In the previous posts in this series I circled around fascism, addressing elements of American society that are at least nationalist, but the line between nationalism and fascism is blurry, and now we’re getting there.
One element of fascism is totalitarianism: the notion that the state (in the sense of country) is more important than individuals, and that individuals have to submit to the absolute state authority and to the interests of the country as a whole.
Indoctrination: The process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
The Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, the national anthem at every sports event–these are symbols and rituals supposedly meant to instill patriotism and unity in the citizens of the country, but they instill nationalism instead. They are not to be questioned; to do so is practically considered blasphemy. Patriotism is a love for one’s country; it doesn’t depend on symbols like a flag or rituals like a pledge of allegiance or singing the national anthem.
I love my country, and, like most Dutch people, I don’t know more than the first four lines of our national anthem:
Wilhelmus van Nasssau ben ik van Duitsen bloed, (I’m William of Nassau and I’m of German blood)
Mijn vaderland getrouwe blijf ik tot in mijn dood. (I will stay loyal to my country until I’m dead.)
My grandparents, and probably their generation in general, knew the whole song, but I guess that since World War Two nobody felt much of an urge to sing about being of German blood anymore. When the national anthem is played, it’s played instrumentally. It’s played at international soccer games, like the anthems of all the competing countries are. The players and the fans can sing along if they want, but like I said, most people don’t get very far if they do try and sing along. It’s also played–again, instrumentally–on May 4, our memorial day for the people killed by the Germans during World War Two, right after the minute of silence that’s held nationally at 8 pm. If there are more occasions, please let me know, Dutchies.
We aren’t big on nationalistic songs either. My parents’ generation were kids when the Germans marched through town, singing their Germany’s-the-best songs to the beat of their stomping jackboots. So anything like that is a no-no.
We don’t have the Dutch flag out everywhere every day, as if we’re all suffering from dementia and would be completely lost if we weren’t reminded at every corner what country we’re in. We’re generally aware of our geographic location. We don’t have the Dutch flag in classrooms, churches, sports centers, stores, the entrances to subdivisions, or any of the other myriad places Americans have the American flag out every day.
Those who have a Dutch flag stick it out when there’s something important to celebrate. On May 5–Liberation Day–we celebrate the end of World War Two and being freed from the German occupation. People also have it out on the King’s birthday, which is just one big party with street sales (like garage sales or yard sales, except most people don’t have garages or very large front yards) and music, and everything’s orange–orange pastries, orange faces, orange clothes, orange drinks–because orange is the national color. (By the way, the only other time Dutch people go ape in orange is, again, during international soccer games.) When someone graduates from high school, they usually hang their schoolbag from the flagpole holder above the front door, and some people combine that with the flag. When my family and I came back from Australia, my paternal grandparents had the flag out in celebration. After 9-11 lots of people had an American flag out in solidarity with the United States.
The only time I ever felt the need for a Dutch flag was in Great Britain, after someone my friend H and I had gotten a ride with told us we looked like we could be German, and if we put a Dutch flag on our backpack, we probably wouldn’t have to wait quite so long with our thumbs up. Even then, it felt a little embarrassing, but I was willing to do it if it meant we could be in the mountains sooner. (Sorry German hitchhikers. I hope you get your rides eventually. Or you could pretend to be Dutch.)
Back to America.
In my opinion, the Pledge of Allegiance in every public school, standing for the national anthem, the flag–these ubiquitous, never-questioned nationalist symbols and rituals have primed the country for a fascist takeover. It was just a matter of time before a power-hungry demagogue with no respect for the Constitution or any of the values Americans claim to be so proud of came along, grabbed hold of those symbols and yelled, “Follow me!”.
To be sure, America is not a totalitarian state in the sense that it has a central, absolute authority like a dictator, and the United States Constitution’s first ten amendments–the Bill of Rights–lay out all the rights individual citizens have in relation to the government, but when it comes to the national anthem, the flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance, the majority puts tremendous pressure on individuals to join in, as if it’s a grave misdeed not to.
While Americans are offended when someone refuses to pledge allegiance or stand for “The Star-spangled Banner”, to me, as a Dutch person, it’s freaky that they do. I associate the image of students as young as three or four standing in unison, all making the same gesture while saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the Hitler Youth.
The Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”
Hitler got the idea for the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend) from the British Lord Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. He also got plenty of inspiration from the American government, and how it had systematically incorporated nationalist symbols and rituals into the very fabric of society.
Established in the 1920’s, the Hitler Youth lured German children with fun outdoor activities and then indoctrinated them, teaching them the “values” of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. The kids pledged allegiance to Hitler and to the Nazi Party and swore they were willing to die for their country. Germany was the best and it was destined to rule the world. Aryan people were the best (Übermenschen) and all other ethnicities were inferior (Untermenschen). By 1939 all other youth organizations had been banned, and Hitler Youth membership was mandatory for children between ten and seventeen years old. Children learned to put country and the Nazi Party first; it was so effective that sometimes children would report their own family members if they voiced opposing views.
