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Disentangling the Antiwar Movement from the American Flag

(A downloadable PDF version of this essay
is available at
www.freesocietycollective.org; feel free
to copy and distribute this 8.5 x 11, 2-
sided flyer)
Disentangling the Antiwar Movement
from the American Flag

"Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most
indubitable meaning is nothing but an instrument
for the attainment of the government's ambitious
and mercenary aims, and a renunciation of human
dignity, common sense, and conscience by the
governed, and a slavish submission to those who
hold power. That is what is really preached
wherever patriotism is championed. Patriotism is
slavery."
-- Leo Tolstoy

"Peace is the continuation of war by other
means."
-- Hannah Arendt

Since September 11, 2001, many antiwar activists
in the United States have wrapped their dissent
in the American flag. In an increasingly
constrictive political climate, they are anxious
to find ways to appear more legitimate. For some,
carrying the flag celebrates the Bill of Rights,
particularly the rights to free speech and public
assembly. For others, it recalls foundational
events for this country such as the Boston Tea
Party and American Revolution that symbolize the
struggle against the tyranny of colonial rule.
People of conscience raise the stars and stripes
to assert that "peace is patriotic," and that
they are the real Americans. The U.S. government,
by contrast, claims to be waging war in order to
uphold America's core values, or as Bush puts it,
precisely because "we are a peace-loving
nation."

Who will prevail in this contest to define the
true patriots?

It is vital to ensure that U.S. opposition is
clearly visible alongside the strength and
solidarity of antiwar demonstrations around the
globe. As activists in the United States, we need
to distinguish our views from the actions and
aims of "our" government, and build a strong
movement. But we can only do that if our
arguments against war are in line with our
intentions.

The stark fact is that dissenters, no matter how
noble, do not get to determine the meaning of
patriotism. Although popular conceptions of U.S.
history suggest that patriotism is about freedom,
democracy, and creating a better world, in
reality it has largely been used by the state to
thwart the realization of these ideals.
Patriotism, in essence, asks citizens to put
aside their concerns and disagreements with the
government, and to get behind the sentiment of
"my country, right or wrong."

Historically, patriotism was used in the 1920s to
back up efforts to deport "undesirables" during
the Red scare. Later, during the time of the
Second World War, it justified interning Japanese
Americans in camps on U.S. soil. In the 1950s,
patriotism was used to repress the Left through
such vehicles as the House Un-American Activities
Committee, and during the Vietnam War period, to
silence resistance through slogans such as "love
it or leave it." Patriotism has been employed to
rationalize military excursions and state-
sponsored violence, from the invasion of Grenada
and Panama to illegally arming the Nicaraguan
Contras.

Patriotism, in the past and present, is
predominantly defined by those in power to
bolster support for their agendas. Consider the
ubiquity of American flags since 9-11.
Immediately after the tragedy, millions of
Americans expressed their sadness and solidarity
with the families of the deceased in a variety of
ways, from displaying wreaths and firefighters'
helmets to lighting candles. Shortly thereafter,
Bush called for a day of prayer and for Americans
to fly their country's flag. While some had
turned to the flag prior to Bush's urging, the
change was unmistakable after his plea. Alternate
expressions of mourning persisted, yet the
American flag became the main indication of one's
grief. It was soon difficult to find a house,
automobile, or public space unadorned with the
stars and stripes.

As the Bush administration rapidly manipulated
grief into retribution, the meaning of this
powerful symbol also shifted. Today, the same
flags flown after September 11 stand for much
more than sorrow. The flag has largely become
representative of unquestioning allegiance to
national security, a faith in government, and a
willingness to strike at unknown enemies. This
process of redefining patriotism facilitates the
state's ability to exercise power for its own
ends.

For more than a year, the Bush administration has
been crafting a spurious dichotomy between
patriotism and terrorism. Having initiated an
unending and ill-defined "war against terror,"
the U.S. government claims free license to do
whatever it wishes. Anything that promotes
"security" for America--such as eroding civil
liberties, dramatically increasing the military
budget, or insisting on a war on Iraq--is now
seen as justifiable.

