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Quote of the Day: It’s Time to Renounce Nationalism by Howard Zinn

howard zinn

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking—cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on— have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours—huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction—what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early.

When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession.”

When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”

On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our “Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: “We believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.”

It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to war.

We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.

Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies.

How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for “liberty,” for “democracy”?

One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on September 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail in 2004 that God speaks through him.

We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.

— Howard Zinn, The Progressive, July 4, 2006

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    In recent years I have started feeling uncomfortable with the overt nationalism that is used to justify a myriad of actions. The message that our nation is ordained by a deity to bring liberty to the world is prevalent in our country. Yet we have our share of racism, misogyny, classism, etc, that attest otherwise. It is embarrassing to hear what my colleagues at our international offices think of America/ Americans. We come across as ignorant and arrogant, a dangerous combination. And Trump is a caricature of the worst characteristics.

  2. Avatar

    very thought provoking. perhaps some of us fell under the spell of nationalism as this is presented as the only way to keep our standard of living and safety. we know that people are fleeing terrible living conditions to get here, so how do we keep our standard of living if they bring their ways here without changing? I really want to be kind, but I am fearful that unrestricted immigration will transfer the danger and poverty here. I agree that war is promoted based on falsehoods, and would like to see this current war end. however, the people making profit from this war will never allow that to happen.

    • Avatar
      Grammar Gramma

      Mary, if you are not the descendant of a native American or a slave, you have descended from immigrants – very possibly illegal immigrants. Whites who got here first have ALWAYS feared that immigrants would “transfer the danger and poverty here.” People worried in their day, too, about what sort of disease immigrants would bring, and that they were filthy and undesirable. The U.S. is stronger and greater for all those immigrants. You worry about how you will keep your “standard of living if they bring their ways here without changing.” Traditionally, the first generation of immigrants don’t change too much, and they may bring their peculiar beliefs with them, but they are a part of what makes our country great. You can bet that their children and grandchildren embrace modern culture and integrate into society. Open your heart and your mind to what immigrants can bring us instead of defensively closing against them. You, they and our country will be better for it.

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