that was just never really seen for what it was.

They should be lined up and shot. A firefighter and pastor said those words. If a mayor or a congressman or, God forbid, Trump said it, the result would be a lot of hysterical flag lovers swarming the streets, having it out for anyone they deem not patriotic enough. We are just a few careless words away from such a scenario. This is what fascism does.

This post is Part 4 in the series Fascism in America. Before discussing authoritarianism in America, in my next post I am going to discuss my experience working at a Dutch police training school.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Fascism in America 4: Symbols and Rituals”, 10-10-2017)

Sources:

  • “‘They should be shot!’ Pastor takes stand on BLM protesters kneeling during US anthem”. (US News) RT Question More,  September 12, 2016.https://www.rt.com/usa/359036-kneeling-anthem-protest-pastor/
  • Bomboy, Scott. “The history of legal challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance”. The Constitution Daily. Washington: National Constitution Center, June 14, 2018.  https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-latest-controversy-about-under-god-in-the-pledge-of-allegiance
  • Header image:  Stubhillnews.com
Series Navigation<< Fascism and Its Language: America is the Greatest Country on Earth!Dutch Police Training: From Authoritarianism to Deescalation Strategies >>

6 thoughts on “The Flag, the Pledge, The Anthem: Patriotism or Nationalism

  1. I linked your blog on NFL discussion pages. Sadly I do not see any more comments than usual so there is no evidence to me that you have been getting any more traffic than usual here so it seems to me that my timing was unfortunately not very good. I will read your latest installment tommorrow.

    1. Thanks Curt. I will get to the racist aspect of fascism in America later on, and then it will probably be more relevant on NFL discussion pages. I do mention the NFL players kneeling, but I’m not yet addressing why, just the reactions it’s getting, from a “liberty and justice for all” point of view. Thanks though. I appreciate it.

  2. Curt, I’m temporarily approving this comment so I can respond. My post isn’t about royalty at all, so I will delete the comment after a day or so, when I think you’ve had time to see why. If it was short, it wouldn’t be much of a problem, but I don’t want people to go through the whole comment, waiting for it to become germaine to the post, only to be disappointed. Thanks.

  3. I do, but I limited my post to symbols and rituals because I am working toward showing how America is to some degree already a fascist country, and to a large degree in danger of completely becoming one. Royalty has nothing to do with that.

  4. I touched on the Netherlands as a context, for American readers to understand where I’m coming from when I point out aspects of American society that are or border on fascism, but my overall goal with this series is to make clear to Americans how America is on its way to becoming a fascist state if we’re not careful, so adding European royalty to the conversation would just make things confusing. I do appreciate your thoughts, though, even when they don’t show up in the comments. I hope I’ve been able to make it clear now more or less how I decide what’s relevant when.

What are your thoughts?

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