When a sitting president declares that he is a nationalist and thousands of people cheer him, this is the outcome of zombie patriotism. American exceptionalism has always carried this downside. If we believe that our country is unassailable in its virtue and honor, we put blinders on to the very dangers that will contribute to our downfall.
The president is taking a third of the population down this road – a road that has a future of unmitigated violence against those who do not embrace this single-celled version of our country. Of the remaining two-thirds, we see complicit behaviors out of either fear or a slobbering thirst for power through association (hello Congress). We hear the people whose mouths protest but whose actions belie something else entirely (Senators Sasse, Collins, Flake, et. al.).
Many people, myself included, have protested, organized, and gone through all the civic venues to push back against this kind of authoritarianism. I will be the first to admit, I’m still having trouble accepting that it is getting this bad. My immediate circumstances have not changed and my life is still relatively decent, a function of white, middle class, heterosexual privilege. It is this mindset that has made me think about the Good Germans. How bad does it have to get before I think it’s bad, before I realize it’s too late?
While people protest that this period in history is not like 1930s Germany, they’ve ignored the fact that at some point, there will be a recession, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster that will be the tipping point. This president and his lackey mouthpieces (FOX included) have set the stage for blame and viciousness and violence. They have set the pot to simmering, so that with a little more heat, it will boil over.
That the president is a stupid, awful human is irrelevant. He is stupid and awful in the way that all bad humans are stupid and awful. How can I get what I want, regardless of the consequences to anyone else? I have never understood the appeal of this braying donkey. I don’t understand fandom of any ilk. Why should one human worship another? And so many of these people claim to be of a religion that condemns false idols.
There are people who are curious and people who are not. Incurious people repeat what they’ve been told and like someone else to create their talking points and memes. These people can be found in every political party or leaning.
Curious people dig deeper, ask questions, refuse to be told what to believe. Curious people save the world, because they don’t assume paradigms are permanent. Incurious people fear change, ambivalence, and dichotomies. Nuance is just a thing intended to confuse them and will be rejected in favor of anything binary.
I am so often baffled by the need to see the world this way. I would find an unchanging world of similar people to be claustrophobic and uninteresting. I am grateful to live in a country that has such a wide range of beliefs, religions, languages, and cultures. This is the country that I feel patriotism for – the country that shines BECAUSE it holds such variety, not IN SPITE OF it.
I hear a lot of people saying “we’re better than this”. No, we’re not. This is what we are – a nation with a bloody history of oppression and thievery. We have to work to be better. We have to understand and acknowledge our history to move beyond it and we can’t waste time on false equivalencies between those who, however ineffectively, are trying to improve things for all people and those who actively agitate and incite violence against others who are not like them.
What these nationalists, these self-declared cultists want is sameness, predictability, the bland whiteness of a culture built on stealing that of others. They want the social rules that governed their grandparents to govern their grandchildren. They want pink and blue. The devout and the godless. The easily labeled and easily condemned. They want people to look at them with reverence because they just happened to be born pasty white in a country that reveres pasty whiteness.
The luck of the draw suddenly becomes a proud, personal virtue – something they earned not through hard work, or strength of character but because their parents had a couple of beers and felt randy. How can you build an entire belief system on that?
In addition to this, there is personal resentment. They didn’t think they should have to change. They expected their generation to live as the generation before, whether it be farming or fossil fuels or anything else not already overrun and gutted by corporations. America has survived many things because it is adaptable, not because it is intransigent.
A right winger agitator said that one is not a real American, unless their family goes back four generations. What she suggested is that there is a very small core of true Americans, giving no particular truck to the indigenous populations we slaughtered upon arrival. I’m a first generation American, but I’m white so I might get a pass. Of course, that is cancelled out by the fact that I am a liberal.
But I’m like a lot of Americans. I served my country, voted regularly, paid taxes, volunteered in my community, raised my progeny to be a kind, respectable citizen. When my luck has fallen, I’ve come up with a different plan. I was raised with the idea that life is inherently unfair, but that I must do my personal best, work hard, constantly learn, and to not waste time blaming others – that blame is not an actual solution.
What these people screaming in adulation at this president fail to see is that nothing they are doing or believing will make their lives literally better. It’s wasted energy. Even if they end up in their promised land of all white heterosexual Christian people, they will still find a way to blame and separate and hurt each other. It’s not a matter of circumstance. It’s a matter of character.
