Your Flag Decal

This is kind of a half-assed excuse for spiritual thinking on my Sunday morning, but so it goes.

John Prine has a great song called “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, the chorus of which, following the title line, says

They’re already overcrowded
From your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killing
No matter what the reason for
And your flag decal won’t get you
Into heaven anymore

Obviously, written during Vietnam, just as relevant now in an anti-war sense, and directed at Americans. This morning, however, I’m inclined to note that we in Canada are not heavily involved in military action or militaristic thinking, and yet there’s something about this statement even outside the question of war.

When did patriotism in and of itself become a virtue? I’m not talking about whether one agrees with individual decisions of the government, the general direction of a particular political party, or even the underlying principles on which the nation operates. I mean why is it considered a good thing to have pride in our country, such that the discussion is always framed in terms of “Yes, I’m proud to be Canadian/American, but…” or “It’s not unpatriotic to criticize” and people look at you like you’re a crazy person if you say “Actually, you’re right, I think patriotism is a horrible idea”. The idea of questioning the concept is not on their radar.

Biblically, we are to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but certainly to have nothing more primary than Christ. We’re also supposed to eradicate pride (though I would argue that the way this term has come to be used to counteract shame in marginalized communities is a different concept from the one we’re expected to eliminate) and love our neighbour, with Jesus and the early church defining neighbour in ever-expanding terms. I’m absolutely grateful for the privileges I enjoy as a Canadian citizen, for the political structures that allow me freedom and a measure of personal security, and I take responsibility to be a fully participating member of this society. But I was two when the Charter of Rights & Freedoms came into being, I certainly wasn’t born in 1867 and the accomplishments of Canadian Nobel Peace Prize winners or politicians have absolutely nothing to do with me as an individual.

John Prine’s point stands whether we’re flag-waving about a war or not. At one point he describes someone who puts so many flag decals on their truck windshield, he can’t see a thing and drives it into a tree. The point is obvious in terms of overdoing it, but it’s also saying that, you know, if we’re emphasizing this one material symbolic element as primary, we might actually be unable to see the road that’s spiritually mapped out for us.

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9 thoughts on “Your Flag Decal

  1. Oliver Jones says:

    I’d suggest that you approach the issue of patriotism genealogically, rather than discursively. American patriotism can be read as something of a metamorphoses, or a revaluation of feudal reverence for king and country, recast as reverence for the office, the institution and the dominion – rather than the state itself, or its players.
    The advent of the Republic necessitates that the symbolic unity of the state be recast, but it doesn’t overrule the impulse to subject citizens and their will to symbolic unity.

    Canadian patriotism has a similar genealogy, and I’d suggest in that it has the same parents: Mother Britannia and Papa Liberal Democracy.

  2. purtek says:

    Which leads to an interesting question in terms of the way patriotism has come to be seen as near-sacred–it seems like a metaphorical stretch, but in a way it’s related to the ‘honour thy father and thy mother commandment’.

    I actually mean that, because even though we don’t consciously conceptualize the nation and its ideals as parental, there’s a component of ‘honouring where you came from’ and what makes us as individuals who we are, that connects it to respecting and being grateful for the forces and institutions almost for their own sake.

    These thoughts are kind of gestating (so to speak) in response to your comment, so sorry if this makes no sense, but thanks for the thinky-type push. 🙂

  3. Jay says:

    “When did patriotism in and of itself become a virtue?”

    Patriotism is like courage…it is a virtue in moderation, a vice when taken to extremes. Courage taken to extreme becomes recklessness; patriotism taken to extreme becomes jingoism.
    One might as well ask “why is courage a virtue?”. Any attribute is considered virtuous if it is held as admirable and beneficial by the average man.
    Why is courage admirable/virtuous? Because it represents sublimation of self towards a higher purpose. Because it represents working for the greater good, for the benefit of one’s neighbors. Because it represents adherence to an ideal, greater than the self, yet more tangible than religion.

    Perhaps part of the problem is definitive…patriotism is not “having pride in one’s country”. It is love for and devotion to one’s country. Anyone can say they’re proud of their country; it does not make them a patriot. If one loves one’s country, it means that one is willing to do things on behalf of one’s countrymen, and to promote/protect the ideals of one’s country. These things take work and sacrifice, not merely lip service.

