On patriotism

In his defense of an authoritarian system of social organization, Gerhard Lenski noted, correctly I fear, that human altruism diminishes with social distance. Thus, we are much more likely to give up our own lives to protect, in descending order, our families, our friends, our comrades, our communities, and our countries.[1]

When we ask someone if s/he would sacrifice her or his own life to save five others, for example, they would likely answer most honestly if they first asked who those others are.

In the Cold War era when Lenski wrote, for example, if you asked an Amerikkkan to sacrifice his or her life to save five Soviets, there’s a real good chance s/he would have answered with an emphatic no. During the Cold War, it was seriously suggested that the U.S. should launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, not on any assurance but rather on a mere hope that enough Amerikkans (“us”) would survive to preserve the U.S. political and economic system against “them.”[2]

We are dishonest when we claim to value all human life and while this certainly supports an allegation of the Black Lives Matter movement that in general we value Black lives less, I want to pursue this along a different path that I think will in fact return to this very point.

I want to talk about patriotism. It comes to my mind because a local broadcasting outlet in Pittsburgh has recently carried stories ranking Pennsylvania and McKeesport, the latter being a city in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, for patriotism. Pennsylvania ranked relatively low,[3] but within Pennsylvania, McKeesport ranked highest.[4]

These reports are of particular interest to me because something that has made me uncomfortable in Pittsburgh has been the patriotic displays, the over-the-top flag waving that has made me wonder what local folks are compensating for, the heavy artillery gratuitously displayed all over the place, but especially around places where Blacks seem to make up a disproportionate share of the population, the banners that honor almost exclusively white military service members even in areas where many Blacks live. The juxtaposition of such displays with white supremacy leads me to very strongly suspect that they are in fact one and the same. To put it bluntly, even though Pennsylvania was a Union state, I think the patriotic displays compensate for the Civil War: I see lots of Confederate flags, Gadsden (“Don’t tread on me”) flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, and Trump campaign flags. It is very common to see a Confederate flag next to a U.S. flag (figure 1).
IMG_20200429_172952
Fig. 1. A front yard in Clairton, a city in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, in the Monongahela River (“Mon”) Valley, with a large Black population. Five flags are present: A U.S. flag, a Confederate flag, two U.S. Army flags, and obscured by a telephone pole, a Betsy Ross flag. Photograph by author, April 29, 2020.

The guns ostensibly honor those who served and those who gave their lives for the country, but in one case, an artillery round is aimed directly at a high school (figure 2).
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Fig. 2. This artillery round is aimed directly at the northwest corner of Carrick High School, a Pittsburgh neighborhood with a large Black population. Photograph by author, December 31, 2019.

And tanks feature prominently among these gunnery displays (figure 3).
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Fig. 3. A tank in a public park in the city of McKeesport, quite near the borough of White Oak. Both municipalities are in the Mon Valley area. McKeesport has a large Black population. White Oak is somewhat “whiter.” Photograph by author, March 11, 2020.

I noted of those stories on patriotic rankings for McKeesport and Pennsylvania that,

There are a few ways of viewing this:

  1. McKeesport is more patriotic[5] in a less patriotic state,[6] which makes this less impressive than KDKA wants to make it seem.[7]
  2. The measures used in both studies, by different organizations, emphasize military participation.[8] Patriotism is defined in different ways by different folks and I would continue to admire Samuel Johnson’s pronouncement that “[p]atriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” except that apparently he was referring to false patriotism.[9] Just can’t find a good quote when you want one.
  3. But finally,

    An important predictor to military service in the general population is family income. Those with lower family income are more likely to join the military than those with higher family income. Thus the military may indeed be a career option for those for whom there are few better opportunities.[10]

    Uh-huh.[11][12]

McKeesport, like many communities in the Pittsburgh area, has been devastated by post-industrial decline and what Jason Togyer describes of southwestern Pennsylvania[13] conforms to my description of authoritarian populism,[14] which indeed seems highly prevalent, along with documented racism and white supremacism.[15] Many people in McKeesport are poor, many houses stand in ruins, abandoned. If indeed we associate a propensity for military enlistment with lower family incomes,[16] and we associate patriotism with enlistment,[17] then it certainly seems plausible that McKeesport will appear “patriotic.” (And that there is an intersection between race and class may help to explain higher minority enlistment rates.[18])

