Recently by Fred Reed: How We Were
Patriotism is everywhere thought to be a virtue rather than a mental disorder. I don’t get it.
If I told the Rotarians or an American Legion hall that “John is a patriot,” all would approve greatly of John. If I told them that patriotism was nothing more than the loyalty to each other of dogs in a pack, they would lynch me. Patriotism, they believe, is a Good Thing.
Of course the Japanese pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor were patriots, as were the German soldiers who murdered millions in the Second World War. The men who brought down the towers in New York were patriots, though of a religious sort. Do we admire their patriotism?
Of course not. When we say “John is a patriot,” we mean “John is a reliable member of our dog pack,” nothing more. The pack instinct seems more ancient, and certainly stronger, than morality or any form of human decency. Thus, once the pack – citizenry, I meant to say – have been properly roused to a pitch of patriotism, they will, under cover of the most diaphanous pretexts, rape Nanking, bomb Hiroshima, kill the Jews or, if they are Jews, Palestinians. We are animals of the pack. We don’t admire patriotism. We admire loyalty to ourselves.
The pack dominates humanity. Observe that the behavior of urban gangs – the Vice Lords, Mara Salvatrucha, Los Locos Intocables, Crips, Bloods – precisely mirrors that of more formally recognized gangs, which are called “countries.” Gangs, like countries, are intensely territorial with recognized borders fiercely defended. The soldiers of gangs, like those of countries, have uniforms, usually clothing of particular colors, and they “throw signs” – make the patterns of fingers indicating their gang – and wear their hats sideways in different directions to indicate to whom their patriotism is plighted. They have generals, councils of war, and ranks paralleling the colonels and majors of national packs. They fight each other endlessly, as do countries, for territory, for control of markets, or because someone insulted someone. It makes no sense – it would be more reasonable for example to divide the market for drugs instead of killing each other – but they do it because of the pack instinct.
Packery dominates society. Across the country high schools form basketball packs and do battle on the court, while cheerleaders jump and twirl, preferably in short skirts (here we have the other major instinct) to maintain patriotic fervor in the onlookers. Cities with NFL franchises hire bulky felons from around the country to bump forcefully into the parallel felons of other cities, arousing warlike sentiments among their respective fellow dogs.
Such is their footballian enthusiasm that they will sometimes burn their own cities in delight at victory or disturbance at loss. Without the pack instinct, football would hardly matter to them at all.
It’s everywhere. The Olympics, the World Cup, racial groups, political parties – Crips and Bloods, all.
Part of patriotism is nationalism, the political expression of having given up to the pack all independence of thought.
Patriotism is of course incompatible with morality. This is more explicit in the soldier, a patriot who agrees to kill anyone he is told to kill by the various alpha-dogs – President, Fuehrer, emperor, Duce, generals.
Is this not literally true? An adolescent enlists, never having heard of Ruritania, which is perhaps on the other side of the earth. A year later, having learned to manage the Gatlings on a helicopter gunship, he is told that Ruritania is A Grave Threat. Never having seen a Ruritanian, being unable to spell the place, not knowing where it is (you would be amazed how many veterans of Viet Nam do not know where it is) he is soon killing Ruritanians. He will shortly hate them intensely as vermin, scuttling cockroaches, rice-propelled paddy maggots, gooks, or sand niggers.
The military calls the pack instinct “unit cohesion,” and fosters it to the point that soldiers often have more loyalty to the military than to the national pack. Thus it is easy to get them to fire on their own citizens. It has not happened in the United States since perhaps Kent State, but in the past the soldiery were often used to kill striking workers. All you have to do is to get the troops to think of the murderees as another group.
If you talk to patriots, particularly to the military variety, they will usually be outraged at having their morality questioned. Here we encounter moral compartmentation, very much a characteristic of the pack. If you have several dogs, as we do, you will note that they are friendly and affectionate with the family and tussle playfully among themselves – but bark furiously at strangers and, unless they are very domesticated, will attack unknown dogs cooperatively and kill them.
Similarly the colonel next door will be honest, won’t kick your cat or steal your silverware. Should some natural disaster occur, work strenuously to save lives, at the risk of his own if need be. Yet he will consciencelessly cluster-bomb downtown Baghdad, and pride himself on having done so. A different pack, you see. It is all right to attack strange dogs.
The pack instinct, age old, limbic, atavistic, gonadal, precludes any sympathy for the suffereings of outsiders. If Dog pack A attacks intruding dog pack B to defend its territory, its members can’t afford to think, “Gosh, I’m really hurting this guy. Maybe I should stop.” You don’t defend territory by sharing it. Thus if you tell a patriot that his bombs are burning alive thousands of children, or that the embargo on Iraq killed half a million kids by dysentery because they couldn’t get chlorine to sterilize water, he won’t care. He can’t.
The same instinct governs thought about atrocities committed in wartime. In every war, every army (correctly) accuses the other side of committing atrocities. Atrocities are what armies do. Such is the elevating power of morality that soldiers feel constrained to lie about them. But patriots just don’t care. Psychologists speak of demonization and affecting numbing and such, but it’s really just that the tortured, raped, butchered and burned are members of the other pack.
I need a drink.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.