By David Swanson
Remarks at Saint Mary’s Hall, San Antonio, Texas, March 1, 2018
Thank you for inviting me. What I contended in the article that got me invited here was that one of the biggest taboos in the United States, one of the behaviors treated most as a heresy, as a violation of national religion, is disrespect for the U.S. flag, the national anthem, and the patriotic militarist exceptionalism that accompany those icons.
We’ve just seen a school shooting in Florida by a young man trained to shoot by the U.S. Army in the very school where he killed his classmates, and you will find virtual silence on that fact, and the silence is self-imposed. Veterans are over twice as likely, statistically, to be mass shooters, and you will not read that in any newspaper. (And, needless to say, it is not somehow grounds for engaging in bigotry toward veterans or for foregoing obvious solutions like banning guns.)
Progressive multi-issue activist coalitions are formed constantly in this country, the Climate March, the Women’s March, etc., and although the military is the top consumer of petroleum, although it sucks down 60% of the funding that Congress votes on, although it endangers us, erodes our liberties, and militarizes our police and our schools, it goes unmentioned. Foreign policy is unquestionable. Socialism includes no internationalism today.
So, there’s something very remarkable about demonstrating against racist police violence by departing from the mandatory body position during the national anthem. It garners attention because it is so very unusual.
And this is uniquely American. Many other countries reserve flags and anthems for international competitions and major occasions, not every adult or child sporting event. In much of the world if you even see any flag, you can ignore it without being suspended from school or shut out of your sports career. Kids have been suspended from U.S. schools for taking a knee as well as for refusing to pledge allegiance, Colin Kaepernick is unemployed, the U.S. President wants those who take a knee fired for “disrespecting our flag.” And that’s a step up from the Alabama Pastor who says anyone who takes a knee should be shot. (But the U.S. Vice President feels entitled to refuse to stand for a flag of Korean unity, despite the obvious passion for it of tens of thousands of people around him.)
Flag Day was created by President Woodrow Wilson on the birthday of the U.S. Army during the propaganda campaign for World War I. To my knowledge in only two countries do children regularly recite a pledge to a flag. The original stiff-arm salute they made in the U.S. was changed to a hand on the heart after a straight arm became associated with Nazism. Nowadays, visitors from abroad are often shocked to see U.S. children instructed to stand and robotically chant an oath of obedience to a piece of colored cloth.
U.S. families who lose a loved one in war are presented with a flag instead. A majority of Americans supports criminalizing the burning of a U.S. flag. The U.S. flag appears on Catholic altars in some states, as well as in other churches and sacred arenas.
Texas, with its own national war-making history, may be an exception, but for the most part people do not treat local or state or United Nations or world flags as sacred. It is exclusively the flag that accompanies a military that must be worshiped — a military that pays the National Football League millions of public dollars to perform pro-military ceremonies.
At least some of the players taking a knee will certainly tell you they love the flag (and the troops, and the wars). I have absolutely no interest in pretending to speak for them. They speak very well for themselves. But I am appreciative, whether they like it or not, of their willingness to protest racism by challenging flag worship. I think this is a benefit to both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. After all, freedom of religion rests fundamentally on the ability to refrain from engaging in sacred rituals.
Have you listened carefully to, or read the full lyrics to the U.S. national anthem? The third verse celebrates killing people who had just escaped from slavery. An earlier version had celebrated killing Muslims. The lyricist himself, Francis Scott Key, owned people as slaves and supported lawless police killings of African Americans. Strip the song down to its first verse, and it remains a celebration of war, of the mass killing of human beings, of a war of conquest that failed to take over Canada and instead got the White House burned. And during the course of that valorous piece of blood-soaked stupidity, Key witnessed a battle in which human beings died but a flag survived. And I’m supposed to stand, like an obedient mindless robot, and worship that glorious incident, and it’s supposed to matter what I do with my hand, but not what I do with my brain?
I take that back. I’m expected to switch my brain to low-power mode in order to take seriously claims to the effect that militarism protects my freedom, and that I should therefore give up some of my freedom for it. Before the U.S. attacked Iraq in 2003, the CIA said that the only scenario in which Iraq was likely to use any of its vast new stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction” was if Iraq was attacked. Apart from the nonexistence of the weapons, that was right. The same applies to North Korea. But if North Korea were able to and did launch a missile at the United States, that would still not constitute a threat to your freedoms in particular. It would be a threat to your life. With the age of conquest and colonization gone for three-quarters of a century, and with numbers suggesting that North Korea might need more than its entire population in order to occupy the United States, the chance that North Korea is a threat to your freedom is exactly zero.
But the bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya, and the threats to North Korea are generating a lot more enemies than they kill. So the threat to your life is real, although the threat to your life posed by automobiles, toddlers with guns, and dozens of other dangers is greater. And the militarism strips away freedoms in the name of protecting them. Recent wars have brought us warrantless surveillance, drones in the skies, lawless imprisonment, mass deportations, expanded government secrecy, whistleblowers imprisoned, public demonstrations contained in cages, metal detectors and cameras everywhere, inauguration protesters facing felony charges, and various powers moved from Congress to the White House.
A couple of weeks ago I did a public debate with a professor of ethics from West Point on whether war is ever justifiable. The video is at davidswanson dot org. I argued that not only can no war possibly meet the criteria of just war theory, but if one war could, it would have to do so much good as to outweigh all the damage done by keeping the institution of war around, including the risk of nuclear apocalypse, and including the death and suffering far greater than in all the wars created by the diversion of resources away from human and environmental needs. Three percent of U.S. military spending, for example, could end starvation globally. While I don’t get enough minutes to make the case for war abolition here, I bring it up to make the following point.
If you view war as an outdated institution, then you want to help everyone engaged in it to transition out of it. Did you know that the U.S. is the only nation on earth that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child which forbids the military recruitment of children, and that the U.S. military describes the JROTC, as in that school in Florida, as a recruitment program?
The propaganda technique of claiming that if you oppose a war you favor the other side in the war, and that if you oppose flag worship you hate the troops who make up the U.S. military, falls apart when you oppose all war making, and when you support only those enemies in the eyes of the Pentagon that threaten rather than boost its recruitment, namely: free college, free healthcare, good schools, and the general social benefits available to countries that don’t dump their treasuries into militarism. Mine are not the positions of a traitor, an insult I’m not fond of. Nor are they the positions of a so-called true patriot, a compliment I’m also not fond of. Patriotism is a problem. We don’t need to make America great or declare it already great; we need to recognize the greatness of our own entire and many other species on this fragile little planet.
Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Of course, a country has millions of flaws and of achievements. I propose not feeling pride or shame or identifying with a country or national government at all. I propose identifying with humanity and with smaller communities.
I also propose taking notice of the fact that the United States now bombs several nations at a time, none of which contain primarily people labeled “white.” “Why should they ask me,” said Muhammed Ali, “to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Why should they ask you even if people in Louisville were treated well? Protesting racist violence but not militarism is a million miles better than nothing. But it is still a major failure to protest racist violence.
Dr. King said we needed to take on racism, militarism, and extreme materialism together. He told the truth.
In a lyric that was sung at the Olympic opening ceremony, John Lennon advised: Imagine there are no countries. It isn’t hard to do. He lied. For most people it is very hard to do. But it is something we very badly need to work on.