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(en) US, VT, Disentangling the Antiwar Movement from the American Flag

From Cindy Milstein <cbmilstein@yahoo.com>
Date Mon, 17 Feb 2003 21:15:35 +0100 (CET)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

(A downloadable PDF version of this essay is available at 
www.freesocietycollective.org; feel free 
to copy and distribute this 8.5 x 11, 2-sided flyer)

Disentangling the Antiwar Movement 
from the American Flag 
"Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most 
indubitable meaning is nothing but an instrument 
for the attainment of the government's ambitious 
and mercenary aims, and a renunciation of human 
dignity, common sense, and conscience by the 
governed, and a slavish submission to those who 
hold power. That is what is really preached 
wherever patriotism is championed. Patriotism is 
             -- Leo Tolstoy 

"Peace is the continuation of war by other 
             -- Hannah Arendt 

Since September 11, 2001, many antiwar activists 
in the United States have wrapped their dissent 
in the American flag. In an increasingly 
constrictive political climate, they are anxious 
to find ways to appear more legitimate. For some, 
carrying the flag celebrates the Bill of Rights, 
particularly the rights to free speech and public 
assembly. For others, it recalls foundational 
events for this country such as the Boston Tea 
Party and American Revolution that symbolize the 
struggle against the tyranny of colonial rule. 
People of conscience raise the stars and stripes 
to assert that "peace is patriotic," and that 
they are the real Americans. The U.S. government, 
by contrast, claims to be waging war in order to 
uphold America's core values, or as Bush puts it, 
precisely because "we are a peace-loving 

Who will prevail in this contest to define the 
true patriots? 

It is vital to ensure that U.S. opposition is 
clearly visible alongside the strength and 
solidarity of antiwar demonstrations around the 
globe. As activists in the United States, we need 
to distinguish our views from the actions and 
aims of "our" government, and build a strong 
movement. But we can only do that if our 
arguments against war are in line with our 

The stark fact is that dissenters, no matter how 
noble, do not get to determine the meaning of 
patriotism. Although popular conceptions of U.S. 
history suggest that patriotism is about freedom, 
democracy, and creating a better world, in 
reality it has largely been used by the state to 
thwart the realization of these ideals. 
Patriotism, in essence, asks citizens to put 
aside their concerns and disagreements with the 
government, and to get behind the sentiment of 
"my country, right or wrong."  

Historically, patriotism was used in the 1920s to 
back up efforts to deport "undesirables" during 
the Red scare. Later, during the time of the 
Second World War, it justified interning Japanese 
Americans in camps on U.S. soil. In the 1950s, 
patriotism was used to repress the Left through 
such vehicles as the House Un-American Activities 
Committee, and during the Vietnam War period, to 
silence resistance through slogans such as "love 
it or leave it." Patriotism has been employed to 
rationalize military excursions and state-
sponsored violence, from the invasion of Grenada 
and Panama to illegally arming the Nicaraguan 

Patriotism, in the past and present, is 
predominantly defined by those in power to 
bolster support for their agendas. Consider the 
ubiquity of American flags since 9-11. 
Immediately after the tragedy, millions of 
Americans expressed their sadness and solidarity 
with the families of the deceased in a variety of 
ways, from displaying wreaths and firefighters' 
helmets to lighting candles. Shortly thereafter, 
Bush called for a day of prayer and for Americans 
to fly their country's flag. While some had 
turned to the flag prior to Bush's urging, the 
change was unmistakable after his plea. Alternate 
expressions of mourning persisted, yet the 
American flag became the main indication of one's 
grief. It was soon difficult to find a house, 
automobile, or public space unadorned with the 
stars and stripes.  

As the Bush administration rapidly manipulated 
grief into retribution, the meaning of this 
powerful symbol also shifted. Today, the same 
flags flown after September 11 stand for much 
more than sorrow. The flag has largely become 
representative of unquestioning allegiance to 
national security, a faith in government, and a 
willingness to strike at unknown enemies. This 
process of redefining patriotism facilitates the 
state's ability to exercise power for its own 

For more than a year, the Bush administration has 
been crafting a spurious dichotomy between 
patriotism and terrorism. Having initiated an 
unending and ill-defined "war against terror," 
the U.S. government claims free license to do 
whatever it wishes. Anything that promotes 
"security" for America--such as eroding civil 
liberties, dramatically increasing the military 
budget, or insisting on a war on Iraq--is now 
seen as justifiable.  