In the name of patriotism, the Bush
administration devised the overtly racist policy
of registering citizens whose national heritage
is Middle Eastern. The aptly named USA PATRIOT
Act limits movement across borders, forces
registration of foreign-born citizens, vastly
expands investigative powers even where no crime
is alleged, and labels dissenters as potential
"terrorists." To question or oppose these
policies is deemed unpatriotic, and disagreement
is consequently silenced. What politician, after
all, would have willingly chosen to vote against
a piece of legislation with this acronym and risk
being seen as un-American? And now, a second
PATRIOT Act is in the works to further undo the
freedoms that the government is purportedly
marshaling its troops to protect.

Not only does the attempt to articulate dissent
in the language of patriotism take on meanings
that are out of our control, it also rings of
parochialism in an increasingly interdependent
and global world. Such language establishes a
false distinction between "us" and "them." To
return to September 11, victims from the twin
towers included citizens of nearly every country.
Almost more than any single event in recent
memory, it should have been understood as a
global trauma, binding numerous peoples and
cultures in a shared grief. Yet once the American
flags went up in large numbers, 9-11 became re-
scripted as a national tragedy by those in power.
"Good" America was now compelled to fight a
shadowy "evil," thus laying the groundwork for
future conflict and wars.

If appeals to patriotism are actually counter to
the aims of even the most modest antiwar
position, the other half of the equation in
"peace is patriotic" proves to be just as
inadequate. To merely object to a war against
Iraq suggests that there has been peace all
along, even though the United States and Britain
have been bombing Iraq repeatedly since the 1991
Gulf War. More than a million Iraqi children have
already died at the hands of the U.S.-driven UN
economic embargo against Iraq, according to the
World Health Organization. Such "peacetime"
practices demand a movement concerned with more
than just preventing a U.S. invasion and
subsequent military occupation. As antiwar
demonstrators in Munich recently declared, "Your
war kills off what your peace leaves standing."

The Bush administration speaks of peace too, but
as the ultimate justification for war, much in
the same way that it contemplates using nuclear
weapons in Iraq to free the world from the
dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Whether
in the form of overt military action or less
direct interventions, U.S. foreign policy
practices a peace that is really war, but by
other methods. The goal today appears to be
nothing less than increasing America's dominance
on a global scale in order for a tiny elite to
have disproportionate political and economic
influence.

In the end, the attempt to mainstream dissent
through claims of "patriotism" or "peace"
unwittingly ties our nascent antiwar movement to
the policies and institutions that create war.
These two words are inextricably bound to the
actions of the state, whether we agree with them
or not. At a time when the United States has
become thoroughly unilateralist, it is
disconcerting that many antiwar activists would
still focus on appeals to the U.S. government,
which has made it perfectly clear that it will
not be constrained by the United Nations, much
less world opinion. Why would this same
government be any more responsive to its own
citizens?

As part of this unilateralism, Bush has demanded
a regime change in Iraq and is posturing against
North Korea. Many activists, in turn, have called
for a "regime change at home." While both the
Iraqi and U.S. regimes are impediments to a free
and safer world, a change of leadership in these
two specific cases will not alter the conditions
that give rise to systemic violence in both
societies. Nor are these problems exclusive to
Iraq and the United States. In dictatorships or
nation-states, when the few attempt to govern the
many, coercion--either through warfare or subtler
methods--is the only recourse to sustain
centralized power. Statecraft of any kind is not
the answer. We need a reconstruction of society
that places power in accountable, directly
democratic institutions instead.

To say that "peace is patriotic" ultimately
buries demands for genuine freedom for all
beneath a misplaced desire for legitimacy. If we
want to invoke the liberatory dimensions of U.S.
history, however limited by their own times, then
let's look to the New England tradition of town
meetings, experiments in worker self-management,
the community self-help programs of the Black
Panthers, and the movements to contest and
redefine notions of sexuality and gender, among
others. Let's forget about appearing patriotic.
Rather, let's insist on the ability of all people
and communities to self-determine and control
their own destinies in a global society premised
on cooperation and mutual aid. As the Italian
anarchist Errico Malatesta once proclaimed,
"Everything depends on what people are capable of
wanting."

* * *

We hope that this essay will spark a constructive
dialogue among antiwar activists, and challenge
our allies' ideas regarding patriotism and social
change. In today's political climate, those of us
who are willing to speak out against the rising
tide of militarism need each other more than
ever. Let's work together to demand a world where
direct democracy, freedom, and diversity prevail.

--Free Society Collective
Central Vermont
14 February 2003
 info@freesocietycollective.org

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