A Critical Eye on Our Stars and Stripes

According to U.S. Code 700, “Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces,
physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground or tramples upon
any U.S. flag shall be fined or imprisoned for no more than a year or both.” In
other words, desecrating an emblem representative of the United States is
analogous to committing a misdemeanor such as petty theft or simple assault. It
is an infraction against the amorphous entity that is the United States and an overt demonstration of disloyalty to it.

Although it’s reasonable that such behavior should
be condemned for being fruitless and senselessly
inflammatory, anti-patriotism as a perceived threat to the nation raises
compelling questions about patriotism itself. To what extent do patriotic
sentiments shape sociopolitical discourse and behavior? How do exhibiting
national allegiance and endorsing state interests shape the identities of both
citizen and state? What is the difference between patriotism and nationalism,
and when does pledging allegiance to the flag begin to sound ominously like
xenophobic propaganda?

In light of the recent controversy surrounding that Pomona
College fraternity’s self-advertised “U.S. themed” event, students—both at the
Claremont Colleges and outside of them—have brought up some of the problematic implications of championing a country built on
contentious values and historical events. Although I fully endorse my classmates’
commitment to debunking the “liberal idealist” myth that pervades our nation’s
high school history classes, it is not the historical implications of promoting
patriotism that I find most problematic, but rather the often-blind deference
to an anthropomorphized military state that fosters such patriotic zeal to begin

I am wary of institutional ideologies; when
individuals defer judgment to an administrative system, that system
reaps power from a complacent people. It sounds to me like tribalism. And
around every tribal alliance is an orbit of suspicion toward perceived
outsiders. The fact of the matter is that many patriots do lean precariously
toward nationalism, identifying closely with a national identity to such
an extent that those individuals champion their nation above all others.

This is an outdated and
reductive attitude, given our increasingly international community. Our
cultures and values are not limited by geography. We will be inevitably
compelled to loosen our national identities to fit with all the other
facets of our identities, which are now being stretched across the globe as a
result of increased transcultural social interactions. Those whose ideological
principles are shaped by geographical boundaries are suffering from a
historical hangover in serious need of relief.

That being said, I am no fanatic libertarian. National
governments necessarily are, and should be, bureaucratic systems—as opposed to
extremist theocracies, for instance. They are important in that they are, at
least theoretically, shaped by the moral and cultural norms of their
respective nations. But eulogizing the values and actions of a country without question is a passive misdemeanor in and of itself.

I believe we must identify the ideological
roots of our beliefs and any problematic implications they might support. Patriotism can be the most pernicious of dogmas because the nation in which we live, and the government to which we defer, influences the outcomes of our daily actions—and
because when it comes to our national governments, we know very little and entrust
a lot. We run the risk of becoming blindly obedient to an institution that
garners power from our ignorance. We run the risk of inadvertently supporting
social and ethical transgressions, and of promoting ourselves at the exclusion
of others.

Although I’m as sentimental about sparklers and Fourth of July parades as
any young American, I urge us all to remain wary of the
overarching ideologies and communities with which we identify, and to constantly
inform ourselves about the policies and values that we are endorsing when we
promote patriotism. As the concept of a unified national identity becomes
increasingly muddled, we must cease to identify as patriots before identifying
as the rational individuals that we are. 

Camille Goering PO ’16 is studying English and international relations.

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