One of the heroes of my youth was Kurt Vonnegut, whose ability to spot falseness in society has never been equaled. One of his best novels was Cat's Cradle, which was a pretty scathing indictment of everything that is false about religion and science and politics. Here is a passage from Wilkepedia about Vonnegut and the novel:
A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle), is defined as a "false karass" (imagined community). That is, it is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. The most common granfalloons are associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise. As examples, Vonnegut cites: "the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere." A more general and oft-cited quote defines a granfalloon as "a proud and meaningless association of human beings." Another granfalloon example illustrated in the book was Hoosiers, of which the narrator (and Vonnegut himself) was a member.
At age 13, when I first read the book, I knew that Vonnegut had exactly depicted the peculiar and irrational human habit of joining together into false clubs. In the 40 years since, I've seen nothing to tell me that Vonnegut was wrong.
In that spirit, and flying in the face of the Memorial Day spirit, I'd like to state for the record that I think patriotism (defined as loyalty to an entity called "nation") is a completely irrational and dangerous practice.
I am all for loyalty to family, to friends, to principles, to basic humanist values. But loyalty to a nation makes no sense at all to me, because I see the concept of "nation" as the most contrived and artificial of all concepts.
This morning on the bus-ride to work, we passed an SUV with three tattered flags flying from window-mounted plastic flag staffs: one was a Kiwanas flag, one was a Green-Bay Packers flag, and one was a grimy and tattered American Flag.
Folks, this is pretty much the essence of patriotism these days. Whenever I see an American flag decal on a bumper or automobile window, I know the chances are good that I'm looking at a car owner who has deliberately chosen to turn off his or her brain and automatically follow a herd mentality, going wherever some shrewd and conniving politicians have decided to push them.
The recently passed and comically named "patriot act," for example, doesn't even make a pretense about it goal of violating the basic principles of liberty and human rights, simply because it is in "America's" best interests. How very calculating it is to give such legislation the name "patriot act." After all, how could one disagree with such a thing?
The national Republican Presidential Convention is being held here in Minneapolis this fall, and already we're being told where and when we might be allowed to quietly express our disagreement with current national policy. Free speech is no longer our right, except in a 1-block radius as defined by politicians. This, in case you don't know it, is one provision made possible by the so-called Patriot Act.
In a nearby small town, several students were expelled because they refused to recite the pledge of allegiance. They believed that "one nation under God" was an inaccurate statement of patriotism, considering that the school included Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim and Native American students as well as Christians, but they were expelled for this free expression of their own beliefs.
In the name of "patriotism," citizens by the droves are seeking to close our borders to anyone whose last name strikes them as somehow foreign. The irony of this hovers on the tragic, since I've heard people argue this case who have last names like Schmidt (German), Olson (Norwegian), and McClellan (Scottish)—people with grandparents who immigrated to this continent less than 100 years ago.
If I were king of the world, I'd abolish the concept of "nation" altogether, since the idea that you can restrict the movement of human beings around the planet makes about as much sense as thinking you can control birds migrating, or plant seeds blowing on the winds. How in the world can we really suggest that there is such a thing as ownership of ground beneath our feet? Borrowed use, stewardship, perhaps. Maybe even legal rental of land. Ownership? No.
My belief is this: loyalty to ideals is a supreme virtual. Defend your family, your friends. Pledge allegiance to truth, to compassion. But loyalty to a company or religion or organization or nation (patriotism) is logical only to the extent that it reflects the principles for which you stand. If you haven't demanded that your nation do so, you are doing an evil and unconscious thing by waving its flag.
On Memorial Day, I will silently salute those soldiers who have fought and died in the clear-headed goal of protecting human freedom. And I will feel sorrow and pity for all of those who were killed or maimed when they went to war simply because their nation told them to.