Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Made in America

The other day, I saw a pickup truck with a decal of an American flag and a bald eagle emblazoned across the rear window, and I thought to myself, "Wow. This guy really loves America." I wasn't sure whether to honk or salute, so my brain just settled on a self-contained chuckle. Don't get me wrong. I love this country as much as anybody. I also love breakfast cereal, but I'm not going to put a giant decal of it on the rear window my car.

"I pledge allegiance to your truck, and the aesthetic for which it stands..."

I figured that oldboy's red, white and blue plastic bling was probably manufactured in China anyway, which made me wonder if this kind of thing is common in other parts of the world as well. Do Herzegovinians, for example, have giant stickers covering the rear windows of their utility vehicles to let other citizens know how much they love their nation's color scheme and/or politico-economic system? What about Greenland? Yes, I did some research, and it turns out that Greenland not only has a flag and a government, but people too. That said, it seems reasonable to assume that some of those people probably drive pickup trucks, which may or may not have tacky window decals.

To be honest, I've always imagined Greenland to be like one big truck commercial.

I also wondered if had these adhesive expressions of jingoistic fervor (i.e. stickers) existed in the eighteenth century, would the Founding Fathers have had them on their carriages... you know, along with some mudflaps featuring Calvin pissing on the British Empire? (Oh, Calvin. Is there anything that you won't urinate on?) After all, the Founding Fathers probably loved their country at least as much as that guy in the pickup truck, right?

"Now we just need some TruckNutz™ and a smokestack."

The difference is that they were looking forward in the direction of a better future, whereas many self-described patriots of today regressively align themselves with a "golden age" of privilege and entitlement that has steadily been slipping away from them. Rather than attribute their declining standard of living to the greedy tentacles of neoliberalism, they adopt a tribe-like mentality and turn their hostility toward people who don't look and talk like them. From their perspective, it all seems acutely unfair, in part because their unprecedented productivity proves that the working class has never worked harder. They just don't see where all of the value of their added labor is actually materializing.

The robber barons, of course, pick the pockets of the working class and then get them to blame each other for the theft. These "job creators," deemed too big to jail by the laws that their teams of high-priced lawyers wrote, willfully nurture the envy of the very people they rob, promising nonexistent opportunities for wealth and power while hoarding exponentially larger percentages of it. The American Dream that the working class has inherited is a lot like the carrot before the horse, ever always just out of reach.

At the same time, Americans are constantly inundated with reminders of just how exceptional we are. We even have a term for it, although it eludes me at the moment. American Awesomeness? No, that's not it. American Betterness? I'm getting warmer. I do know that it is an idea which has made a guest appearance in every State of the Union address that I've ever seen, heard or read... something about how ours is a nation that has been chosen by Providence to lead the world in every respect. It will come to me. Of course, I've never understood how it is that we can be both the exception and the rule.

This painting is like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... 
but for Christian conservatives who think rock music is evil.

Through this supposition of superiority, we infer the inferiority of others. Say that five times fast. While you do, think about what it actually means. By defining ourselves as exceptional, we are reinforcing the fallacious assumption that people born elsewhere in the world are inherently less awesome. Then again, if there is such a thing as Kazakhstani Exceptionalism, it seems that they lack the pickup truck decals to properly express it.

"So you say it's a picture of an eagle, huh? Yeah, bro... that sounds pretty badass."

As you may know, the words E Pluribus Unum are featured on the Great Seal of the US, as well as most of our coinage. It literally translates to: 'Out of many, one,' which is exactly how I feel when digging through my change jar for quarters. Incidentally, this phrase also just happens to be composed of exactly thirteen letters... and that, my friends, is a conspiracy fact. Basically, the idea behind the official adoption of this term was that a democratic republic such as ours could be ruled by many as though by one and that one could speak on behalf of the many. And, of course, when it comes to Highlanders, there can only be one.

...there probably should have been only one Highlander movie, too.

It is worth noting that the term E Pluribus Unum was coined (so to speak) at a time when there were only thirteen states with a relatively small, centralized and homogenous population. That said, the idea of 'out of many, one' doesn't really hold up, particularly in relation to our currency if you consider that out of one dollar comes many pennies that are virtually worthless on their own. Not to be cynical, but couldn't the same be said for votes? With that in mind, from this point forward, I think that one-cent pieces (which are only colloquially known as pennies) should be called "vacuum rattlers" and that the aforementioned Latin phrase on the backs of them should be replaced by the far more pragmatic "Do not eat." This is America, after all.

My favorite part is the stylized use of quotation marks.
And what is it about silica gel packets specifically...
that makes them so unbelievably delicious?

As for the other side of the Great Seal, despite common belief, it does not contain a treasure map or a kids menu. It actually features the same psychedelic pyramid with the hovering eye from the one dollar bill, plus two more catchy Latin taglines from the nascent American empire: Novus Order Seclorum, which translates as 'New Order of the Ages' (not to be confused with the British New Wave band's greatest hits album), and Annuit Cœptis, which means 'He favors our undertakings.' As it pertains to the current administration, the 'he' in question is actually Scott Baio.