    “I mean why [do] people look at you like you’re a crazy person if you say “Actually, you’re right, I think patriotism is a horrible idea”. ”

    I don’t think you’re crazy…but I do wonder on what you’re basing the notion. If it’s simply, “because patriotism can cause great harm”, then one might as well throw out religion as well…the two are parallels, in that they are belief systems that can be either productive or destructive, depending on the people who possess them and what is done with them.

    “it’s also saying that, you know, if we’re emphasizing this one material symbolic element as primary, we might actually be unable to see the road that’s spiritually mapped out for us.”

    This is quite true…and I would never place love of country over love of family, or love of God. This does not mean I don’t love my country, or that my love for my country in some way weakens my love for family or God. Cannot the three co-exist? I am capable of infinite love.

    What are your reasons for feeling that patriotism is a horrible idea? Do they apply to all forms of patriotism, or only corrupt “patriotism” (jingoism/nationalism in masquerade)? Is it necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

    Nearly any good belief system or institution can be used for ill; this does not make them bad things.

    A final comment about your equating patriotism with “honoring thy father/mother”. I think that’s actually a great concept…but just as I think one should love one’s parents for the good they provide, and forgive the sins, one should love one’s country for the good it has done, and forgive the bad. And with nations, we (as adults) have a chance to set right some of the ills our country may have done…we seldom get that opportunity with our parents.

    (man, it’s great to debate with you again…as always, no offense intended, hope none was given)

  4. purtek says:

    Definitely good to debate with you again. Not even a little offense given, and lots of thought provoked.

    What are your reasons for feeling that patriotism is a horrible idea? Do they apply to all forms of patriotism, or only corrupt “patriotism” (jingoism/nationalism in masquerade)? Is it necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

    I’m actually questioning why there was a baby/bathwater construction in the first place. I’m not saying it’s inherently a horrible idea, I’m just kind of wondering why it should be a good one, not just because it can be corrupted, but because the notion of ‘nation’/’country’ is really quite arbitrary. Why, because I was born in Canada, should I value ‘Canadian’ ideals more than others, on presumption of patriotism? Why should I stand up for the principles on which this country was founded and operates if, upon careful reflection and critical analysis, I end up thinking some other country was founded on better ones? Would I still be expected to praise patriotic ideals if I lived in a country founded on dictatorial principles? That points to the road along which corruption lies, but it also points to what I see as the absurdity of patriotism.

    I agree with you that many of the virtues associated with patriotism, including courageous self-sacrifice, thought of others before self and an expanding community, are in fact virtues. But why does that thought stop at politically defined borders? That wouldn’t be ‘infinite’ love, it’s actually setting limits on it. So is patriotism ultimately limiting the ways in which we’re willing to sacrifice for our neighbours?

    I’m not saying I fully believe that patriotism is all bad, actually…I’m mostly asking questions about the framework.

    I also think I’m having about 100,000 swirling thoughts about metaphors relating God, country, and parenting, and I doubt I’ll ever have time to make them concrete.

  5. Jay says:

    “Why, because I was born in Canada, should I value ‘Canadian’ ideals more than others, on presumption of patriotism?”

    You shouldn’t, necessarily. Someone who is patriotic about their nation simply due to the fact that they were born there is an unthinking drone. Again, let us refer to the parent-child analogy, which I am very thankful to you for coming up with, as it is incredibly apt.

    Merely because your parents conceived you, you have no obligation (IMO) to love or respect them (biblical exhortations notwithstanding). If your father was a jackass who impregnated your mother and then left when you were 3 months old and never bothered to speak to you again, I don’t feel you are obliged to love and respect him just because his semen happened to create you. Hell, I don’t feel you need to acknowledge him “your father”…if your mother remarried to a kind, decent man, HE is your father, and the hell with genetics.
    Likewise, just because you are born in a country, you are under no obligation to love or respect it for that reason alone. Still with me? 🙂

    I have nothing but bafflement for children who love parents that treat them cruelly. Similarly, people who are patriotic about nations whose policies are vile (Stalinist USSR, for example) are confusing to me, and somewhat pitiable.

