Thursday, June 09, 2005

AT WORK TODAY, I read a Howard Zinn essay in The Progressive called "The Scourge of Nationalism." When I got home, I did a Google search to see if I could find it online. I did. I've quoted portions of it below; the complete article is here.

I cannot get out of my mind the recent news photos of ordinary Americans sitting on chairs, guns on laps, standing unofficial guard on the Arizona border, to make sure no Mexicans cross over into the United States. There was something horrifying in the realization that, in this twenty-first century of what we call "civilization," we have carved up what we claim is one world into 200 artificially created entities we call "nations" and armed to apprehend or kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

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.
Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early. When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession."
It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war. We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, "to civilize and Christianize" the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our Secretary of War, was saying: "The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness."

Nationalism is given a special virulence when it is blessed by Providence. Today we have a President, invading two countries in four years, who believes he gets messages from God. Our culture is permeated by a Christian fundamentalism as poisonous as that of Cotton Mather. It permits the mass murder of "the other" with the same confidence as it accepts the death penalty for individuals convicted of crimes. A Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, told an audience at the University of Chicago Divinity School, speaking of capital punishment: "For the believing Christian, death is no big deal."
One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on September 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What makes our nation immune from the normal standards of human decency?

Surely, we must 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.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation. We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

Zinn ends his piece with Langston Hughes's poem, addressed to his country:

You really haven't been a virgin for so long

It's ludicrous to keep up the pretext . . .

You've slept with all the big powers

In military uniforms

And you've taken the sweet life

Of all the little brown fellows . . .

Being one of the world's big vampires

Why don't you come out and say so

Like Japan, and England, and France

And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.

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