The Political Yeti: The United States and Patriotism

I went to a Portland Trailblazer game this week.  The strangest part of sports, for me, is the pageantry.  The singing of the national anthem in particular has been as ritualized as any religious dogma.  I understand the idea that people think they are honoring our freedom, but for me freedom means far more than empty rituals and unthinking patriotism.  To draw a probably pretty obvious parallel, the ritual of singing the national anthem always reminds me of Orwell’s two minutes of hate.

I also feel that, regardless of what our country represented in the past, it’s not currently worth glorifying for many reasons.  I am critical of the US government in a lot of ways.  I hate what they’ve done in Latin America, South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia.  Crushing populist movements and installing puppet rulers who help our bottom line may be realpolitic, but it doesn’t make for a nice country.  I hate that the top half a percent have the mechanisms of election tied to their puppet strings and use our supposedly democratic process as a way to increase their billions.  I hate that our politicians would oppose something as humane and sensible as universal healthcare.

That said, traveling has taught me new ways to appreciate our government.  Being in the third world, where power is not a constant, trash is burnt rather than collected, pavement is often a rumor, and water is far from drinkable has taught me to appreciate our infrastructure in a whole new light.  I still think a more equitable society is necessary, and for US foreign policy to stop being about the bottom line to our big corporations.  But I no longer take the infrastructure for granted.  As far as travel epiphanies go, this admittedly wasn’t too high on the epic scale.  But it’s sometimes to appreciate the small things.

10 responses to “The Political Yeti: The United States and Patriotism

  1. There was an episode of West Wing a while back about a philanthropist who wanted to make a real difference in the developing world. He was told that the most meaningful thing he could do was not sexy, nor especially rewarding – it was road-building. Roads serve as pipelines for all other things – food, building materials, health care supplies, etc. How efficiently all those other forms of aid and development could occur and how far they could reach were dependent on transportation infrastructure. A fictional anecdote, but it seemed logical. .. A shame that our country has decided to let infrastructure rot in our lifetimes.

    I often feel a similar type of instinctual resistance to ritualistic patriotism, but many others find comfort in it. I make it a point to generally ignore the anthem and find it ridiculous that the same people who remove their hats for a flag can spend the next couple hours getting drunk, insulting players, and swearing in front of children. Yet, one of the best part of sports is the sense of camaraderie and large crowds reacting together. The national anthem, while seemingly disjointed from the rest of the event, falls along the same lines. Furthermore, it provides a serious momentum of gravity (at least to some) before the entertainment begins – enjoy this fun because there’s serious shit going on in the world. I suspect there could be some value in the ‘break’ despite my (our) inherent resistance to the substance of the prelude. At the very least it provides contrast – the fat girl standing besides the hot chick. A stretch perhaps…

    The only part I disagree with you is in the notion of democracy. I think its working perfectly – the will of the voters is well represented. The rich vote more than the poor, so it’s no surprise that their interests are manifested in government. Blame the puppet-masters or the puppets?

    Were we disagree most is the role of the non-voters. You see inaction as rebellion – a refusal to participate. I see it as more of the same. The powers that be don’t want the poor to vote in their own interests. Theres two ways to achieve this: get them to vote against their own interest (e.g. Rush Limbaugh) or create apathy. A vote for a third-party may be a meaningless symbolic gesture or …the beginning of a movement. Elections cover a lot more than voting for President every 4 years. If you hate both sides of the 2-candidate system, you need to get involved in the process earlier. Silence sometimes speaks volumes, but most times its just ignored.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I like your musings about possible benefits to the anthem, but I can’t see it as anything more than pre-programmed jingoism.

    I guess we will always disagree about voting. Who is the candidate for the poor? Has there been a political candidate who represented their interests even running for major office in the last 100 years? The last 200 years? I’d love to hear some names of congressman, senators, and presidents (even candidates) who weren’t a) beholden to corporate interests, b)middle-class or better themselves and c) concerned more with their own careers than the plight of poor people.

    It’s hard to win at monopoly when the player who is the banker is always cheating. Having more money gives you an obvious advantage. Even harder is when that banker can also rewrite the rules of the game. He can also create the discourse about which pieces to choose. He even controls the mainstream media, which reports how your game went down. As a player in that game, you have the mechanism of choice (which playing piece to use, where to buy property) but it’s all in the context created by the crooked banker.
    When faced with all that, I feel the most rational response is to refuse to play the game at all.

  3. Maybe it’s time to run for office.

  4. Well I hope that I’d get your vote, grandma! Thanks.

  5. The trouble with the monopoly analogy is that the game you’re referencing isn’t voting or politics, its living in a civilization. You can’t ‘refuse to play’ unless you kill yourself or move elsewhere and change your citizenship. (In which case you’d just be playing a different game where the rules are 90% likely to be even more stacked against you.) What you’re doing is playing monopoly but refusing to take the only power you have. I’d say the equivalent is refusing to roll. Just sit and watch while others win and complain about it.

