Vanessa Hicks photography
The photo that generated so much chatter and criticism online last week.
Source: Vanessa Hicks photography

It’s been called the last refuge of scoundrels. It is undeniably linked to “us-against-them” tribal impulses, rooted in emotion and often impervious to reason. It feeds nationalism and militarism, making it a potentially dangerous phenomenon in a world of modern weaponry. Yet patriotism—outward, vocal, and enthusiastic patriotism—is still considered a vital element in American politics, an aspect of our culture that we not only tolerate but encourage.

To many humanists, this is worth rethinking.

The American patriotic impulse was on display last week as a controversy erupted over a photo, shown above, of a baby cradled in a flag. The venom of so-called patriots permeated the blogosphere and social media, as photographer Vanessa Hicks was on the receiving end of intense vitriol. For depicting a baby wrapped in the red, white, and blue, Hicks was called “disgraceful” and even told that she should kill herself.

Hicks, who happens to be a veteran, fended off the cyber bullying and gained many supporters in the process, with many agreeing that the photo was indeed patriotic (not to mention cute). The father of the baby is a military man, Hicks pointed out, as she rebuffed the notion that the photo should be considered “desecration” of the flag. Nevertheless, the scrutiny and criticism continued. “Is this photo unpatriotic?” asked CNN and just about every other major media outlet, making it one of the top stories in the week’s news cycle.

The real question here, however, should be why a controversy erupted at all. Even if some people didn't like the photo, surely nobody could ascribe bad intentions to the photographer. The very fact that the photo generated such widespread hostility and vitriol is a sign that the patriotic impulse is getting out of hand in America.

Whereas a healthy love of country would nurture a sense of unity and common values in an atmosphere of intelligence and maturity, modern American patriotism has instead become a vehicle for division and aggression. Ugliness in the name of patriotism has occurred in the past in America—the Palmer raids and McCarthy era are easy examples—but modern times easily rival those periods, as patriotism has become increasingly zealous, immune to critical thinking, and unquestioningly militaristic.

Reverence for patriotic symbols has become paramount in America, as citizens place ribbon magnets on their SUVs and political candidates are questioned when they fail to wear a flag on their lapel. Such gestures are easy to make (a candidate with a flag pin, after all, is hardly exhibiting political courage, and even a terrorist could put a yellow ribbon on his vehicle) but nevertheless they are seen as evidence of true patriotism.

Unbeknown to many Americans, particularly young people, much of this heightened patriotism is relatively new. Flag pins have become compulsory accessories for politicians only in the last generation, and it is the post-9/11 era that has given rise to widespread ribbon magnets and "God Bless America!" recitals at major league baseball games. (As I've pointed out elsewhere, many of America's common patriotic symbols and gestures, from "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the national motto of "In God We Trust" to use of "God bless America" in political speeches, are much newer than many realize.)

Amid all of this symbolic and emotional expression of patriotism, critical thinking is rarely encouraged. Out of concern for American troops being sent to the Middle East to die, for example, one could seek out information on the underlying reasons for strife in the region—an intellectual journey that would go back at least a century and reveal an array of colonialism, western-backed coups, and exploitation—but this is much more difficult than slapping a magnet on one’s car, and it might lead one to question the wisdom of militaristic policies that benefit from blind patriotism.

This aversion to facts is a defining characteristic of modern American patriotism. As Americans wave their flags and puff out their chests with national pride, they are oblivious to facts relevant to their own civil discourse. Only 35 percent of Americans could name even a single justice on the Supreme Court, according to the New York Times. The same piece revealed that 30 percent could not name the vice president, while even fewer could place the American Revolution in the correct century. It only gets worse when we ask Americans to consider facts outside their own borders. Reports show that as many as 85 percent cannot locate Iraq on a map and more than half can’t locate India.

This staggering lack of knowledge, combined with a blind and emotional patriotism, is a formula for disaster. The result is a proliferation of uninformed American exceptionalism that is akin to a social narcissism, a self-centered sense of importance and superiority that can have dire consequences.

Consider that when America marched to war in Iraq in 2003, driven by an unstoppable wave of patriotism and militarism, seven in ten Americans falsely and inexplicably believed that Iraq was responsible for the September 11 attacks—a shocking ignorance that led to incalculable destruction and misery. And we continue to see the effects of misguided patriotism play out in the state of affairs in the country. Today’s divisive political arena and dysfunctional government are the natural result of a system that responds to such uninformed and hyper-patriotic demographics.

Love of one’s country—its culture, its people, its history, etc.—is an understandable human phenomenon, perfectly natural and not inherently problematic. A healthy patriotism would reflect that attachment without simultaneously stirring up egotism, aggression, and hostility. Sadly, such is not the state of American patriotism today.

David Niose’s latest book is Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

Follow on Twitter: @ahadave

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