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Patriotism doesn't make the antiwar movement stronger
Refuge of scoundrels

March 14, 2003 | Page 8

BRIAN JONES explains why claiming patriotism won't further our movement against the war.

FOR ANYONE opposed to Bush's war on Iraq, February 15 was incredibly inspiring. The protests were significant, not only because of their size, but because they marked the first time that an antiwar protest was coordinated worldwide. More than 600 cities in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas participated.

Many protesters here in the United States, eager to avoid being labeled "anti-American," carried the American flag or placards with slogans like "Peace is Patriotic." The antiwar movement will be stronger, however, if it rejects patriotism altogether.

There is a popular liberal idea that the powers that be don't listen to radicals, but that they do listen to people with more respectable, moderate ideas. Therefore, many liberals argue, the movement would do well to wave the flag, support the "war on terrorism" and proclaim itself patriotic--all to prove its "respectability" and gain the ears of those in power. This strategy flows from a false understanding of how movements make change.

First, tens of millions protesting against the war won't simply melt George W. Bush's heart and convince him to stop his war on Iraq. He and his colleagues are motivated by their own bloodthirsty interests, and they won't be turned around unless we force them to turn around. The anti-abortion Supreme Court didn't have a "change of heart" in 1973 when it legalized abortion in its decision on Roe v. Wade--the movement in the streets left it no choice.

Second, wrapping ourselves in the flag signals to the rulers not that "you can talk to us," but "you can count on us to remain loyal no matter what you actually do." The West Coast dockworkers found this out last year when Bush, in the name of national security, intervened in their contract dispute to force them to accept a concession-filled contract.

After September 11, most unions--the dockworkers included--made a point of swearing allegiance to Bush's "war on terrorism." Their loyalty was repaid with an all-out war on unions. In fact, Bush used patriotism and the supposed interests of national security to wage this attack.

Another example is the New Jersey teachers who struck in December 2001 to prevent their health insurance premiums from being increased from $250 to $860. With the embers of the World Trade Center still smoldering, the teachers were branded "traitors" and "anti-American." The school board even referred to strikers as "the Taliban."

The fact is that the rich and the powerful are the ones who push patriotism the hardest because they want to secure our loyalty to them--not the other way around. In reality there is no "national unity," since we live in a society driven by competition for profit, and the ruling elite swears loyalty only to that end.

Patriotism serves as a cover for one-sided class warfare. Novelist Samuel Johnson hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

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ANOTHER ARGUMENT advanced in favor of left-wing patriotism is that the United States has a long history of radicalism and dissent and is a country that values free speech--and, therefore, radicals and protesters are the real patriots.

Of the war in Afghanistan, filmmaker and author Michael Moore recently wrote, "When you send our kids to go fight and die on a foreign land so that you can finally build a pipeline for your oil backers across that country, that is un-American." Does this mean that he thinks people in other parts of the world want to fight and die for the rich to get richer?

Nevertheless, there is a radical tradition in the U.S. going all the way back to the American Revolution, which, for the first time on earth, proclaimed that "all men were created equal" and had "inalienable rights." This was an important advance, and the revolution served as an inspiration to people fighting oppression all over the world.

But on closer examination, the nature of the United States today and its revolutionary history are at best contradictory, and at worst, genocidal. After all, how else can we describe the near-extermination of the Native Americans or the enslavement of tens of millions of Africans? So for all the talk of "equality" and "rights," from the very beginning, the founding fathers made sure millions had neither.

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass made this clear in a speech he was asked to give on the Fourth of July in 1852. Instead of wrapping himself in the flag, Douglass delivered a scathing indictment of the flag:

"The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?"

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THE LAST truly progressive act of the U.S. as a nation was the civil war it fought with itself to abolish slavery. That was the last time you could wave the flag and claim that it represented something progressive. Since that time, the U.S. has marched off to war for only one goal: world domination.

Meanwhile, at home, every great American struggle for freedom and democracy--the struggles for the eight-hour day, for civil rights, for union rights--has had to face violent repression at the hands of America's armed forces. Moore is actually wrong to think that a war for oil profits is "un-American." Actually, it's very American. As Malcolm X put it, "Violence is as American as apple pie."

Regardless of what values we might like the flag to stand for, as long as the U.S. is divided into two classes, one exploiting the other, we don't actually get to choose. Douglass, in that same speech, asked rhetorically: "What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?"

Today, we must ask "What, to the 1.7 million long-term unemployed, what, to the 2 million human beings in prison, what, to the 40 million Americans without health care, what, to the children of Iraq, what, to the women of Afghanistan, is the Fourth of July?"

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MORE THAN 150 years ago, Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that "the working [people] have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got." That pamphlet ends with the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains."

Marx wasn't making a moral plea for international working-class unity, but making an argument that nationalism serves the interests of the rich and that only by uniting across national divisions could workers carry forward the struggle to end war and oppression once and for all.

One hundred and fifty years and two world wars later, this slogan is even more relevant. Internationalism, like that demonstrated by the worldwide protests on February 15--not patriotism--but what will make the antiwar movement stronger.

Our movement would do well to reject patriotism, and to instead remember the words of the American socialist Eugene Debs, who was thrown in jail, under Democrat Woodrow Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Act, for exercising his "freedom" to speak out against the First World War:

"Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself, and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth."

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