For my money, the only great Seal is the one who earned
a Grammy in 1996 for his hit song "Kiss from a Rose."

The difference between patriotism and nationalism basically comes down to this: to be a patriot is to love one's country, for better or worse... kind of like being a Cubs fan. You weather the good times and the bad, maintaining an unwavering belief in what your country could be, even if you don't think that it's necessarily living up to its potential at the moment. Nationalists, on the other hand, believe that the geographic borders in which they were born serve to automatically make them better than anyone who may live beyond those imaginary lines. Of course, many of them also believe in building walls for the sake of making those lines less imaginary. You could say that patriotism brings human beings together to a certain extent, while nationalism fundamentally serves to divide people by fostering an "us versus them" mentality.

The idea of American Exceptionalism effectively blurs these related concepts, making it seem as though the two terms are interchangeable. They are not. That said, I am relatively certain that had someone suggested to the driver of that pickup truck that he was anything other than patriotic to the nth degree, any such statement would have been construed as fightin' words. In this hypothetical scenario, I would say that therein lies a clear delineation between patriotism and nationalism, as the latter may involve the imposition of one's own ideology onto others. My belief system can beat up your belief system, and all that (i.e. the cause of virtually every war in human history).

Like any good contemporary R&B song, this is the part where I lean into the mic, get down on one knee and break it down. Dim the lights, because here it is: nationalism is little more than a "socially acceptable" form of racism and a way of rationalizing one's xenophobia, which is itself little more than a manifestation of misdirected fear. Basically, social conservatives (like the guy in that truck, by way of an educated guess) are concerned that the society that they wish to conserve is rapidly changing in ways that they cannot control, which it is. Metaphorically speaking, they feel like useless pennies just waiting to get vacuumed up. Immigrants or other already marginalized groups then become the scapegoats for the depreciated social value of the white working class.

...not to be confused with an escape goat, pictured above.

Nationalism has been making a pretty big comeback lately, too. Recent hits include Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterete in the Philippines, Turkey's descent into autocratic rule, and other far-right "Make [your country] Great Again" candidates around the world. It seems that the forgotten and neglected masses are electing obscenely rich bullies to represent their national interests... because nobody else is.

Meanwhile, of course, these politicians do not share their voters' interests or life experiences, but the prophets and profits of neoliberalism have spent the past as long as anybody can remember leading the misinformed participants of American democracy to believe that wealth and power should in fact be synonymous. Trump, Duterete, Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen... they were all born wealthy, and so voters think that they must be powerful, shrewd and aggressive, which are apparently qualities that they are looking for in a candidate. They want somebody who they think is going to fight on their behalf. Who better to fight these rich assholes than one of their own? Just like FDR, right? Not exactly. The detrimental flaw in this logic is that these same megalomaniacs who crave excessive wealth and power in the first place know that the best way to keep it and continue to accumulate more is to always look after your own interests first, voters be damned.

If the current political tide maintains, neoliberalism will soon lose all pretenses of being anything other than direct rule by the wealthy elite, who will only use their positions of power to accumulate more, just like they always have. Capitalism is driven by the principle of constant expansion, and ever since Ronald Reagan's "morning in America," nearly all of the wealth generated by that growth has gone to those who control the means of production. Talk about a shitty morning. Meanwhile, the working class willingly acquiesces to a modern form of feudalism and serfdom that is presented to them under the palatable guise of patriotism. Haven't we been through all of this before?

If patriotism is the idolatry of the state (or its economic system), then nationalists are its zealots. It's like the difference between being someone who watches an occasional game on TV versus that guy in the bleachers who painted his chest the team colors, effectively paying fifty bucks to freeze his ass off for something that will almost certainly not have any impact whatsoever upon the outcome of the game. On some level, even he must know that it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

"I am desperate to be a part of something bigger."

And here's the two-cent (or "two-vacuum rattler," if you will) version: nationalism is bad, while patriotism is ok, but only if the driver can actually see through that decal from the inside. Of course, it blinds us in other ways, too, such as all of the things that we could learn from other cultures if we weren't so damn full of ourselves.

At least we look cool, though... right?

In the game of rock, paper, scissors, think of humanism as the paper. Just go with me on this. Nationalism is the scissors, as it can tear through our common humanity, while patriotism is the rock. It is the small piece of earth that allows otherwise diverse people to claim a common identity, thereby permitting them to rise above the fear that fuels nationalism. Humanism, however, supersedes patriotism, because when it comes down to it, we are all in this together.

My point is that we should all want our place in the world, wherever we happen to live, to be the best that it can be -- rather than assume that any nation has already achieved for itself the pinnacle of human civilization, whether today or in some mythologized past. We can all learn from each other, and our common humanity should always come first. Nationalism, by definition, only divides us.

In closing, I present you with an escaped goat.

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