Appropriating Patriotism

In 2008, a baseball fan in Yankee Stadium was forcibly ejected by an officer for trying to go to the bathroom while “God Bless America” was playing during the 7th inning stretch. The man was Bradford Campeau-Laurion, a Boston Red Sox fan living in New York City who wanted to watch his team beat the Yankees in their territory. According to the New York Times, when Campeau-Laurion told the officer that releasing his bladder was more important than the song, the officer proceeded to drag him out of the stadium while also asking him to leave the country. 

The story broke after Campeau-Laurion wrote a letter in which he talked about the expulsion. In the letter, he emphasized that “nowhere on the Yankee Stadium ticket policy nor on any posted sign does it say that forced patriotism is a required element to attend a baseball game.” 

Patriotism has evolved to mean a lot of different things to a variety of people. David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, defined patriotism as “fondness for your country and land with no implicit militarism and no specific attitude of superiority.” 

An army recruiter, Lieutenant Benjamin Grove, said a patriot “is somebody who looks at the Unites States, or any country or organization they are a part of, and places that organization above [their wellbeing].”

And Kelly Dietz, a politics professor at Ithaca College, said “patriotism … welcomes critical reflection on the country and questions the privileging of military force as a solution to international problems.”

However, the consensus between Niose, Grove and Dietz is that, somewhere along the line, the distinction between patriotism and nationalism has been blurred. Nationalism is an extreme version of patriotism that calls for the use of force to protect a nation’s superiority, Niose said. 

Being in a constant state of war is the reason the line between patriotism and nationalism has been blurred in the United States, because nationalism often creates a militaristic mood which leads to patriotic feelings about one’s country, Niose added.

This is what Dietz would call the “militarization of everyday life,” a term that she has explored in the classes she teaches at Ithaca College as well as in her fieldwork. The militarization of everyday life can be seen in how military values have permeated American life under the guise of patriotism, the commercialization of American pride and in the overt corporate interest of the military industrial complex.

“For many Americans, their sense of national identity is strongly shaped by narratives of the U.S. military as a force for, and a source of, security, peace, democracy [and] freedom,” Dietz said.

There is a danger in the massive dependency on the military and one’s national identity being related to it, Noise said.
“We’re not so much a civilian culture anymore, but we’re a culture where all roads lead to the military for those who want to be successful,” he said. 

The post 9/11 G.I. Bill is one example of this. It states that the military can cover up to 100 percent of student tuition, depending on the economic situation and whether or not the cadet decides to become an officer or not. It also helps with the purchase of textbooks and provides a living stipend. 

These benefits are also granted if someone gets contracted while doing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program or attends Senior Military Colleges. Allowing families to send their children to college in exchange for that child’s military service grants more opportunities to those who might not have them. 

“For a lot of young people nowadays, joining the military is the only option … there is no affordable education by any other routes, there are no good jobs by any other route, so the system has kind of structured itself in a way that militarism is the only option,” Niose said. 

However, Niose also said this dependency on the military for societal advancement could lead to a somewhat grim future. The reason he is not comfortable with militarism is that he doesn’t believe it encourages critical thinking.

“If we as a society are exalting militarism and basically criticizing anyone who questions the benevolence of American militarism and American foreign policy … what we’re really doing is saying that critical thinking is no longer a cultural value in this country,” Niose said. 

Dietz shares the sentiment that this dependency on the military does not bode well. She said because the military does not encourage critical thinking, “this often leads to an unreflective positive valuation of the use of military force — by the US, that is — as well as support for using national resources to sustain U.S. military power.” 

Here lies the danger of patriotism becoming militarism: substituting patriotism for an ism that uses the military to drive its superiority has allowed the U.S. to protect the military budget and market it. It has created a situation that many groups have taken advantage of. 

“Many of our largest corporations are military contractors,” Niose said when asked about how much corporate interest plays into the confusion of patriotism and militarism. 

An article in the independent news source Truthout from July 2015, emphasized how these military contractors need war to stay profitable. For example, the National Priorities Project, a private defense contractor, made over $5.5 billion in profit in 2014 and was also able to pay its CEO over $34 million. If no wars are being fought, the National Priorities Project loses profits for the year. 

The way that wars are perpetuated is through this conflation of patriotism and militarism, which often makes it seem like war is the only route to success in society. 

“There are a lot of people that believe that to be a part of a nation like the United States, it should be the duty of the citizens to serve their country in some way, shape, or form — to give [back] to the public,” Grove said. “Many people view that as military service.”

This understanding of civic duty and militarism is one of the reasons that the U.S. has not stopped fighting wars. Military contractors capitalize on the narrative of “serving your country,” in order to stay in business. The result is hyper-patriotic sentiments deeming the United States to be the best country in the world are drilled into people’s heads over and over again.

On a smaller scale, non-military related corporations also take advantage of this blind patriotism in other ways. 

“Businesses are going to be businesses,” Grove said. “They exist to make money, so they are going to exploit different patriotic tendencies to make money.”

Grove said he feels that because of the rise of commercialization, people have forgotten what it means to be a patriot as well as how to create an “American” identity. Many commercials allude to the idea that the purchase of a certain car or a particular grill will make you more American than purchasing something else. For example, Chevrolet’s slogan is “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” a list of things that harken to the “true” American patriot. 

Niose said corporations have taken advantage of the conflation between patriotism and nationalism. This is why instead of being about the history of the holidays themselves, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day have become some of the biggest sales of the year. 

“If the corporate interests realize that by fanning the flames of patriotism and nationalism, they are more likely to generate business themselves, then they’ll do it,” Niose said.

Military Contractors and corporations are not the only ones who do this; politicians also take advantage of these patriotic tendencies. Candidates almost always end speeches with “God Bless America,” or in this election, “Make America Great Again.”
“Politicians realize that the patriotic message is something that resonates, that it is something that is going to get them elected,” Niose said. “There are just a lot of interests that are benefited by the promotion of militarism or patriotism, so it’s not surprising that it resonates.”

But the problem becomes when patriotism is constructed as a nationalistic and militaristic ideology instead of as a feeling. As we see in the U.S. today, this mentality produces an overt and artificial excitement instead of a natural emotion. This accentuation of U.S. exceptionalism comes from the country’s violent history, and has created a culture of militarism and militaristic superiority. When militarism becomes confused with an intrinsic value, like the love of one’s country, it allows the country to be defined by its militaristic and capitalistic culture and not by constructive criticism.