The only people creepier than those who desecrate the flag are those who deify it.
Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas made America proud this week by winning her third gold medal. On the podium in Rio she essentially stood at attention as “The Star Spangled Banner” played while her teammates placed hands over heart.
Big Brother in a Captain America getup was watching.
Jingo Jerrys watched intently, too, noticing that Douglas merely stood for the song as they spied from their couches. They expressed feigned outrage — where else? — on Twitter, the great repository of idiocy condensed in 140 characters or, hopefully, less. She stuck neither her index finger in her nose nor her middle finger in the air. People in search of disrespect always find it.
Our legalistic society predictably makes a law out of custom. In 1998, a few months shy of the gymnast’s third birthday, Congress instructed Americans to “face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart” during the anthem. But just as Caesar does not lord over the grammarians the lawyers do not lecture on decorum to Miss Manners, which, as she surely knows, makes for bad form anyhow.
Like the Olympics themselves, the hand-covering-heart motion during the national anthem stems in part from an inorganic pseudo-tradition.
People who speak Esperanto and wax over the virtues of the metric system (and care little for national flags or anthems) regarded it a sacrilege for protestors and rowdies to attempt to extinguish the Olympic torch on its run to Rio this summer. But the Nazis in 1936 AD, not the Greeks in 776 BC, invented this “tradition.”
America survived without an official national anthem for the first 155 years of its existence. And the hand-over-heart gesture migrated from the pledge to “The Star Spangled Banner” after it became the anthem. And even in the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, the obligatory hand gesture abruptly changed when Americans, noticing the similarity between the pledge’s strange salute and the one favored by fascists, altered the instructions on proper etiquette during the ritual.
Similarities surely existed between the National Socialists in Europe and the socialist Nationalists in America who created the homeroom ritual. Author Edward Bellamy, whose cousin largely devised our Pledge of Allegiance in the heady aftermath of the success of Looking Backward, launched the short-lived movement with a long reach in that utopian novel. Therein, Bellamy makes the state the sole producer and landlord of everything. He abolishes democracy and organizes society into industrial armies (the “corps of domestic servants,” “musical service,” “women’s army,” etc.). Even the marital act comes under joyless regimentation that allows “untrammeled sexual selection” to bring “race purification.”
In America it worked marvelously in fiction. It proved a disaster when tried elsewhere in fact.
What a coincidence, then, that Americans ditched the “Bellamy salute” that accompanied the pledge for its similarity to ones favored by fascists. Degraded minds think alike.
The differences between nationalism and patriotism seem subtle. They nevertheless prove terribly consequential. The former relies on ingrained ritual; the latter, on natural feeling. The difference between patriotism and nationalism mirrors the difference between true love and a shotgun wedding. The nationalist calls for conscription. The patriot calls the recruiting office. Nationalists worship the state. Patriots love their country. Whereas patriotism harbors a quiet confidence, nationalism displays a gargantuan inferiority complex.
George Orwell described nationalists as people showing “great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags” who suffer from “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Orwell holds, “It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort.”
Gabby Douglas stood on the receiving end of such sharp retorts earlier this week after bringing honor to her country not by allowing the nation to subsume her individuality, as Orwell identifies nationalists as doing, but by individual achievement that brought great honor upon America. Nationalists aren’t rationalists.
“To make us love our country,” Edmund Burke instructed, “our country ought to be lovely.” Such a sentiment falls on deaf ears among nationalists.