The most effective weapon that politicians use to control you isn’t the police or the military they own. It’s not the jails they run. It’s not the laws they write. Their most effective weapon is what you believe in your own mind about your alleged obligation to obey them.
Most people would agree that “patriotism” is a good thing. Most people would also agree that “nationalism” is a bad thing. I have yet to find anyone, though, who can come up with any significant difference between the two. They’re just positive and negative spins on the same thing — the idea that people have a duty to love, obey and be loyal to the governing structure of wherever they happened to be born.
I happen to love the place where I live. I identify strongly with Alabama. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in six other states, I was born in Birmingham and have spent most of my adult life here. The land is beautiful. The lifestyle is enjoyable. The people are no better or worse than anywhere else. But I have no special loyalty to any government that rules my home. That’s true of all the governments that claim power over me, ranging from my local mayor and city council all the way up to the federal government. They have the power to coerce me to obey. Nothing more. Unfortunately, most people obey because they feel obligated, both because of childhood indoctrination and because of blind obedience to authority figures.
As a child, you were probably taught to revere your government in the same way that an adherent of a religion is taught to worship his god. As I was growing up, we were taught that this was “the greatest country on Earth.” I’ve discovered that people in various countries were taught the same thing. The common result of this indoctrination is that the vast majority of us grew up as patriotic little kids who love their country, salute its flag and obey its leaders. In what way is this indoctrination different from that done by various totalitarian governments throughout modern history?
There’s another issue that people frequently overlook. As human beings, we seem to be both wired and conditioned to obey people who are set up to be authority figures over us. One of the most chilling studies to ever look into this was Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments about obedience to authority, starting in 1961.
Milgram recruited volunteers for a psychology experiment who were told that the experiment involved whether electrical shocks could aid in learning. The volunteer played the role of “teacher,” who had a console of switches that controlled varying degrees of electrical shock being administered to another person, who was presented as the “learner.” The person playing the learner role was really one of the experimenters. When the teacher asked the learner questions — and the learner answered incorrectly — he was required to push a switch to shock the learner. Each time, the shock was a little higher than before. The learner would jump as though jolted, a little more each time. After a number of wrong answers, the teacher would think he was giving the learner huge amounts of electricity, amounts which would have been fatal if they had really been happening. What’s more, the “learner” would be screaming in pain and begging to stop. A white-coated authority figure would be standing with the teacher, instructing the teacher to continue administering higher and higher amounts of electrical current. Although many of the volunteers playing the teacher role were visibly upset and wanting to quit, the majority continued far after the shocks would have been harmful or fatal. (Read a longer explanation of the experiment here.)
Psychologists can argue about how much of the willingness to hurt others is a genetic predisposition to obey and how much is merely a learned response to authority. I don’t know. Other than intellectual curiosity, I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference for our purposes. The point is that people tend to obey when authority figures tell them to do terrible things, even when they know those things are wrong. Those of us in the United States and many other countries find it convenient to point fingers at Germans during the Nazi era, believing that the evil done in the name of the government indicates that there’s something evil about the German people. But that’s a lie. Evil is done in the name of governments all the time, regardless of the flag the governments fly.
Teaching blind obedience to authority is wrong and it’s dangerous. It leads to people being willing to look the other way when their government does terrible things that they would criticize another government for doing. (For instance, while else would Americans defend and justify their government doing terrible things to suspected wrongdoers that their own government had labeled as torture when another government did it?) Whoever you are and wherever you live, you have no reason to feel smugly proud of your sainted government.
It’s time that we quit blindly teaching children to obey a government and worship its flag just because they were born in a particular country. We’re just creating future generations of people who are willing to do terrible things for politicians who wrap themselves in that flag. Unfortunately, parents and teachers blindly go on enforcing this conformity and blind devotion to governments. (Note the picture of children doing the “Bellamy salute” to the U.S. flag, something that was conveniently set aside after the Nazis started using it, too.)
Someone I used to know taught at a medium-sized school. This scene could have been anywhere, because it’s repeated all over the place, but this particular story stands out sharply in my mind because of the way the story was told. At some regular interval — once a week, maybe — all the kids in the school had to march to some central place in the school where they turned to a U.S. flag and recited the “pledge of allegiance” — written by a socialist minister in the late 19th century — and participated in various “patriotic” activities. It was certainly no different from the training and worship of a civic religion. Why are we indoctrinating children in blind obedience instead of teaching them to think for themselves and question authority?
I understand why governments would want this sort of blind obedience. What’s hard to understand is why the vast, vast majority of people have such an emotional commitment to blindly loving and obeying the authority figures who everyone else chooses for them.
I love the place I call home. I really do. But I’m not going to kill for other people. I’m not going to see people who happen to live elsewhere as my enemies just because politicians say they are. And I’m going to make decisions for myself and my future wife and children based on what’s best for us and (so far as I can) for people everywhere. The state doesn’t own me — and it has no claim on your obedience, either.