    One loves one’s parents because they reared you, cared for you, taught you, protected you, gave you things you needed, shaped you into the person you are (hopefully, a good one). Similarly, one is patriotic about one’s country because that country’s ideals and policies provided you with a home and setting that shaped who you are (hopefully good) and allowed you to flourish.
    Also, one loves one’s family (sometimes) out of a sense of community…I have grandparents and great-grandparents who I hardly knew (I was a kid when they died), but who I have learned about and respect and wish I had known better. As far as one’s country, it is quite possible (even likely) to have similar attitudes towards previous leaders, shapers, and even founders of a nation (I have this attitude towards some of the Founding Fathers of the USA, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry).

    Patriotism is only absurd if you make it so by your definitions. I think part of this stems from a disconnect (whether between you and I, or between different parts of society) about what patriotism really means.

    “But why does that thought [self-sacrifice, et al] stop at politically defined borders? That wouldn’t be ‘infinite’ love, it’s actually setting limits on it. So is patriotism ultimately limiting the ways in which we’re willing to sacrifice for our neighbours?”

    I don’t feel so. Again, let us use my other analogy, about how I can love family, God, and country all at once.
    Christ exhorts us to love our neighbors (and stresses that our neighbors are not just those from the same background/etc as ourselves), and indeed, even to love our enemies. However, I do not feel he insists we love everyone equally. Yes, he said we should “love our neighbors as ourselves”, but I feel that rather than a literal statement, that is a re-statement of the golden rule…treat others as we wish to be treated. I try to do that…but I don’t bother to hide the fact that I treat some people, those I love most dearly, better than I expect to be treated.
    Is it wrong that I would be more willing to die for my son or daughter than for a stranger? Am I not living Christ’s example of love fully enough? I don’t think so, personally…I do the best I can.
    Is it wrong that I love the ideals and foundations of the USA more than those of, say, Iran? Again, I don’t think so. And note that this says nothing about how I feel about the average citizen of either country…due to America’s (and my own) background, I am more likely to have both cause and opportunity to sacrifice on behalf of Americans than on behalf of Iranians, but this doesn’t mean I don’t care about Iranians.
    And I’m sorry if this sounds arrogant…but I while Americans are not (by birth or nature) any better than Iranians, the ideals and principles of America (those it was founded on) are IMO superior to those of countries like Iran, or North Korea.

    I don’t know…patriotism doesn’t, I feel, limit the ways I’m willing to sacrifice for others. But keep in mind, we can only sacrifice so much…I don’t know about you, but I haven’t renounced all my worldly possessions and dedicated my life totally to selfless service of all. As I live my life, I have a limited amount of opportunity to serve and protect…is it wrong that I serve and protect that which I feel is of great worth, and which will (and has) benefited the most people? People’s thoughts may differ…but despite any ills which America has caused, I still feel it has been an enormous force for good in the world, and in many ways still is, and will be again in the future.

    I think the major issue is to determine what patriotism is, and what it should be. You seem to think in encompasses such things as blind love of country and nationalist supremacy, whereas I see those things as perversions of patriotism.

  6. purtek says:

    Okay, I appreciate the acknowledgment of being allowed to not ‘honour’ crappy parents, either literally or by extension to nation, so I think we’ve reached some agreement on that front.

    Is it wrong that I would be more willing to die for my son or daughter than for a stranger? Am I not living Christ’s example of love fully enough? I don’t think so, personally…I do the best I can.

    Isn’t there somewhere in the gospels where Jesus actually says that it’s not enough to simply love and show love to those we are close to? I’m recalling something about how even the heathen can do that, and the Christian has to be above that by going so far as to actually love his enemy. My ability to find chapter and verse has always sucked, so forgive the vagueness.

    How loving one’s enemies manifests and whether that means equally to the love one feels for one’s family/other like-individuals is open for discussion, but I think it’s certainly calling us to question the assumption. Family and groups we belong to become extensions of self, so I think there’s the risk of having ‘protection of other’ act as merely a façade for what is ultimately ‘protection of self’.

    You seem to think in encompasses such things as blind love of country and nationalist supremacy, whereas I see those things as perversions of patriotism.

    This isn’t an entirely accurate assessment of what I’m arguing against, which is why it doesn’t seem like a ‘baby with the bathwater’ issue to me. It’s not merely that some of the bathwater is dirty, it’s (if you’ll forgive the crudeness here given the cliché) whether the baby was ever worth it in the first place. When we get rid of the perversions, what do we gain? I’m questioning in principle whether, as I said above, it is inherently about self-protection as well as pride.

