In her 2001 Nation column ?Put Out No Flags,? Katha Pollitt wrote that she denied her thirteen-year-old daughter?s request to hang a flag out their window?a common expression of patriotic sentiment after September 11?because the flag ?stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.? Now, in her contribution to Dissent‘s “Intellectuals and Their America” symposium, she writes that she went too far in identifying the flag with ?racism and jingoism.? Although, as an intellectual, Pollit understands that the flag and patriotism have ?many meanings including anti-racism and rejection of ignorant chauvinism? she fails to take that knowledge to heart.
She now says of patriotism that we are ?inculcate[d]?virtually from birth [with] the notion that we have a moral obligation to put the country?s interest first, to love the United States above all other countries, and indeed above all else, not only because it is our home?because it is the best.? (emphasis added) This conception ignores our ordinary understanding of the words ?patriotism? and ?patriot.? The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines patriotism as ?Love and devotion to one?s country,? and a patriot as ?One who loves, supports and defends one?s country.? Ironically enough, given the present context, Pollit?s idea of patriotism serves as an excellent example of the same dictionary?s definition of chauvinism: ?1. Militant devotion to and glorification of one?s country; fanatical patriotism. 2. Prejudiced belief in the superiority of one?s gender, group, or kind.? The OED fleshes out the Heritage?s definition of chauvinism: ?Exaggerated and bellicose patriotism.? In short, Pollit is writing about chauvinism, not patriotism.
Her daughter had it right when she said that hanging the flag ?means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism.? Since the flag represents patriotic sentiment, it was an expression of solidarity in the immediate aftermath of September 11. To display it was an act very much like those of individuals who attend a funeral service, a wake, or a visit to a bereaved family, visits that serve as a recognition that all?family, friends, sympathetic acquaintances?are involved in a common misfortune. At the level of everyday life, the common misfortune is the loss of a member of a group, and the visits represent mutual support and reassurance that the group still retains its integrity. On a larger stage, such as that of September 11, this same recognition must of necessity be expressed more symbolically, through gestures like hanging a flag. Pollit fails to grasp this dimension of patriotism.
Still, under some circumstances?the loved one was the victim of an act of violence or, again on the larger stage, the victims were fellow citizens?a sense of loss can lead to anger and a bellicose demand for vengeance. This is what happened almost immediately after September 11: Patriotism morphed into chauvinism. The chauvinistic policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, combined with public desire for vengeance and prejudiced beliefs about Islam, led to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, it led to the Orwellian-named Patriot Act, which subverts many rights that mark a democratic society.
If for the likes of Bush and Cheney patriotism justified wars and weakening democratic institutions, Pollit?s conception of patriotism?the belief that American is ?the best??is responsible for a wide range of domestic evils, from a growing class rigidity to a loss of leisure time. In her vision of patriotism, it has a lot to answer for.
In ?Fathers and Sons? (Dissent Fall 1998) Michael Kazin cites a passage in Alfred Kazin?s preface to the 1995 edition of On Native Grounds in which his father describes his political state of mind as he began writing that book: ?critical of ?the system? and crazy about the country.? Love of country combined with a critical awareness of the country?s failure to live up to its own ideals: Here is a fine definition of the meaning of patriotism.
Photo: An American flag located at the National World War II Memorial (AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0)