    As for the notion of ‘candidate of the poor’, it’s a bit of chicken or the egg. Why would a candidate emerge to represent a group that doesn’t vote?

    I’m not particularly politically aware but it seems that within our lifetimes, Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson where presidential candidates who fought for the interests of poor people. Of course they didn’t make it very far in their primaries for various reasons. Most politicians have to pick their spots and do it in increments.

    The bigger issue is that these sort of high-profile candidates don’t usually emerge from the ether, they come up through local politics and rise up. Your vote for president is almost irrelevant but your vote for city council makes 100,000 times more difference in deciding an election. There is no shortage of candidates who represent populist/humanist/libertarian/progressive/conservationist interests at the local levels. They just rarely win because that’s not the popular view of the electorate.

    I’ll give a specific example. The election for Metro President is ignored by most but has significant impacts on the region. A progressive candidate with a stellar environmentally conscious resume who believes in conservation lost out to former mayor who represents developers and other businesses. He campaigned on ‘jobs. He was supported by a shady out-of-state garbage company and a host of other business interests. The margin was less than 100 votes.

    In this case a candidate that might come far closer to some of our shared values (or at least serve as a statement against what is anathema to them) is discarded from politics and a statement about ‘what wins’ is made.

    The general values of most oregonians and of portlanders in particular was not represented. The reason wasn’t a ‘rigged’ system it was laziness, apathy, and cynicism.

    While I certainly agree the political system is ‘corrupt’ or ‘imperfect’ or ‘problematic’ (pick your adjective) sitting by doesn’t accomplish anything. At the very minimum you should be finding local candidates who you can support and stating your objection to the 2-party system at the national level by voting for a third-party candidate.

  6. I suppose if one were planning on living in the same place for a while, the metro president might be slightly important to one’s life. If you don’t live in the same place for long (college students, retirees, snowbirds, travelers), however, the position is pretty irrelevant. And while I do agree that local politicians probably have more influence than national ones on the lives of locals, I think the thought that they “make 100,000 times more difference in deciding an election” is a bit of head-in-the-sand behavior. If you agree that the uber rich, be they individuals or corporations, are the biggest problem in the country today, then having someone slightly different directing traffic or fixing stop lights is a pretty wan attempt at a solution. As Camus said, counting beans is one way to deal with an impending apocalypse, but it’s not a very useful one.

    The problem with Kucinich and any other potential populist candidate (grassroots or not) is that the national media pretends he doesn’t exist. I hate to sound so Marxist, but it’s hard to dispute that the media hasn’t just become another mechanism of control for the elite. That’s why I don’t share your belief that the system can fixed from the inside. It’s a rigged game, and it might be the only game in town, but only until we all trade our monopoly boards in for something better (like Ticket to Ride.)

  7. RE: transient voters. Thats a pretty selfish view. If you think only what impacts you is relevant then … that doesn’t seem consistent with your complaints about lack of concern for the interest of the poor. In my opinion people should be voting on what is best for society (if that’s individualism-so be it). Just because you’re unsettled doesn’t mean you should have no voice.

    “make 100,000 times more difference in deciding an election” is just math. This is a pretty fundamental thing about a democracy – one person one vote. The smaller the denominator, the more the numerator matters. There are 10s of millions of voters for the US president but only thousands, sometimes hundreds on local elections.

    I didn’t say local politicians had more influence, I said YOU, as a hypothetical voter, can have more influence on them. My point was that politicians rise from below. So if you ignore the local stuff (“small beans”) and the primaries (“all the same – blah blah media”) you can’t expect your interests to be represented at the higher levels. The media didn’t stop Kucinich from winning numerous elections in Ohio.

    Its funny to me that people in our generation still blame the media. This is, regardless of politics, the one unifying view that seems to be shared by most people today — the media is biased against your views. I have a hard time seeing things that way in an era when the internet allows you to choose your news source. If the news is dumb, look elsewhere. If everyone is biased read the source material (e.g. Wikileaks) Its so much easier to be informed than ever before. I recognize that media has a huge sway and isn’t an unbiased source, but that’s such a cop-out cliche.

    It seems like what you really are calling for is for people to be more aware, informed, and just generally smarter (on that we – and everyone- agrees). I’m not sure democracy is what you really want.

    I don’t think “the system” is easy to fix from the inside, I just see it as more likely to be fixed that way than by not making any effort at all.

    Also, FYI – Metro doesn’t have anything to do with “directing traffic or fixing stop lights” – thats city, county or ODOT, depending on the jurisdiction. Metro does many things, but primarily runs the park system and decides how much (and where) farms are converted into malls and subdivisions.

    Finally, Ticket to Ride is soooooo much better – on that we agree.

