With all due respect to two long-dead white men, patriotism is neither the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson claimed in the 18th century, nor is it the first, as Ambrose Bierce so eloquently commented a century later. Patriotism is the refuge of the duped, those willing to ignore history in favor of bread and circuses.
On Memorial Day this year expect a spectacle of flags to rival the massive unfurling that followed September 11. Politicians, mainstream media and corporate "sponsors" will all get into the act to perpetuate the myths that enable American mothers to allow their children's deaths in killing fields anywhere on the planet.
Words like honor, duty, freedom and democracy drop from the mouths of lying politicians as easily as drool from an infant and with about as much substance. Citizens have to be willing to accept the deceptions or the entire house of cards risks collapse.
Humans share a remarkable capacity to construct endless realities surrounding the same event. On Memorial Day, thanks to an endemic national unconsciousness of what history has been trying to tell us for centuries--were we to risk moving out of our comfort zone and face facts--most people will be waving flags, remembering family members who died for the failures of others, or swilling a beer over a barbecue unaware of anything other than a day off work.
Besides remembering the countless young slaughtered unnecessarily to preserve the fictions that keep the ruling class intact and the rest of us mesmerized by scandals, celebrity and mega-sports, Memorial Day is an apt time to consider the persons and events some would prefer left buried in history's ashes.
Despite our most-cherished belief that the United States is a free country, freedom of action and organization has always been controlled. Workers who attempted to organize unions before the federal government granted them the "right" to do so were certain to be fired, liable to be charged with conspiracy, or worse. The Molly Maquires, a group of Pennsylvania miners, saw several of its members hung based on the testimony of a hired infiltrator in 1877.
In Ludlow, Colorado, coal miners struck a mine owned by John D. Rockefeller in 1917. The state militia was called in--a common practice in labor actions--ostensibly to protect property but actually to help employers defeat strikers. Among the 39 people killed, in what has come to be called the Ludlow Massacre, were 11 children.
If you look hard enough, you can find the location of an Arizona internment camp used during World War II to house citizens who happened to be of Japanese ancestry. As if confinement were not enough humiliation, after the war many returned to their homes to find their farms, businesses and property expropriated.
Land theft, of course, is old news in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Broken treaties with tribes from coast to coast enabled America to realize its "manifest destiny," an ideology bred in arrogance, ignorance and greed. It was not uncommon for troops to entice whatever tribe they were trying to pacify at the time to a peace conference. Once the tribal members arrived, they were killed. On at least one occasion, poisoned food was used to rid the land of its original inhabitants.
Wounded Knee is one of the better known instances of butchery. On that occasion it was Sioux who suffered at the hands of the Seventh Cavalry. Over 300 Indians, many of them women and children, died in the snow when troops fired their new machine guns, then the latest in the technology of warfare, on the cold and starving Sioux.
If these moments in our history seem like relics of a harsher time, a time before we progressed to our modern selves, remember the thousands of African-Americans lynched by whites; remember the slavery and exploited immigrant labor that laid this nation's economic foundation; remember the continuing and growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
And remember that we are the only industrialized nation lacking a health care system assuring even a minimal level of coverage to all its citizens, and that our private prisons are a commodity listed on the stock exchange and house 25 percent of the world's prison population although Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population.
The history of the United States is riddled with instances of brutal injustice, political action motivated by mendacity, and wars fought to "protect" us from phantom enemies (anyone at anytime under any circumstances is fair game if the flow of oil or capital is threatened). But because the United States continues to maintain the fiction that it represents the beacon of freedom and democracy, because on some level we still believe we are providence's special "city on the hill," the nation's misdeeds appear particularly egregious.
This Memorial Day, between the cemetery visit and the picnic, remember that when a nation's government serves the interests of corporations over the interests of its citizens we have a political system known as fascism. And while America does not resemble the brutal regimes of World War II, it has the distinction of creating its own version, what one writer called "friendly fascism."
The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the words "with liberty and justice for all." Were it so, the American flag would indeed represent the best ideals of the nation's founders. But unless and until America lives up to its promise, it would be good to remember what Malcolm X had to say: "You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it."