- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
OF PATRIOTISM, PAKISTANIS, AMERICANS AND TRUMP
- 16 Jun - 22 Jun, 2018
- A Letter From America
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the point of patriotism is. It’s a question particularly relevant to both Pakistanis and Americans, because of the particular circumstances of both countries’ founding and the crucial role that abstract ideas and ideals have played in the national self-regard of both societies.
It’s no secret that Pakistan’s historical and geopolitical circumstances have compelled many of its citizens to express their patriotism in terms of fealty to the state and in particular the military establishment. Even – perhaps especially – Pakistan’s perpetually beleaguered liberal faction tends to succumb to the intellectual and moral trap of supporting the state uncritically. Similarly, many American writers who style themselves as liberal and humane have made tortured arguments in favor of (for example) the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as many other military adventures before and since.
Americans and Pakistanis have more in common than either are comfortable acknowledging. In 2014 – that is, two years pre-Trump – I gave a talk to American university students in which I made this general point. Quoting the great British writer Samuel Johnson, who wrote way back in 1767 that “In a time of war, the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy,” I suggested gently that it might behoove us Americans to think critically about ourselves and our country, especially in times of war, and that doing so is consistent with patriotism. “Don’t believe everything you read,” I recommended, “and beware any state that demands your allegiance in the name of patriotism.”
And I cited George Orwell’s timeless 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” in which he drew a crucial distinction between patriotism – love of one’s country, which is a good thing – and nationalism, which is inherently aggressive and a bad thing. “If you’re asked to go to war for your country,” I told the students, “or to support a war, or even to thank and congratulate soldiers and military veterans more readily than others who also serve our society (and even face physical danger) such as teachers and postal carriers, ask yourself whether your patriotism is being manipulated in the service of nationalism.”
I was not surprised that I took some heat for those words at the time, in the Q-and-A session following my talk. But now, some 18 months into the ugly new era launched by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the stakes are stark. And the stark line is being drawn very explicitly by Trump himself. Which is why it’s starkly and urgently important for those of us who oppose Trump and his nationalist definition of patriotism to be equally explicit in response.
The topical context of this, in America now, is the issue of whether players in the National Football League should be compelled to stand respectfully facing the flag, as is customary, when the national anthem is played before games. A player named Colin Kaepernick ignited that controversy in 2016 when he began “taking a knee” (kneeling instead of standing) to highlight police violence against black men, and many other players followed his lead. Kaepernick paid for his stand with the loss of his career, but the movement he launched has burgeoned into a tense nationwide standoff between right-wing nationalists, whipped up and egged on by Trump himself, and – well – the rest of us.
There’s more to this issue than I have word count to do justice to here. But for me – as a free, patriotic American – the point is that the very moment anyone tries to coerce me into overtly expressing my patriotism is precisely the moment I refuse to do exactly that. This is because, if American patriotism actually means anything, a big part of its meaning is about personal freedom. Trump is very purposely and aggressively forcing the issue, most recently (as I write) in his remarks at a cheesy, hurriedly-arranged “celebration of America” at the White House, held in lieu of a cancelled June 5 visit by the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles football team. It’s debatable whether Trump “disinvited” the team or the team essentially disinvited themselves when most players announced that they would not show up. What’s not debatable is the message Trump sent when he said: “We love our country. We respect our flag. And we always proudly stand for the national anthem. We always will stand for the national anthem.”
A citizen attending the ceremony told The Guardian: “I agree with the president 100 percent. It’s simply a matter of pride and respect. Our flag and anthem are sacrosanct and not a matter of debate in my view.”
Ostensibly – and even actually, to a large extent – the “taking a knee” issue is one that will need to be resolved between football players themselves and the owners of the 32 teams in the NFL, which are (very lucrative) private businesses. But this is exactly where Trump’s rhetoric raises the stakes for everyone in America. What does he mean by the word “we,” for example, when he says “We always proudly stand for the national anthem”? Trump’s style has always been the style of a bully, and his rhetoric as president is the rhetoric of a dictator.
I enjoy following the Seattle Mariners baseball team, and one thing I like about baseball is that a ballgame is a refuge from politics and public life (or used to be, and should be). For three or four hours, all that matters is what happens on the beautiful grass field inside the stadium. But at a game a few weeks ago, a concession stand operator took it upon herself to scold me into removing my hat during the anthem. I declined to do so, because the anthem has become politicized. My position is that if you tell me I have to do it, I won’t do it. No flag or anthem is sacrosanct, and yes, it is a matter of debate. •
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