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The American Flag and Its Followers

by JAMES ROTHENBERG

Suppose you’re in a strange town and have to find a post office. A reliable and helpful indicator will be the sight of an American flag atop a flagpole. The same goes for other federal buildings. US government building, US flag. Makes a little sense. It could always identify a federal building but of course it doesn’t because there are lots of competing flags and flagpoles.

The flags flying at American embassies overseas quickly identify that which is American from that which is not. This is close to a perfect example of the usefulness of the flag in that it is need-based. At international gatherings and competitions, national flags are expedient and valuable for the participant and spectator. In general, the flag doesn’t represent everything. It differentiates!

What then is the purpose for which ordinary Americans fly the American flag in America? If a bit redundant we can nevertheless explain this as a manifestation of peoples’ allegiance to country. We can add love and loyalty. Should we be objective, though, we must admit the possibility that America’s mythology, its rabid grandiose delusion, and fear mongering play a role, the latter to remind people that they need the authority’s power to protect them.

We are not born with an attachment to the flag. Our brains are not hard wired with loyalty and allegiance to country. These things are learned and when learned with a hidden agenda it goes by the name indoctrination. A state is not its people, yet it depends on its people. A state only has authority insomuch as its people are willing to submit to it.

To these ends the state exploits peoples’ vulnerabilities and deficiencies to convince them that they should follow the flag, but following anything blindly contains the potential for trouble. It precludes critical thought, which happened to be the basis for the country’s birth. Critical thinking could lead one to take the flag-phrase “for which it stands” and ask, just what is it, beyond the platitudes, that it is standing for?

Is it a beacon for liberty, freedom, and justice for all, or is it a capitalist, imperialist hegemon possessing history’s greatest array of technological killing power with the propensity to use it? Or some of both? Not all Americans like to face up to it, but the record shows (military invasions and interventions over the past century) that we are a warring nation. Rhetoric aside — that we fight to defend our freedom — our freedom has not been at risk and we have not fought for it since the War of Independence. This includes WW2. Germany and Japan had no plans to attack the United States.

The glorification of military battle is the meanest trick played by a state on its people. Those having to come to grips with the circumstance of losing someone to battle have a deep psychological need to place that loss in the context of something grand. To us they’re heroes. We say they didn’t die in vain. But what if they did? The state must continually guard against this perception taking hold.

Should we still heed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”, there is evidence about how the world feels about the United States, the most recent being a WIN/Gallup International survey of people in 65 countries. On the question of which country posed the greatest threat to world peace, the US overwhelmingly led the list with 24%, followed by Pakistan with 8%, China 6%, and Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea at 5%. Of some note is that designated enemy countries such as North Korea and Iran are not included in the survey. Neither are Cuba, Syria, Libya, Ecuador, or Venezuela.

Of survey respondents who would switch countries if they could, the US was most favored with 9%, followed by Canada and Australia with 7% and Switzerland with 6%. The survey authors view it as paradoxical for the US to simultaneously be regarded as the greatest threat to world peace while being the leading place respondents would like to move to.

The paradox is removed when one considers a not too appealing facet of human nature; many people would like to be a part of that strength even if it is a danger to the rest of the world. Even American respondents (46% would not consider moving) thought their own country the fourth greatest threat to world peace with 13%.

Unsurprisingly, considering the US propaganda apparatus, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea, viewed as the greatest threat by only 5% worldwide, are at the top of the list for Americans: Iran 20%, Afghanistan 14%, and North Korea 13%.

With a little critical thought, we might begin to question what interests military “service” really serves, and why a boot step career of rigidity, conformity, and obedience to authority adds to a political resumé.

We might see the relationship between the US military, Wall St., and multinational corporations. Once grasped that the first is the enforcer for the other two, “support the troops” becomes a confounding proposition, with exploitation at its heart. Remove the exploitation, remove the puzzle.

We might challenge the political system by either refusing to vote altogether, or by refusing to vote for a Republican or a Democrat. The first, if done in sufficient numbers (would you rather be one of the first, or one of the last), would send a jolt through Washington. The second…same thing…a sugar substitute.

We may even begin to question capitalism itself without declaring ourselves communists. If the destructive nature of our economic system isn’t known by now — we choke on it, we pauperize with it, we fight for it, we die by it, we kill for it, we lie for it — then how many more lives must be marginalized or snuffed out before we do?

On economic inequality and how it might point to a fairer system, let David Hume (1711-76) finish:

“A too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state. Every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of all the necessities, and many of the conveniences of life. No one can doubt, but such an equality is most suitable to human nature, and diminishes much less from the happiness of the rich than it adds to that of the poor.”

James Rothenberg can be reached at:  jrothenberg@taconic.net