I wrote this post prior to the events of last week, when individuals turned the stochastic terrorism of the president into domestic terrorism – attempted and actual murders of fellow citizens in the name of racism, anti-Semitism, and partisan politics.
Patriotism is defined by our values – a subjective term, a propaganda tool, a way to slap a label on all kinds of nefarious behavior. You can declare yourself a patriot and still be a complete shit of a human being. And in the lingual nightmare that has become our national discourse, it’s a title I’ll happily shed in pursuit of a more just nation.
34 thoughts on “Zombie Patriotism”
Well said, Michelle, though it leaves me wondering – what on earth can one do for the rather large number of people – in your country and mine who seemed to be stuck in the bigot loop. Is there any avenue of communication? It seems to me there is not – which rather terrifies me.
I’ve gone back and forth in my own head about this. It seems like without dialogue, there is no possibility for change. On the other hand, the dialogue has become so vitriolic and dramatic, it’s hard to see where the middle ground would be for some people.
For my own part, I’m trying to focus on positive actions for the common good. I have to work at leading by example, by not getting sucked into rhetorical fencing, which is just loud and useless. I’m focused on voting rights and local issues of poverty and domestic violence. It’s too easy for me to become despairing if I think about fighting back against the wave of creepy nationalism. Things may get worse, but the one power we have is deciding who we are going to be in the face of that.
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That’s a wise strategy you’ve plotted out. Certainly the vitriole gets us nowhere. And we know at heart that whatever we say does not change people’s mindsets. But to set an example, as in sticking to your own story, and be seen to be doing so, I think that’s the best that can be done. It’s easy to get panicked into thinking that this approach isn’t fast enough though.
Unfortunately the things that work fast tend to be violent. That’s where we’re headed, the outcome of which will be more authoritarianism.
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A matter of character–exactly. What we fail to see is that this is the single most important thing about a human being. Not their race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, political party, etc. Are you respectful of others? Do you show kindness and compassion? That is all that matters. And another biggie: they are us. We are them. There is no “us versus them”. That is an illusion. It’s so simple to me… it’s mind-boggling others don’t see that. Fear breeds intolerance. So sad, but true.
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I used to say that I never understood “-isms”, but I think that was a privileged perspective to take. I still don’t really understand stereotyping or bigotry – it’s irrational. But, that being said, I recognize that it exists. This is the kind of intolerance I’m on board with – if someone wants to perpetuate nonsensical bullshit, their beliefs need to be questioned, resisted, and rebutted on the spot.
Another moving and thought-provoking piece, Michelle. I puzzle every day about how to speak with family, especially my brother, who became a “Christian” when he settled with his wife in Colorado some years ago. (We were raised Catholic, but he announced one day, “I’m a Christian now.” I was confused.) Anyway, his politics are of the evangelical sort. He supports the Trump cabal, and he’s unfriended me twice on Facebook. He always comes back, but there will probably be a next time.
I’m actually pretty restrained on Facebook, polite, respectful, but throwing out questions for reflection that obviously send some into tirades, and orgies of unfriending. Hmmm! How to talk to people like that… I’ve taken to celebrating the fruits of diversity, like cultural exhibits and performances that present the work of diverse artists. (I’m in the performing arts domain.) I hope that will reach out to the young, and to the older ones sitting on fences.
Thank you again for your food for thought.
I attended a community prayer breakfast last week because my daughter’s chamber string group was playing. It was a well-timed experience as an atheist, because I’ve been on Twitter the last month and many of the self-identifying religious people are quite terrible humans. It was really good offline to see all the community volunteers and a wide range of religious leaders – pastors, priests, imams, rabbis talking about issues of unity and compassion.
There is something inherent in religion that allows people to interpret ancient texts in ways that rationalize personal beliefs and bigotries. Some have chosen the most miserly, cruel, and judgmental interpretations to excoriate others. On the flip side, there are those who walk a path of kindness and caring for the least among us. I try to remember that whenever the loudest religious voices seem to be the most awful ones.
