By Jack Taper
I hate America. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.
— Tony Kushner, Angels in America
You have heard it said in recent days — woe unto the soldiers, whose livelihood, if not their lives, have been sacrificed for your freedom and all that word entails, the sum of which can be represented wholly in the form of a song and a flag and, if the performative nature of 21st century Conservatism can be believed, nothing else. For many Americans, this idolatrous worship of the flag, as well as “The Star Spangled Banner”, functions as a fetish — not only literally, in the spiritual sense, but also figuratively, in the psychosexual sense, at least for the men. Never before has manliness (whatever that means) been so densely concentrated in one’s “love for his country”, and the manifestation of that love so deeply entrenched in his reverence for the flag and the anthem. In a spiritual sense, any material conditions that affect people who exhibit a sense of “otherness” can be blissfully ignored under the holy light of “liberty”.
As far as flags are concerned, it seems like excess for an object created for the sole purpose of identification in foreign harbors, but we should give it the benefit of the doubt: in its current capacity, it functions well as a magnet for the most chauvinistic and reactionary elements of American society, so the Left cannot call it completely useless. We should be thankful that what has only been regarded as sacred in recent history can now be reduced to something with which only the slightest hint of irreverence makes it easy to determine which comment sections you won’t be engaging with on your cigarette break, which subjects to avoid at the water cooler, and who might not be invited to Thanksgiving dinner this year.
What we have here is a rarely-occurring harmony between the elephant in the room and the choir of eggshells. It’s what everybody’s talking about, but it’s also what nobody is saying. There is a tremendous amount of proto-fascist glorification of death in the phrase, “Protesting during the National Anthem is an insult to the troops who defend our freedom”, or, “Kneeling for the flag disrespects the soldiers who fought and died defending it.”
There is some poetic irony here. For the sake of winning arguments with strangers on the Internet, we take peoples’ sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and feed them en masse to a toy war machine of our own design. This machine exists for the sole purpose of keeping a red, white and blue cloth clean, presentable, and immune to scrutiny from the Soros-funded liberal keyboard commandos on Facebook.
It’s similar to what the real war machine does — it takes our loved ones and ships them to every corner of the world, compelling them to kill other peoples’ loved ones, and when those people become radicalized terrorists, our loved ones are expected to kill them, too. When those conflicts create refugee crisis, those refugees come to our rich country’s doorstep where many are turned away. Our loved ones come back as shells of the people they were previously, often lacking access to quality health care and mentally deteriorating, while those like Lockheed Martin boasts of high stock prices and major sporting events honor veterans in a way that seems less like honor, but more like a recruiting tactic. These tactics use the uniquely American ideals of honor, sacrifice and hard work and preach that these are accessible to anyone willing to go talk to their local recruiter today. In this Hell of our own creation, you can be anointed. Damn near deified, even, should you make the “ultimate sacrifice”.
People aware of the contradictions of the military industrial complex, refugee crises and the destabilization of various regions where their governments’ autonomies were violated by American imperialism, also tend to understand the institutional methods by which domestic support for these atrocities is gained. Edward Bernays, the asshole who developed the method and led the charge for public relations during the US-backed coup of Guatemala, literally wrote the book on it (Propaganda, 1928). We’ve had a lot of time since the early days to fine-tune the process for the 21st-century palate: to make a cause look noble, the “otherness” of someone must be demonized, so that when it is crushed by our military might, we are the ones that come off as heroic. What many call the “one-two punch of history”, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Market Crash of ‘08, refined this crusade in a holy and vengeful fire.
It’s easy to find this kind of active demonization in the wild, in particular, when reactionaries start to cite statistics about black-on-black violence, which divorces the mind from material realities of poverty and exploitation that accelerated certain patterns of violence in those communities in the first place. Enter the police, equally as deified as the military (and increasingly, equally equipped), who stand between the comfort of whiteness and the contradiction of blackness, where every wrong move is worthy of a death sentence. It’s the type of rabid “whataboutism” that results in a feedback loop where one feels more patriotic with every dying body thrown under the bus.
Colin Kaepernick and the other NFL athletes were not protesting the anthem because they wanted to disrespect the troops or the flag. In his own words, Colin refused to demonstrate any kind of pride in a country that oppresses black people and other people of color, that kills them in the streets and feeds them to a bureaucratic monster that shits out paid leaves and non-indictments. Shit stinks enough already without having to sniff out certain aromas for things in the environment around you that might determine whether you live or die.
In order to reframe the argument, flag worshippers didn’t even have to ignore the reality of police violence. They can leave offerings at the altar of that false god while praying to another — active duty soldier and veterans — because they have both demonstrated their might and heroism in the same way: the systemic slaughter of people who look a lot like the evil football man, Kaepernick.
Whether wittingly or unwittingly, flag worshippers are the star-spangled death cult of the 21st-century, where solipsistic ideas about liberty thrive and where people of color, soldiers, and refugees go to die because that’s a sacrifice those privileged people are willing to make — which makes them patriots in their own minds.