Militaries are about conflicts with others. It was striking to me, for example, when driving into Oregon from California on U.S. Highway 101, I crossed a bridge with U.S. military service flags on the side of the bridge nearest the Pacific Ocean and U.S. flags on the inland side.[19] It is not the United States we project to the rest of the world with such a display, but rather the United States military, which is rather explicitly to declare that the rest of the world is to be met with force. Not diplomacy. Not friendship. But force.

It is to perceive the rest of the world not as friendly nor even as potentially friendly, but as hostile, as something to be fought with physical violence, as “other” human beings to be killed or defeated.

And patriotism is a chauvinism for one’s own country over other countries. In the United States, particularly with ‘patriotic’ fireworks displays and the singing of the national anthem, “the rockets’ red glare,” we confound patriotism with a celebration of war. In Pittsburgh, this conflation is further evident with the gratuitously displayed guns.

What I see with the military and with patriotism is hierarchically invidious monism, a term Elizabeth Minnich coined[20] to more properly acknowledge that some sides—the rich, the white, the male, the heterosexual, the healthy, etc.—of putative ‘dualities’ are morally and practically preferred over their counterparts—the poor, the people of color, the female, the queer, etc.[21] We do with these what we seem innately to do, to distinguish and value ourselves (“us”) from “them,”[22] and then to kill a very often Black or Brown and almost always poorer “them.”

This is an identification that, even as women and people of color enlist in ever greater numbers,[23] effectively deploys them to fight for the privileged sides of hierarchically invidious monisms against the devalued sides—themselves.

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.[24]

I don’t think I knew Muhammad Ali said that at the time but it was also during the Vietnam War—I think I was in high school, but it might have been junior high—that I realized I could not reconcile the Pledge of Allegiance with that war. I remember that when I told my mother, she advised me to stand quietly while the other students recited that Pledge. I have been ashamed to be an Amerikkkan ever since.

Much more recently, I noted that

in front of Sto-Rox Junior-Senior High School, located in Stowe Township, but also serving McKees Rocks (a different municipality from McKeesport), there is a statue of a soldier crouched on patrol, his gun, bayonet affixed, at the ready. This, apparently, is what Pittsburgh wants of its poor (mostly Black) children—to be cannon fodder. But it won’t honor these Black (wo)men with banners that go up every year in time for Memorial Day—that honor is reserved almost exclusively for whites.[25]

I think I’m now seeing a few more banners this year than last honoring Blacks. But only a very few. An overwhelming, still nearly exclusive, majority honor whites.

Just as Ali knew, so those poor people, people of color, and women must know: They are cannon fodder for wealthy white men. Black lives do indeed not matter. Women’s lives do indeed not matter. Poor lives do indeed not matter. Wealthy white male lives matter. And patriotism is allegiance—fealty, you might suggest—to the wealthy, the white, and the male.

