On April 5, 1976, a white teenager swung a flagpole bearing the American flag at a black man in Boston. The 17-year-old, Joseph Rakes, was at a protest against busing – the city’s attempt to accelerate the desegregation of schools. The man left bleeding at the other end of the flagpole was 29-year-old lawyer and Civil Rights activist Ted Landsmark.
Landsmark found himself in the unfortunate position of being a black man between a racist and the country that racist loves; the country over which he appointed himself sentry. Rakes drove all of America into the black man’s body in order to bring black rights to heel, rid his city of black resistance, and maintain white supremacy.
Liberals rush to exclude from their tally of patriots the countless men like Rakes who have managed to hold both the love for their country and anti-black violence in the same embrace. Racists are not patriots, their story goes. If Rakes thought his love for his country and race-hatred were compatible, he was mistaken. “True patriotism,” they argue, requires a love for Americans; all Americans.
Bad patriotism, they say, is the minutemen, is forcing detained immigrant women to drink out of toilet bowls. Good patriotism is the bureaucrats who bar entry and ensure orderly deportation.
Bad patriotism is colonists goose-stepping throughout the world to the tune of Rule, Britannia! Good patriotism is praising as brave uniformed men and women launching drone attacks at ill-equipped teenage “insurgents” standing without armour before the unseen terror in the sky.
“True patriotism” and “good patriotism” are half-hearted attempts to launder xenophobia and ethnocentrism. It legitimises discrimination against foreigners on the basis of their foreignness. Good patriotism believes the country is rolling hills and blowing wheat fields and not the occupation of natural space, not an institution that declared itself to be the”White Man’s Country” where “the [negro] had no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
For the patriot, all history is revisionist history. The constitution becomes a document that has always harboured within it a promise of liberty that was to be perfected and extended outward, generation after generation. It is not the blueprint for a democratised white supremacy – despite how its project eventually played out. George Washington’s enslavement and pursuit of Ona Judge was merely an unfortunate oversight by a man who was otherwise committed to the pursuit of liberty.
Good patriotism can imagine racism is peripheral to the institution of the country because good patriotism is racist. The lives crushed beneath the tractor wheels of a founded country always matter less than the political ramblings of the men in the driver’s seat.
Patriotism in imperialist and settler countries – despite labour-intensive attempts by liberals to sanitise their colony – is racist. It is racist in all countries but it is especially racist in colonising countries. It is a celebrated devotion to the act of wresting land from Indigenous peoples. The settler’s country does not exist. It is an act of dispossession repeated day after day which – if not interrupted – produces an illusion of being a home.
The conservative patriot, confronting a country imperfectly ethnically cleansed, is called to look at the Indigenous who remain as objects of hatred, an enemy population or, at the very least, the inconvenient hangers-on of a time before settlement.
He stops the Palestinian at the gate of her rights, referencing the Nation-State Law that reassures him that the country was meant for his race only. He rushes out to help strip the Muslim of her protections, erases her mosques in India or her memory in China to cleanse society of cultures that have been forced into foreignness. If he is Indigenous himself, he assimilates fully and, as self-appointed ambassador, places Indigenous cultures around the neck of the state like a garland.
Without exception, beneath every act of far-right violence, you will unearth patriotic sentiment. There is no far-right anti-immigration activist in Europe, America or South Africa who does not consider himself or herself to be the quintessence of patriotism. And they are not wrong.
The good patriot denies their bad patriot countrymen. Every nationalist-racist assault is out of character for the nation, they say. It is “un-American.” It is un-American even when the American flag is used as the weapon.
When pushed to confront a bad patriot’s violence, liberals suddenly adopt the argument of gun rights activists: patriotism doesn’t kill people; people kill people. Every attack is committed by misguided, racist actors who have perverted true patriotism with their biases and prejudices.
But ask them why a human being should be judged not by the content of their character but by the coordinates of their birth. Ask them why one’s placement on one side of an arbitrary border should be the sole deciding factor in whether they should be loved and endowed with privileges or kept away.
Ask them, and they are silent. Or they mumble “that’s just the way things are” under their breath, albeit with less conviction than those who argued that blacks should be kept in bondage because it was what God intended. Patriotism calls the patriot to suspend recognition of the non-citizen’s equality and to regard their presence with suspicion if not anger. It is a cult of exclusion.
In our current moment of imperialist excitement, patriotism is not above mustering up a defence for murder. American journalists, politicians and presidential candidates dust off their most jingoistic of rhetorical inventions: “American blood”, and – in concert – declare that Qassem Soleimani had “American blood on his hands,” in order to temper discomfort with murder done out in the open.
Human blood is nationalised when foreigners are marked for death but is stateless when drawn out by police firing. Whatever American blood might be, it certainly does not pour out of a black woman said to have been reaching for her mobile phone. No officers bring home shot black men’s bodies to their mothers in caskets draped in the flag; they are more likely to be left in the street.
The counterargument that patriotism can sometimes achieve some social good holds up no stronger than the argument that white supremacy encourages white men to be good fathers. Patriotism decides which sorts of people deserve to be treated well and who should be denied privileges due to nothing other than who they are. The counter that there are good patriotisms and these should not be confused and thrown out with the bad is not persuasive either.
Every good that patriotism inspires is, if nothing else, discriminatory. It is discriminatory by definition. And this includes all patriotisms, including those believed to be anti-imperialist. It is difficult to imagine any country without a population that is not trying to slip out of the state’s commanding grasp. What Nasser-inspired anti-colonial nationalism has not called black Iraqis, black Libyans, black Moroccans, black Palestinians “hayawan” (brute) from the side of its mouth?
Ted Landsmark was not the first black person to be pierced by a country. He was not the first to be covered in blood by a man who thought a non-white’s bleeding was tantamount to national defence. I am not the only black tourist who has turned the corner into a neighbourhood blanketed with flags and known at once that I was not safe.
I know of Colonial Marines, black freedmen and escapees who burned Washington to the ground in a sight that so distressed a patriot he penned the words that would become the US anthem: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave…” I know that secreted in the US national anthem is a threat of racial intimidation; a hate crime. I know the flag that drove into Ted Landsmark still demands of blacks a doffed cap and a show of deference.
If not, it drives black teenagers out of school and star athletes from the field. No, I am not a patriot. I am one of the 100s of millions of black people who are the victims of patriotism. No appeal to race-neutral founding documents or ideals, no revisionist claim of an imperfect-but-perfecting union papers over the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned a slave. And while founding father’s slaves are footnotes in white supremacist-patriotic tellings of history – they are the whole story in mine.