In regards to social media, I’ve not engaged with others much, because I just don’t think it’s a great venue for thoughtful conversation and there are often people just waiting in the shadows to steamroll anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
Hi, Michelle. I’ve been regrettably absent for a while. Apologies. And thank you for this piece. Trying again and again to speak with conscience and care is quite a slog these days. I hope folks read what you have to say. Peace, John
Hi John – I’ve been somewhat absent as well. Deep into revising a novel, voter service work, and lots of school events coming up. It’s good to hear from you! It’s so easy to get pulled into this tsunami of violent rhetoric and to feel the blood boil. But I remind myself over and over that it does nothing to add to the noise, to give into those knee-jerk reactions. Fortunately, many people throughout history have walked this path before and written about it, so I’ve been reading more of them and less of Twitter.
Such an important message, and beautifully stated, Michelle. Zombie patriotism is a perfect description for what we are seeing. The danger we’re facing is so very real–and chillingly familiar. Thank you for using your voice so effectively.
Donna, I read this with a sigh. I’m not sure that I’m doing anything effectively at the moment. It always feels like so little, when the problems are so immense. Having my moment of burnout, I suppose, before rallying again.
Agreed top to bottom, Michelle. Many salient points here, and perhaps foremost among them is your closing line alluding to the fact that when the external fight against ‘otherness’ is won, it tends to turn inward.
It’s hard for people to understand that “othering” is not something a person can claim as situational. It is a tool of propaganda and blame and taps into people’s fears and insecurities. I have to resist it as well, when it comes to people of religious dogma and conservative politics. I still have to force myself to look at them individually as humans and not en masse under a slogan. It’s a challenge to one’s moral fiber, I think.
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Well stated Michelle. You have a gift for sifting out the BS and getting to the root of some grand mythological assumptions. I still find it unbelievable that the political movement that spawned Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Donald Trump has the nerve to blame rampant incivility, and worse, the inevitable violence it spawns, on others. They live within the enormous blindspot of their narrow field of vision, and there is very little one can say that pierces their self inflated so called patriotic rhetoric. It does make one shudder at the artifices that they have hi-jacked–the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the constitution. Oh America.
That chatter around incivility is pretty easy to ignore. We’ve seen enough red-faced bloated white men barking into their radio mikes with crazy shit over the years to know that calls for civility are just more gaslighting.
Hijacking of symbols is a pretty rote move when it comes to authoritarianism. I’d like them to still mean something good after this period in history, but that means pushing back against all this bumper sticker, beer cozy patriotism. And the Constitutionalists, criminy – most of them haven’t even read the document they say they’re for. History education in this country needs some work.
I’m trying really hard not to buy into a lot of the discourse – most of it is engineered cynicism and we can’t really afford it right now. Fierce civility trucks no lies, doesn’t have time for pedantry, and demands that we retain our personal dignity and integrity. I have to tell myself that every single day!
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NPR was reporting on the election that just took place in Brazil and the right wing strong man that won. It’s a world wide movement and it’s pretty frightening.
That awareness playing as a backdrop to the shit storm in our own country is troubling, but not useful in terms of focus. We have no room to point fingers or wring hands until we clean up our own back yard. I say this, because it’s the only way I can get by not feeling overwhelmed all the time.
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Hey there … Loved this. Sharing on FB. Too tired to comment intelligently. Too sad. Honestly, Michelle … Some days I just want to pack my bags and MOVE – but where to? South Africa is a den of thieves; I can’t imagine going back there – well, I can, but not to the middle-class milieu where my roots used to be. But I am so deeply ashamed to have to call myself an American, and as a Christian … well, what I see sometimes just makes my heart break.
Stay for the good fight. Be the Christian who is kind and compassionate. Be the American who is not a bigoted xenophobe. This is the problem with the loud among us – they don’t really represent a good portion of America and we get bamboozled into thinking what we say or do won’t matter. It does. It still does.
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You speak eloquently for many of us, Michelle. I look at the Trump phenomenon in largely spiritual terms: he’s the outer manifestation of the fear, aggression and ignorance that a plurality of Americans apparently experience but haven’t the courage to own and work with. Instead, Trump models blaming, which validates cowardice, immaturity and every associated base quality. It’s disheartening to accept what we can’t unknow: that so many of our fellow citizens are like him. Even if the midterm elections yield more enlightened results, this wholescale ugliness will just go back into the psychic hole it crawled out of. It won’t go away.
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That’s an astute observation, although it would be better if there weren’t so much power over others involved for these people to workout their psychological inadequacies. I think it comes down to compartmentalization: Fine, they want to believe irrational things about their place in the world – it’s up to the rest of us to contain them and limit the damage.
