23 February 2006

Shorts in February?

Patriotism II.
Friends have had honest struggles with patriotism and its symbolism for a long time. In my chapter for the book Friends and the Vietnam War, edited by Chuck Fager, I wrote about Keith Sarver:
Keith Sarver, who was for many years the superintendent of California Yearly Meeting, one of the most conservative in FUM [Friends United Meeting, known in those years as Five Years Meeting of Friends] at the time, wrote to me: 
“... My personal experience was more traumatic during the Second World War than was the Vietnam War. That was because I was a new Christian and a new, inexperienced pastor during that time. Soon after I was converted I attended a Quarterly Meeting in Iowa Yearly Meeting and heard two men speak about the Friends position on war and was convinced that very day that I could not serve in the military, and I certainly could not take the life of another person. I had previously registered for the draft and when it was learned in the community that I had become a conscientious objector that spelled trouble. There were former friends in the community who would no longer speak to me. The draft board was informed of my intention to go to school to prepare for the ministry and without even asking me to meet with them they sent to me a 4-D classification.
“We went to Chicago and after school started I got a part time job with Railway Express at 95 cents per hour. When I went to collect my first paycheck I was met by a union steward who wanted to know why I was not having anything taken out of my check for War Bonds I told him I could not in good conscience buy war bonds and he informed me that I could not work there.... I then went to work for the school at thirty cents per hour toward our school expenses. 
“The Lord opened the way for us to take a pastorate in Watseka, Illinois, which we did not want to do, but when we were convinced that the call was from the Lord, we went. There was a large American flag fastened on the wall immediately behind the pulpit and I quietly expressed my discomfort with the location and when the church was redecorated the chairman of the trustees left the flag down. There were boys from the church in the military and their names were listed in a board on the wall. I never mentioned this but it became a center of controversy[,] but when I pointed out from the discipline what the Friends testimony had been and still was for me, even some of the parents accepted the rightness of our position as the Friends testimony and there was no longer outward opposition.”
Keith mentioned the U.S. flag in the meetinghouse. I never kept track of the numbers of meetinghouses I've visited in the USA that have or don't have flags, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were 50/50. In honor of both halves of that universe, I present this PDF link.

A fragile patriotism
is any patriotism that depends on superiority. One slip, on any important scale, and what happens? Germany after World War I reached for demagogues and scapegoats. In the case of the USA, I have no idea what might happen if an economic collapse or similar large-scale catastrophe deprived us of global superiority. Could we take demotion from empire status as gracefully as the UK has tried to? 

How can Norway hold its head up in the community of nations after having slipped from first to sixth place in the Winter Olympics medal count?

Is there a healthy patriotism?
To borrow from the language of marketing, perhaps patriotism is brand loyalty raised to a national level. If a whole nation of people participate in a web of common governance and invest legitimacy in that web, their sense of unity and common affection might be a healthy form of patriotism. For me, the clue to its health would be that to be patriotic would not require feeling superior to others.

How is it possible to be proud without being superior? Maybe it is risky. But I'm proud of my children even though I objectively know that other parents are equally proud of their children. It doesn't diminish their children for me to be proud of mine. The reasons I'm proud of my children involves values and measures that we hold dear within our family, and in my mind I can believe that other families have values and scales they apply that on some larger plane are as valid as mine. Similarly, I can value the USA's (imperfectly expressed) heritage of freedom, equality, anti-elitism, while leaving open the possibility that other countries have either (1) also managed to construct societies with similar values, or (2) have found ways to cherish life and relationships that aren't the same as my country's but are still to be respected.

But what if we really are superior?
I honestly believe that not every nation or even every culture is equally good. The terrible reality is that our species, in its great variety, seems to have organized itself in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of dysfunctions—including patriarchy, racism, nationalism, elitism and false social distinctions of all kinds. These phenomena aren't evenly spread out among all societies and organizations as if by some cosmic distribution mechanism. Some societies seem objectively (if that were possible!) more oppressive than others, no matter how I try to contort myself into believing that perhaps oppression somehow works for them, that there is a hidden richness in those lives that makes up for the apparent cruelty and corruption.

So, it is theoretically possible that the USA is far better than some possible alternative societies even now, centuries after the American experiment was started in the face of a world mostly governed by despots. However, as soon as we Americans organize ourselves around this belief, namely that we are superior to another society, we seem to be inclined to choose one of two equally tragic paths: first, we ignore that more oppressive society, giving a long train of excuses: we respect their boundaries; we say it is not our problem; we have no strategic interest; etc. On the other hand, if we DO discover that in fact we DO have a strategic interest, well, in that case we're spreading democracy; supporting our allies; only killing terrorists or insurgents or perhaps even a few innocent people, but please keep it in perspective. We don't want to count, but how many corpses have to pile up before it is apparent that we haven't eliminated oppression by our beautiful and superior system, we've merely exported it? And if we only shift the oppression from one side of a boundary to another, how superior are we?

I'm not arguing that intervention should never happen. I just wish that our "interventions" could be nonviolent, nondelusional, constant (not limited to crisis), creative, and based on every human being's right to make an effort to communicate, trade, negotiate, offer relationship with every other human being anywhere, anytime, and no government's ultimate right to define another people, another society, as off limits.

Speaking of oppression, one of the twentieth century's turning-point speeches happened fifty years ago. Sean's Russia Blog has a series of posts, starting with this one, commemorating Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech of 1956 denouncing Joseph Stalin's "cult of personality."


Paul L said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with being patriotic; it's patriotism that's the problem. All ideological systems will have a tendency to contend for supremacy with each other.

Where love of anything supplants our love of God, it is idolatry and leads to ruin.

Johan Maurer said...

Karen is absolutely right—really the concept of some kind of overall superiority is an illusion. Even if it were useful for some discussion purposes, it probably does more harm than good.

While I think it is important to hold onto the possibility that specific forms of oppression are operating in specific places, and to intervene in those places (through relationships of all kinds, prayer, political action, etc.), often some of us are unconscious of our involvements in those far-away oppressions, or of the oppressions that afflict us.

It would be fun to have a national conversation in the USA about the tradeoffs required by our individualism. What have we given up by raising the value of individualism so high? In particular, how has this weakened our Christian communities?