With the 4th of July holiday looming on the horizon, it seems an appropriate time to explore what it means to be an American citizen.
I imagine I am not the only one who has noted the profusion of American flags plastered over any and every single thing you can imagine in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Indeed, within a few days flag waving as a national pastime had been thoroughly reinvigorated, mostly as a way to unify the masses around the extraordinarily arrogant and destructive actions George Bush would take on our supposed behalf. In some places you could (and still can!) see rows and rows of huge flags draped in a long sequence that could leave your jaw slack from their immensity. Simply reduced: America=American flags=best nation on earth=we have the right to destroy anyone who does not agree with us or that assessment=how dare anyone attack us.
These days you can still witness the flag plastered on the strangest of places. Do you ever notice those delivery trucks with the American flag neatly and discreetly located on the back service door? Or how about grocery shopping? Now you can find products with the American flag nicely embedded near the nutrition facts information. The implied message would seem to be that eating this product is a patriotic act, one that will support America and keep us strong. Never mind that in some cases millions the world over are eating the same product. Are they therefore being unwillingly patriotic to this nation? And who would have thought that potatoes could become so un-appealing after our champions of democracy in Washington renamed them freedom fries. Hell, why didn’t we just send these fries to Iraq? Maybe if the people of Iraq had eaten them they would have taken heart, risen up, deposed Saddam and created democracy on their own. What a savings to our military that would have been! But then again, the military industrial complex and its rich piggy men need war spasms every so often to keep their pockets full. Perhaps I was simply quite unaware before, but I cannot for the life of me recall the flag in some of these places it now looks back at you from.
And of course we have the ubiquitous expression “God Bless America” plastered in conjunction with the flag all over the place. This imagery suggests several things, one, that there is a god, two, that there could very well be only one god, or at least one triumphalist, “‘better” god and three, that this god blesses (or is being commanded to bless!) America in whatever incarnation she assumes and whatever she does. And then there were the ghastly ones where the flag was morphed into a shopping bag. That’s right, we are always open to sell something! And so monotheism meets the ground zero of unreflective capitalism (i.e. the U.S.A.) to birth the continuing greed of a nation that is fundamentally unsustainable in the long run. At least the separation of church and state is now more defined by a speed bump than a solid wall!
My intention in drawing attention to this flag culture is to being awareness to the light and dark sides of the nationalistic fervor that has been repeatedly stoked by President Bush to support his illegal and immoral war of aggression against Iraq and really anyone else that stands in his way. My fingers wanted to resist equating Bush the presidency, but I suppose I will practice Orwell’s 1984 technique of doublethink.
We have good reason to be wary of nationalism gone to an extreme. And I have good reason to feel concern given my own personal background. My mother was born and grew to adulthood in post-WWII Germany. Her own father served in the Wehrmacht. I know little of the details of his service, but hope to learn much more in the near future on a visit there. Spend an afternoon looking at photos of countless German metropolitan areas bombed into rubble and the power of nationalistic pride morphed into an insatiable (and inevitably tragic) world-engulfing hunger starts to make the stomach turn. And here we are in America in 2005 witnessing the corporate and military takeover of the planet in the name of the good ‘ole God blessed American way of life. Yes, 1700+ soldiers killed in Iraq is worth it to spread democracy to a people we can’t seem to figure out how to stop occupying 28 months after the war started. Yes, we need to gut all social programs as much as possible because it is better to be secure and have no food, light, heat and services than it is to have the basics of life. Yes, let’s go shopping in our air-conditioned malls after we have crossed the sizzling parking lots that shimmer with the gradually building heat of an atmosphere being tipped out of balance by our treating it as one giant trash can. Yes, let’s watch television, zone out on the countless legal drugs available to us (except marijuana. which is so evil), and all collectively exclaim, “Well, there is nothing I can do about it. The problem is too big.”
So now that many of you dear readers are quite possibly thoroughly pissed off by my words, let me get to the point. What can we do about it? How can we address the fact that our lifestyle and way of thinking are so hurtful to the planet? Here is one suggestion: learn about who you fundamentally are. Instead of waving that flag this 4th of July, consider looking back into your own personal and family histories to learn more about what land you came from, what your own family’s traditional profession was (if they ever had one), what their traditional beliefs and customs were, and so on. Why would you want to do this? I will get to that shortly. We all have a place we are native to, but unless you are of Native American descent, well honey, you aren’t native to the lands of the United States you are walking on now!
There are many who likely believe (and in many cases rightly so) that they and their families are so much the better off for having made a journey over foreign waters and lands to settle and start anew here in America. Millions have indeed thrived for having made an extremely courageous journey to find a new realm to cultivate a better life. But I ask you to ask yourself what have you individually and we collectively given up in tossing away these older, fundamental identities that was extremely valuable? What significant losses have we incurred in becoming Americans and assimilating into this monoculture defined by happiness=McDonalds+Starbucks+house in suburbs+SUV that looks down on others like a tank+’mall’ed areas where we gather for the sole purpose of shopping. In getting what we have obtained, what have we given up that was priceless to begin with?
Nationalism, like so many other identities held and lived through rigidly, can be a destructive trap. Yes, we are Americans, but what does that mean? What does that equate to? What does it mean to be an American in relation to the state of this planet? What responsibilities do we have to each other, to the planet, to its sustainability and to future generations? Below are a few statistics about what it means to be an American:
Time per day that TV
is on in average U.S. home = 7 hours 40 minutes
(Figures found on: www.tvturnoff.org/images/facts&figs/factsheets/FactsFigs.pdf)
The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car.
Motor vehicles are the single biggest source of atmospheric pollution, contributing an estimated 14% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning, a proportion than is steadily rising. Add the emissions from exploration, transportation, refining and distribution of fuel, and this figure if 15 to 20 percent of world emissions.
* The average American car releases 300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from a full, 15-gallon tank of gasoline.
* The average European car produces over 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
* A car causes more pollution before it's ever driven than in its entire lifetime of driving.
(Statistics taken from www.worldcarfree.net/resources/stats.php)
The United States, often through the CIA, has employed torture in the following countries at some point in the 20th century: Greece, Iran, Germany, Vietnam, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama. With recent reports from Amnesty International, we can add Iraq and Cuba for the 21st century.
To learn more, read Rogue State by William Blum.
God Bless America!
I have been asking myself these questions, and many more, as a student of the traditional knowledge/indigenous mind program at Naropa University in Oakland, California these last two years. I invite you to check back in and read my next submission which will tell more of the process and what is the usefulness of this work.
Bernd C. Geels is a student of the Master of Liberal Arts degree program with a concentration of study in Indigenous Mind at Naropa University in Oakland, CA. He is currently in the process of writing his thesis. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Related 4th of July Commentaries
Mourn on the Fourth of July by Norman Solomon