It is telling that Hitler borrowed American indoctrination techniques. Mind you, I don’t use that word–indoctrination–lightly. On one side are Americans who consider the Pledge of Allegiance to be a sacred oath and who practically foam at the mouth at the very notion that American symbols and rituals of liberty and equality are compared to the symbols and rituals of Nazi Germany, and on the other side are Americans who claim they just said the pledge in school because they had to, but they didn’t take it seriously and they don’t think it’s important enough to make a big deal out of it. They are wrong.
To begin with, there is no liberty when children are forced to say the pledge, as they are in many if not most schools, even though that’s been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So they’re pledging allegiance to the ideas of liberty and justice that are literally being distorted as they speak, giving them a skewed sense of what liberty and justice mean: Liberty means: “You should be grateful that you live in a country where you get to say the Pledge of Allegiance, boy!” And justice clearly means that the bully and the majority always win, so it’s best to be on their side.
This is assuming students even ask themselves what the words mean, because most kids in America start pledging allegiance to the flag around age four or five, when they go to kindergarten. At that age the only words they really understand in the pledge are “I” and “flag”. The rest is gobbledygook, like a prayer in Latin was to medieval peasants. And yet they are pledging allegiance to the American flag and to the country. They are unwittingly promising that they will do whatever their country asks of them.
Allegiance: 1a. The obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord b. the fidelity owed by a subject or citizen to a sovereign or government / the obligation of an alien to the government under which the alien resides 2. devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause – allegiance to a political party
And although they make that promise, it’s not concretely clear who or what they are promising to follow, obey, possibly die for. “The flag and the republic for which it stands”. The flag is a piece of cloth–a symbol. And the republic? Who or what is that when it comes down to it? Is it the president when he says the kneeling NFL players should be fired? Or is it the Constitution that gives those NFL players the right to free speech? Congress maybe? But in that case, which side? Is it every concerned citizen who demands that Trump leave office because he’s a danger to the country? Or is it every concerned citizen who wants him to stay because they feel that the country is being overrun by outsiders?
So, practically speaking, as actual promises go, the Pledge is rather useless. Really the only thing it’s good for is indoctrination. From their first day in school, children in America learn that the American flag is important. So important that they have to stand and face it first thing every morning and say solemn, important-sounding words to it, and at every sports event they stand and sing a song to and about it. That the indoctrination is effective is clear: just look at the hysterical reaction of half the country to the NFL players not standing for “The Star-spangled Banner” as a way of protesting police violence against people of color: They’re disrespecting the flag! They should be forced to stand! They should apologize! They should be fired! They should be lined up and shot!
They should be lined up and shot.
There is a code of conduct regarding the flag and the national anthem. Technically it’s a federal law, but the penalty for breaking it is not enforced because the Supreme Court ruled “mandatory patriotism” unconstitutional. So in practice the code merely describes the etiquette: Soldiers should salute while the song is being sung and everyone else should stand with their right hand over their heart. But it’s etiquette. It’s also etiquette to say “Thank you” when someone gives you something, but if someone hands you a turd, it’s not a crime to say “What the fuck” instead.
Even though the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag, there are plenty of schools and individual teachers who have never given hoot one about that. Which is unconstitutional and therefore un-American, right? But no, this is a case where the individual has been made to submit to the majority, to the supposed greater good of the country, Supreme Court be damned.
I would argue that, even though there is no law on the books forcing people to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or for the national anthem, the government has been extremely successful in indoctrinating not everyone perhaps, but enough folks who then run with it. Country over individuals: You’d better not criticize this country, you’d better not disrespect the flag, you’d better pledge allegiance, you’d better stand for the anthem, or else the wrath of the masses will rain down upon you. And by masses I don’t necessarily mean only the “poorly educated”.
This indoctrination made it easy for George W. Bush to get the country “to unite” behind him when he unilaterally decided to go to war with Saddam Hussein instead of waiting for the results of the international committee investigating the existence (or non-existence) of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He held a solemn speech full of the right words, with the American flag in the background, and Bob’s your uncle. The same indoctrination made it easy for Trump to get elected and, ironically perhaps, to proceed to stomp all over the supposed values of the United States.
To me, as a relative outsider from a country that was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two, Trump’s hostile takeover was no surprise. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. American citizens did this to themselves, long before Trump became president. This happened through pure indoctrination, which then led to the vicious majority bullying that was just never really seen for what it was.
They should be lined up and shot.
A firefighter and a pastor said those words. If a mayor or a congressman or, God forbid, Trump said it, the result would be a lot of hysterical flag lovers swarming the streets, having it out for anyone they deem not “patriotic” enough. We are just a few careless words away from such a scenario. This is what fascism does.
Before discussing authoritarianism in America, in my next post I am going to discuss my experience working at a Dutch police training school.