Have you ever heard any politician refer to America as just “America” in a speech? Usually it’s at least “this great nation”. And everybody knows America is the greatest country in the world because Americans have heard that since they were toddlers. If you watch Fox News, you probably hear it several times a day. So it must be true, right?
What’s so terrible about believing that America is the best country in the world, you ask? Well, if you believe that your country is the best, then by extension you also believe that all other countries are inferior to yours. And you can’t possibly ever learn anything from inferior countries. It aggravated me no end, the first decade or so that I lived in the States, that America seemed to always be reinventing the wheel, and then patting itself on the back for things Europeans had had for half a century, like tankless water heaters and front-loading washing machines, not to mention universal healthcare and retirement, which America still isn’t even close to having, and I felt the need to tell people about this, so they’d know something better was possible, because they sure weren’t going to hear it on CNN.
That has changed thanks to Internet. Millennials get it: America lags behind in just about everything but computer technology and the size of its nukes. But I can’t seem to stop–even now, I still share the hell out of news clips about Dutch trains now running entirely on wind, China having the biggest floating solar farm, etc. But I digress. The point is that it’s very hard to change the national mindset to curiosity if you’re constantly shouting from the rooftops that you’re the best.
To change from nationalism to patriotism, the language has to change. Not that you can’t ever refer to America as this great nation, but maybe not all the time. And that America is the greatest country in the world is an opinion, not a fact, so stop treating it as one.
Mythologizing language is an important aspect of nationalism. It tends to make everything black and white, good and bad. America is the best, bad people are monsters and good people are heroes. America is the shining city on the hill, the police are our men in blue, or New York’s finest, the military is usually referred to as the brave men and women in uniform/the armed forces, etc.
The problem with this kind of language, when it’s as pervasive as it is in the American public sphere, is that it brooks no contradiction. Humans can’t be held accountable for the behavior of monsters, and heroes are untouchable. It’s hard to bring up police violence with someone who just referred to the police as our brave men in blue. And just look at the knee-jerk reaction that many folks have when NFL players kneel during the national anthem. They’re disrespecting our soldiers, our veterans, the brave men and women in uniform! How dare they!
The very idea has many folks breaking down in hysterics. The other day a truck driving by got my attention; it had a mannequin in the back, dressed in military uniform, helmet and all, spray-painted army green all over like a life-size plastic toy soldier. It was holding it’s hand over it’s heart while holding a smallish American flag in that same hand, and in its other hand it was holding a huge flag. Mythologizing language makes certain groups of people untouchable, can even elevate them to the level of gods, and it can lead to a sense of indignation that’s just plain nuts when someone is perceived as having insulted them.
In order to tamp down nationalism, we must drop the mythologizing language. There’s no such thing as monsters. And–dare I even say it?–there’s no such thing as heroes. There are just people who sometimes do atrocious things and sometimes great things. But we are all people and therefore capable of both, and we should all be held accountable when we commit atrocities.
Apart from the nationalist and mythologizing words and phrases used in almost every political speech on both the left and the right, there is the tone. To Dutch standards it’s all demagoguery. The definitions vary, but this one is what I mean when I use the word:
Demagogue: A person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions and prejudices of the people.
Whether it’s Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren, American politicians spend a lot of their talk getting the crowd riled up with soundbites–making them feel good about themselves and angry about someone or something else–rather than using the time to explain intelligently and fully where they stand on the topic they’re addressing. You could change the words of a speech into those of a language you don’t understand, and you’d still know exactly at which moments you’re supposed to roar your agreement or boo in disgust, based on the tone and the volume of the speech.
So tone down the nationalistic language in the public sphere. More on how to do that if you’re not one of the people holding the speeches and rallies later on. As for individuals: you can train yourself to recognize this kind of language. Make an inventory every now and then when you watch the news or a political speech, when the school principal speaks, or the commentator at a sports game. Become aware of all the things you’ve never questioned, or that are taboo to even consider criticizing, like “our troops”, “New York’s finest”, “the brave men and women” in you-name-it, the heroes, the flag, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance. Notice all the hyped-up language and make it part of the discussion.
Then there’s dehumanizing language. Dehumanizing is where fascism starts. Saying that a certain group of people are animals or not human makes it easier to commit violence against them. Almost everyone is guilty of it at times. I’ve called white supremacists “bottom-feeders”, because I wanted to simultaneously express my disgust with them and the fact that they are not the norm–they are extremists. I’m going to try to have my language reflect consistently from now on that we’re dealing with human beings.
Clinton calls Trump supporters “deplorables” and the right calls undocumented immigrants “illegals”. There’s no such thing. “Illegal” and “deplorable” are adjectives, not nouns, and they aim to dehumanize. When Eric Trump says that Democrats are not even people, that’s direct fascism.
Also, liberals need to keep the moral high ground. It doesn’t matter that Trump has called people far worse when Clinton calls Trump supporters deplorables; it just gives the Trump camp ammunition. They don’t care that it’s hypocritical that they’re up in arms about it.
In general, language has gone downhill since Trump entered the election. His own crude language and topics of discussion and the fact that his supporters lap it up, as well as the language used by (us) bloggers, who aren’t restrained by journalistic norms, have led to the mainstream media using more crude language as well, to be cool, I suppose, to stay part of the in-group. But it’s normalizing Trump’s level of interaction, so I for one am going to try and clean up my language. Not completely, because he’s still a chicken-eyed chump, but a little.
The next post will be about nationalist/fascist symbols and rituals.