Ninety nine years ago, Eugene Debs gave a speech that would land him in prison for 10 years. His message was denouncing patriotism as bolstering the war movement that served only private interest.
Mid-way through the speech he quoted Samuel Johnson in proclaiming, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He followed this with his own addition which is too beautiful to paraphrase.
“He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.”
If Eugene Debs had seen the rest of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, we would hear these same words during every single war movement. And even though he is gone, we must look at these words every time someone wraps themselves in the “cloak of patriotism.” The ruling class will do everything in its power to make you believe that it is your patriotic duty to fight and to die for this country. Likewise, the ruling classes of other countries do the same.
“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles,” Debs declared.
What then do we do in a country where those wearing MAGA hats parade around with self-declared patriotism shaking their fingers at professional athletes and calling them “un-American?” Why do some in our country hold the flag and the anthem on such a high pedestal?
To both answers I reply that it is they, those wrapping themselves in patriotism and holding the flag on such a high pedestal, that have fallen victim to the propaganda of the ruling classes. The flag does not represent those who have died fighting for our country; it is the very reason that they were sent off to fight in the first place. And at home what does that flag do? It is used to shroud issues of police brutality and mass incarceration. It is used against Americans by other Americans. Our flag becomes a division, not only between the peoples of the world and the people of America, but it is also used to divide Americans. The flag is used to protect American profits, not American people. It does the opposite of protecting American people: it endangers them. It pits worker against worker.
The goal of American patriotism is to divide people, not to unite them. We mustn’t fall victim to the ruling class’s propaganda. There are real evils that exist in our country, those of mass incarceration, police brutality, inadequate healthcare and an authoritative nationalist movement that has been festering over the last forty years. We cannot let a supposed love of country shroud such contemptible treatment of the people who make it up. I will not put my life on the line to protect profits.
“The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose – especially their lives,” said Debs.
Self-proclaimed American patriots only aid the ruling class – the class which profits off war, mass incarceration, and racial inequality. And when America wishes to expand its capitalist markets to other countries by means of war, it should be the stockholders of Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin – the propagators of American patriotism – who shall be deployed first. It will be our self-proclaimed patriotic president who will be the first with his boots on the ground.