  1. [1]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  2. [2]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  3. [3]KDKA, “Study Finds Pennsylvania Among The Least Patriotic States In America,” June 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/24/pennsylvania-is-among-least-patriots-states-in-america/
  4. [4]KDKA, “McKeesport Named Most Patriotic City In Pennsylvania,” June 26, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/26/mckeesport-named-most-patriotic-city-in-pennsylvania/
  5. [5]KDKA, “McKeesport Named Most Patriotic City In Pennsylvania,” June 26, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/26/mckeesport-named-most-patriotic-city-in-pennsylvania/
  6. [6]KDKA, “Study Finds Pennsylvania Among The Least Patriotic States In America,” June 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/24/pennsylvania-is-among-least-patriots-states-in-america/
  7. [7]KDKA, “McKeesport Named Most Patriotic City In Pennsylvania,” June 26, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/26/mckeesport-named-most-patriotic-city-in-pennsylvania/
  8. [8]KDKA, “Study Finds Pennsylvania Among The Least Patriotic States In America,” June 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/24/pennsylvania-is-among-least-patriots-states-in-america/; KDKA, “McKeesport Named Most Patriotic City In Pennsylvania,” June 26, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/26/mckeesport-named-most-patriotic-city-in-pennsylvania/
  9. [9]The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” March 25, 2020, https://www.samueljohnson.com/refuge.html
  10. [10]Amy Lutz, “Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Status Status,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 36, no. 2 (2008): 184.
  11. [11]Jason Togyer, “In towns like McKeesport, the future was already precarious. Then came coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, May 22, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/year-of-fear-mckeesport-crime-covid-19.php
  12. [12]David Benfell, “#COVIDiocy,” Irregular Bullshit, June 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.com/2020/06/26/covidiocy/
  13. [13]Jason Togyer, “Fear and Loathing in the Time of Coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 25, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/mckeesport-year-of-fear-covid-19-pandemic.php
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  15. [15]David Benfell, “The banners and the guns: Flagrant racism in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, October 12, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/20/the-banners-and-the-guns-flagrant-racism-in-pittsburgh/; David Benfell, “Militia territory,” Not Housebroken, November 22, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/11/22/militia-territory/; David Benfell, “Pittsburgh, race, and a threat to appropriated identity,” Not Housebroken, May 29, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/17/pittsburgh-race-and-a-threat-to-appropriated-identity/; Colin P. Clarke, “One Year After Tree of Life, We Still Aren’t Talking Enough About Violent White Supremacy,” Rand, October 27, 2019, https://www.rand.org/blog/2019/10/one-year-after-tree-of-life-we-still-arent-talking.html; Letrell Deshan Crittenden, “The Pittsburgh problem: race, media and everyday life in the Steel City,” Columbia Journalism Review, October 25, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/racism-black-burnout-in-pittsburgh-journalism.php; Eric Heyl, “Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, Islamic Hate Groups Active In Pittsburgh,” Patch, August 16, 2017, https://patch.com/pennsylvania/pittsburgh/neo-nazi-white-supremacist-islamic-hate-groups-active-pittsburgh; Moriah Ella Mason, “Pittsburgh Doesn’t Need More Guns — We Need Less White Supremacy,” Forward, October 29, 2018, https://forward.com/scribe/413104/pittsburgh-doesnt-need-more-guns-we-need-less-white-supremacy/; Campbell Robertson, Christopher Mele, and Sabrina Tavernise, “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts,” New York Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html; Charles Thompson, “Pennsylvania housed 36 active hate groups last year, ranking 8th in the country: report,” PennLive, February 21, 2019, https://www.pennlive.com/news/2019/02/southern-poverty-law-center-counts-36-active-hate-groups-in-pennsylvania-in-2018.html
  16. [16]Amy Lutz, “Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Status Status,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 36, no. 2 (2008): 184.
  17. [17]KDKA, “Study Finds Pennsylvania Among The Least Patriotic States In America,” June 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/24/pennsylvania-is-among-least-patriots-states-in-america/; KDKA, “McKeesport Named Most Patriotic City In Pennsylvania,” June 26, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/06/26/mckeesport-named-most-patriotic-city-in-pennsylvania/
  18. [18]Amanda Barroso, “The changing profile of the U.S. military: Smaller in size, more diverse, more women in leadership,” Pew Research, September 10, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/10/the-changing-profile-of-the-u-s-military/
  19. [19]David Benfell, “The Oregon coast,” Not Housebroken, October 5, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/2014/10/01/the-oregon-coast/
  20. [20]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  21. [21]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).
  22. [22]Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017).
  23. [23]Amanda Barroso, “The changing profile of the U.S. military: Smaller in size, more diverse, more women in leadership,” Pew Research, September 10, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/10/the-changing-profile-of-the-u-s-military/
  24. [24]Muhammad Ali, quoted in DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight,” Washington Post, June 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/
  25. [25]David Benfell, “Keeping the poor, poor, even when they serve their country,” Not Housebroken, May 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/27/keeping-the-poor-poor-even-when-they-serve-their-country/

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