Column No. 115 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - July 19, 2006
I published the original version of this column on the Weblog of my dear friend and colleague, Michael Carmichael, the European Editor of The Political Junkies.net, The Moving Planet Blog, on July 4, 2006 (http://www.planetarymovement.org/blog/2006/07/dr-js-short-short-shot-no-30-citizens.html). I thought to expand the text and share the ideas with you here.
On July 2, 2006, the important, honored progressive American historian Howard Zinn published an essay entitled “Put away the flags” ("The Progressive" http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article13823.htm). He began his essay by saying:
“On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed. Is not nationalism -- that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder -- one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking -- cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on -- have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.”
What he says about nationalism in its militant variety, is certainly true, sadly true. Until the advent of Nazi nationalism, the power, militarism, and brutality of certain organized religions over the course of history for the past two millennia or so caused more death, destruction, and human suffering than any other force our species could muster. Nazi nationalism of course outdid militant religion. And while militant religion is now making a comeback in its bid to once again become the number one destroyer, militant nationalism is still a grave danger to the future of our species. Nevertheless, I think that a great mistake that progressives have made is to let our own militant nationalists, in our time led by the Republican Religious Right and the Georgites, take over so many symbols of our nation and nationhood.
For symbols are just that, symbols. Symbols have meaning only when it is given to them by people. A single symbol can be given a wide variety of different meanings, over time. For example, the original swastika (svastika in Sanskrit) was an ancient Indian good luck symbol, used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Tibetans going back thousands of years. Further, the counterclockwise version used by the Nazis is also the letter “G” in the medieval Northern European Runic Script. It appears as well in ancient Norse culture, associated with the God of Thunder. It was used thus used by air forces of both Latvia and Finland when they gained independence after the First World War. The most prominent armed force to use it was of course the Nazi Wehrmacht, the Nazis using it as both a military and a civilian symbol, conveniently mixing the two just as other proto-fascist administrations are attempting to do. The Nazis themselves called it the Hakenkreutz (“hooked cross”), not the swastika.
But what of the symbols of our great nation? Why does our flag have to mean militant, militaristic Christian-Rightist Republicanism? Only because we progressives have let them make it so. Yes, the processes that lead the thirteen original States to become fifty have in part been one of often bloody conquest. But it has also been one of the spread of the ideas that were at the center of the formation of our nation across our part of the North American Continent. On the Fourth of July as we battle against the onslaught of Georgite theocratic fascism I felt that it was important to recall the most important words of our Declaration of Independence from the tyranny of an earlier King George: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,”
Yes, folks, according to the founding document of our great nation, governments are instituted among men to secure those rights with which they endowed by their Creator. (And that “creator” can be whatever one thinks it is. If the Congress had wanted to use the word “God,” they would have. But they chose a word that theists of whatever stripe and non-theists alike can be comfortable with.) Governments are not there to submerge freedom of thought and expression, or to line their own pockets, or to destroy the commons, or pursue foreign wars on their own authority. The Declaration is about what we, not our opponents, stand for. One of its most important symbols is our flag. We have let them take it. It is time to get it back.
Further, we have let them take over the Pledge of Allegiance, because in the 1950s an earlier right-wing Republican Congress, presaging the present Republican-Christian Alliance, artificially added the words “under God” to the original. But the last line of the Pledge is “with liberty and justice for all.” Isn’t that what the United States at its best is all about? Does not, in fact, “liberty and justice for all” trump “under God?” Yet we have let the Pledge become the property of those who would precisely deny “liberty and justice” to any and all Americans who do not share their political and religious beliefs nor their ethnic heritages.
Our national anthem concludes with the vision of our flag waving “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” One can rightfully complain that the tune of the old English drinking song that Francis Scott Key used at his moment of inspiration, ranging over two octaves, is virtually unsingable. But even though it is hard to sing we should not have let it too become a symbol of militant, militaristic Republicanism. Why not? Because again at its best our nation is and has been the land of the free and the home of the brave. Indeed, so many of those who are on the front lines battling to rid us of the Georgite pestilence want it once again to be totally free, and are so brave in carrying on the battle. Our national anthem is indeed about them.
We who are devoted to what distinguished our nation at its founding and still does at its best moments and in its best incarnation, have let our symbols go, have let them become the property of those forces in our country who are doing their very best to destroy everything that those symbols truly stand for. On the Fourth of July I honored our flag and the thought that underlay it at our nation’s beginning by rereading the Declaration in its entirety, thinking about its meaning and what more I can do to try to stop the Georgite theocratic fascist juggernaut intent upon trampling into the dust everything that it stands for. We have let the reactionaries capture the flag, capture patriotism (which is truly love of country and devotion to its best interests), totally obliterate what our nation stood for in the eyes of its Founders, and stands for today in the eyes those of us who believe that Constitutional Democracy is the only way to govern, and is the essence of true Americanism.
Have our nation and its forebears done bad things? Oh yes they have, many too many of them. Howard Zinn's list hits some of the "high spots." But those horrible events occurred because those who led the nation to do what it did abandoned the very principles on which it was founded. What we progressives have to do is recapture the flag, show our own people and the world what it really stands for, and then beat back the dark reactionary forces of Christian Rightist Georgite Republicanism so that our nation can once again become the beacon to the world of Constitutional Democracy and the Rule of Law that on its best days has been, certainly has been.