  8. I honestly don’t really care what parks or traffic lights a given local official looks after. As I said in my initial post, I do appreciate that we have that level of infrastructure in the US. But that kind of thinking is kind of missing the old growth forest for the Douglas Firs. In a time when Planned Parenthood is being challenged, the Institute of Peace is losing its funding, South Dakota is considering the legalization of assassination, and the war budget in Afghanistan and Iraq is being increased by 158 billion dollars, who gives a rat’s ass about how some farms are zoned? I just don’t see how that’s at all important. I’d even venture to say that local politics is part of the “bread and circuses” that, deliberately or not, are used to keep the populace entertained.

    The media didn’t stop Kucinich from winning, but the GOP is forcing him out of his position right now.

    I don’t think I implied (or meant) that the unsettled had no voice. I just pointed out that for many, a local elected official wouldn’t have much influence on their lives.

    And I am for whichever system that encourages an aware, informed populace and strives for a largely equal society, but I don’t think it’s been invented yet.

    It’s not just our generation that blames the media. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, to name a few, have detailed the media’s role pretty clearly. I think it’s naïve NOT to acknowledge that the majority of traditional media represents the same corporate interests that run the country. We all know about the massive influence people like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers have. (And I’m not actually blaming the media for anything, no more than I am blaming lobbyists or corporate bailouts. They’re just symptoms of a broken system.) (Media via twitter/wikileaks/etc is still nascent but can potentially change this, I think).

  9. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the connection between corporations and media and the great influence it has. You’re again inverting my point. I wasn’t saying past generations didn’t have reason to complain I was saying that our generation has relatively less to complain about than any other in this regard. This cliche media gripe is more common and less relevant than ever. The solution is not to stop voting but to choose better media – or DIY.

    The era where you had one newspaper and two radio stations is long gone. If you watch local news or Fox you have no one to blame but yourself. This isn’t a broken system its lazy and uncaring people.


    If you’re arguing that the local politics and government are RELATIVELY irrelevant, I’m not disagreeing. You wrote “I do agree that local politicians probably have more influence than national ones on the lives of locals” and I strongly disagree with that. Again, my point about local elections wasn’t that they were more important than national ones. It was about the individuals ability to influence rather than the degree to which he is influenced upon.

    If you’re upset with the types of candidates being offered on the national scale (as you said originally) your best bet to influence a change is at the local level. National politicians come up from local elections. The Schwartznegger/Ventura model is rare. Most politicians climb the ladder. Today’s local politicians are tomorrows national ones. Barak Obama wouldn’t be president if he lost his races for state senate or maybe even if he hadn’t won an election in law school.

    That was the point of me raising the Metro election – not implying that it changes the world. It was an election of business-interest vs an environmental-interest and the environment lost out because of the apathy of non-voters. The Metro president will likely try to use his position as a stepping stone to other positions with more power. Instead of retreating to a local position, he’s in a regional one, next step – the state (perhaps). It’d be irrelevant if it wasn’t repeated a thousand times in a thousand places.

    I certainly admire your desire for something new, something that hasn’t “been invented yet”. My imagination isn’t developed enough to see what that looks like in practice; but I think most people are thirsty, even desperate for change.

    Everyone wants things to be better. But inaction – inaction isn’t change, its the greatest statement you can make in support of the status quo. Not voting because of the candidate dissatisfaction is, in the long run, self-fulfilling prophecy. Its nihilism, not imaginative or conscientious dissent.

  10. For a while I thought you were saying something along the lines of “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Any reasonable person, I assume, would reject that over-simplistic didactic excuse as poor thinking. That’s I am surprised that you’re saying, in essence “if you’re not part of the problem, then you’re part of the problem.”


    There’s nothing nihilistic or self-fulfilling about this rejection. Call it “civil disobedience” or “conscientious objectivism” if that makes it easier to distinguish from apathy. It’s simply refusing to participate in a corrupted society’s corrupted mechanisms. I, for one, would be embarrassed to have voted for Obama. I’d feel like the billions of dollars being spent on unjust wars that he supports was my fault. I’d feel like the insane corporate compromises he made were my fault, too.

    (Not that I blame Obama. Somebody asked Chomsky recently what he’d do if he was in Obama’s shoes [in regard to Egypt], and his answer was that he’d do exactly the same thing, because he’d be beholden to the exact same corporate interests.) In short, I believe that voting on just about any level in this country is to make yourself an agent of injustice, to lend tacit support to the system that isn’t working for the majority of people in the world.

    It’s what Thoreau did, when he refused to pay taxes to fund the Mexican-American war. It’s what Gandhi did (at the very beginning), when he refused to obey British laws. It’s what Rosa Parks did, when she didn’t move to the back of the bus. You seem to think that by not voting, a person loses their ability to act in any way. You keep talking about candidates, and I don’t see how that matters. When my house if burning down, it doesn’t really matter how ideal my kitchen sink faucets look. As Thoreau said, when your government “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. ”

    And I’m not even talking about breaking the law. I’m just withholding my vote until there’s a time when it will mean something other than moral compromise.

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