    I’m also edging at the concept of whether there really is such a thing as an ‘ideal’ that sort of belongs to a country. I’m questioning the permanent assignment of an attribute, positive or negative, to an entity that is almost by definition transitory. I do this with people–I’m trying not to say that I inherently am anything, and genuinely accept that any feature could be changed by circumstance or will. It would seem even more logical to ask that about countries, which have even less physical existence that locks them into being a certain way.

    Regardless, can I not value democracy, freedom, respect for diversity, compromise, peace, order and good government for their own sake, rather than because they’re Canadian? If so, what does the layer of patriotism add to their value in my life and political beliefs? In fact, is it possible that the patriotic note, even before I get to the corruption that could happen, lessens my focus on the values themselves, distracting me with the symbol?

  7. Jay says:

    Well, crap. Now you’ve made an awesome point I really can’t argue with. 🙂

    Yes, I’ll concede that ultimately, it is more important to value democracy, freedom, et al as ideals in and of themselves rather than valuing them as attached to a country. Perhaps I’m just doubting whether those principles and ideals can or are likely to exist “in a vaccuum”. Just as it is more difficult for you to develop into a good person when you are raised by incredibly crappy role models, it is difficult to develop good values if the country you are raised in does not promote them. You don’t need to value them because they’re Canadian…but do you think perhaps part of the reason you value them is because you’re Canadian?

    You make a reasonable point about the transitory nature of nation-states. Much as I like to pretend America is monolithic and eternal, it has changed in it’s lifetime, and anyway, it’s lifetime is a mere couple of centuries…peanuts on the world scale.

    I don’t know, you’ve half convinced me. I see patriotism as valuable for what it can accomplish, but I have to admit that it is a means to an end, not a valuable end in and of itself (and further, as you point out, it is not the only means toward that end).

    And now I’ll make a slightly embarassing, but honest, admission…part of me loves patriotism because it simply makes me feel good. It is easier (for me, at least) to appreciate values and ideals when there’s a representative example, and one we can associate ourselves with at that. No, I don’t need to salute the flag or sing “The Star Spangled Banner” in order to value liberty and bravery; but it’s a good emotional reminder of those ideals. It’s something slightly more tangible that we can latch onto.
    I can value love, but it’s easier for me when I hear of some moving experience in my family history that demonstrates love, and I can think “I’m a part of that”. And I can value freedom, but when I hear songs or stories of people who embodied that, and I can think “I’m a part of that”…it simply feels good.

    Discussing the biblical aspect ( practically a side issue): I believe you are thinking of Matthew 5:46-47:
    “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans do the same?
    And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?”

    Now I can (and do) take that as a clear warning against what you said (giving love only when we get something back; serving ourselves through serving others). But it still doesn’t say that all love must be equal; only that we should not refuse to love on basis of membership or “what’s in it for us”. I read it more as an admonition against dividing people into groups, those who are your friends (that it’s okay to love) and those who are your enemies (that it’s okay to hate). I try not to hate anyone, and I’d give aid to anyone I saw in need, if I could, and not stop to ask whether they’re a member of my church/nation/whatever. But I still can’t help but love certain people more, and I don’t know how to avoid this. I love my wife more than just about all other women…what can I do about this? As long as I don’t treat other women badly, I don’t feel I’m neglecting Christ’s teaching. I don’t feel I need to treat them all as if they were my wife.
    (some of this is personal religious belief; my church believes marriage to be ordained of God, and that dedication to one’s spouse is right, natural, and according to divine purpose. Hence, it’s only proper that I love my wife and kids more than most people.)

  8. Jay says:

    Another thought…compare the relationship of patriotism & ideals to that of morals & religion. One does not need to belong to a religion or church in order to cultivate good morals or ethics…but I believe it certainly helps. And it’s valuable for it’s own sake, in that it is good to fellowship with other people who share your beliefs. Is not the same true of ideals and nations/communities?

    At core, one could consider nation-states nothing more than a bunch of people who all share the same ideals and like to live near each other. I’d love it if the entire world wanted to value liberty and equality…but until everybody does, I’m more content to live with people who do.

  9. […] No Comments Jay and I got into rather a long discussion about the nature of patriotism on my post Your Flag Decal, which is dovetailing into some other thoughts I’ve been wanting to get out. I should first […]

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