Can’t say I agree with much of your article. First, if an American president ISN’T an American nationalist, something is clearly wrong and he shouldn’t have the job. You don’t try to lead a country you don’t believe in.
Describing people as ‘zombies’ because they love their country is childishly demeaning. Calling proud Americans ‘cultists’ is equally ridiculous. America is a great melting pot of people from around the world who seek to become Americans and embrace American culture, language and laws. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster if it includes embracing cultures whose values are antithetical to ours.
Bluntly, Michelle, I think your position is one of bigotry towards a huge swath of Americans who are glad we finally have a president that doesn’t hate or feel apologetic about being an American. I can tell that neither you nor other posters here know these people as much as you imagine you do.
As much as the left hates Trump, the reality is he’s doing a great job carrying out, or trying to, his promises to protect the country and get the country economically back on track. I look forward to the next six years, assuming the Democrats don’t gain a House majority.
Let’s see where the next few days takes us.
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Clearly, you and I disagree on many things. And your comment, on the surface, seems perfectly defensible. But to pretend that nationalism has some pure dictionary meaning in how it is being used by this president and many of those who support him is to ignore its historical usage.
The president has shown that the one thing he truly believes in, is doing whatever he has to in order to enrich himself and his family in the short and long term, no matter the consequences to the American people. To continue to speak praises to him, while tacitly approving of the graft does suggest cult-like behavior.
Proud Americans? A circumstance of birth does not excuse any and all behaviors in the name of patriotism. As they say, pride goeth before the fall. A little humility and thoughtfulness will take us farther than all the bumper sticker jargons in the world. The pointless, swaggering language used to stomp on anyone who disagrees is galling.
As far as “the left”, I am not speaking for them. I speak only for myself, as a veteran, a citizen, a parent, a voter, and a human. I speak as someone who loves my country enough to expect more of it than what we are seeing now. I love it enough to not put on blinders to the dangers of authoritarianism – to expect my president to be a well-informed representative of my country, and to expect the government to be a functioning part of American life and not this cabal of grifters who are not serving with the common good in mind.
Patriotism does not demand blinders. It demands that we have expectations and that we raise the bar for our country. It demands that we don’t let moderate voices be shouted down by incoherent braggarts. It demands that we actively engage in making the country better and ask tough questions – that can’t be done with easy slogans and cruel slander.
I don’t believe this presidency has made our country better, nor have the people who persist in ignoring the long term outcomes of this administration’s decisions, both economically and politically. I expect more of my president and of my country and of myself. Why don’t you?
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I thank God Hillary Clinton was not elected President.
I have read Rules for Radicals and am familiar with her desires.
I also am retired military, former department of defense and know some of the federal rules / laws she has broken.
President Trump was not my first choice, but I will take him any day of the week over Hillary.
You got him. I don’t litigate past elections. I find the concern about an imagined presidency to be odd in the face of the one that is happening right now. That concern shouldn’t deflect from the flagrant abuses of the current administration, nor the long term economic disaster that awaits us, nor the human rights abuses already promulgated.
I am not a close friend of Ms. Clinton’s and know very little about her desires.
Read the book Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky.
Hillary and Obama are both talked about by name.
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While I always enjoy book recommendations, I tend to avoid heavily slanted books of any political ilk. Much like I won’t read any of the books out about the current president or political situation. History tends to sort itself out. I’m getting ready to read “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution” by Richard Beeman.
Your article is titled Zombie Patriotism.
Rules for Radicals addresses that on the left.
Just so you know, I vote the way I feel is correct. Back in the day, I would have voted for jfk.
Also, personally I hate politics, unfortunately, presently, serious decisions are having to be made. And in my opinion, we are at a point where we either defend the constitution, or it will be destroyed.
I served it and old glory for 21 years, I plan to continue to defend them now.
Serious decisions are not, however, being made by you or I. We’re just more noise on the internet. Glad to hear you vote, though!
FYI, talking about reading.
I believe in reading widely.
I am a Christian, but am currently reading the Koran as well as my daily Bible reading.
I can’t talk to Islam if I do not know about it.
I always think it is interesting to find all the parallels between ancient texts.
Just discovered your blog and it is so well written and excellent. Thank you
Thanks – that’s very kind of you!