In the name of patriotism, the Bush 
administration devised the overtly racist policy 
of registering citizens whose national heritage 
is Middle Eastern. The aptly named USA PATRIOT 
Act limits movement across borders, forces 
registration of foreign-born citizens, vastly 
expands investigative powers even where no crime 
is alleged, and labels dissenters as potential 
"terrorists." To question or oppose these 
policies is deemed unpatriotic, and disagreement 
is consequently silenced. What politician, after 
all, would have willingly chosen to vote against 
a piece of legislation with this acronym and risk 
being seen as un-American? And now, a second 
PATRIOT Act is in the works to further undo the 
freedoms that the government is purportedly 
marshaling its troops to protect. 

Not only does the attempt to articulate dissent 
in the language of patriotism take on meanings 
that are out of our control, it also rings of 
parochialism in an increasingly interdependent 
and global world. Such language establishes a 
false distinction between "us" and "them." To 
return to September 11, victims from the twin 
towers included citizens of nearly every country. 
Almost more than any single event in recent 
memory, it should have been understood as a 
global trauma, binding numerous peoples and 
cultures in a shared grief. Yet once the American 
flags went up in large numbers, 9-11 became re-
scripted as a national tragedy by those in power. 
"Good" America was now compelled to fight a 
shadowy "evil," thus laying the groundwork for 
future conflict and wars.  

If appeals to patriotism are actually counter to 
the aims of even the most modest antiwar 
position, the other half of the equation in 
"peace is patriotic" proves to be just as 
inadequate. To merely object to a war against 
Iraq suggests that there has been peace all 
along, even though the United States and Britain 
have been bombing Iraq repeatedly since the 1991 
Gulf War. More than a million Iraqi children have 
already died at the hands of the U.S.-driven UN 
economic embargo against Iraq, according to the 
World Health Organization. Such "peacetime" 
practices demand a movement concerned with more 
than just preventing a U.S. invasion and 
subsequent military occupation. As antiwar 
demonstrators in Munich recently declared, "Your 
war kills off what your peace leaves standing." 

The Bush administration speaks of peace too, but 
as the ultimate justification for war, much in 
the same way that it contemplates using nuclear 
weapons in Iraq to free the world from the 
dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Whether 
in the form of overt military action or less 
direct interventions, U.S. foreign policy 
practices a peace that is really war, but by 
other methods. The goal today appears to be 
nothing less than increasing America's dominance 
on a global scale in order for a tiny elite to 
have disproportionate political and economic 

In the end, the attempt to mainstream dissent 
through claims of "patriotism" or "peace" 
unwittingly ties our nascent antiwar movement to 
the policies and institutions that create war. 
These two words are inextricably bound to the 
actions of the state, whether we agree with them 
or not. At a time when the United States has 
become thoroughly unilateralist, it is 
disconcerting that many antiwar activists would 
still focus on appeals to the U.S. government, 
which has made it perfectly clear that it will 
not be constrained by the United Nations, much 
less world opinion. Why would this same 
government be any more responsive to its own 

As part of this unilateralism, Bush has demanded 
a regime change in Iraq and is posturing against 
North Korea. Many activists, in turn, have called 
for a "regime change at home." While both the 
Iraqi and U.S. regimes are impediments to a free 
and safer world, a change of leadership in these 
two specific cases will not alter the conditions 
that give rise to systemic violence in both 
societies. Nor are these problems exclusive to 
Iraq and the United States. In dictatorships or 
nation-states, when the few attempt to govern the 
many, coercion--either through warfare or subtler 
methods--is the only recourse to sustain 
centralized power. Statecraft of any kind is not 
the answer. We need a reconstruction of society 
that places power in accountable, directly 
democratic institutions instead.  

To say that "peace is patriotic" ultimately 
buries demands for genuine freedom for all 
beneath a misplaced desire for legitimacy. If we 
want to invoke the liberatory dimensions of U.S. 
history, however limited by their own times, then 
let's look to the New England tradition of town 
meetings, experiments in worker self-management, 
the community self-help programs of the Black 
Panthers, and the movements to contest and 
redefine notions of sexuality and gender, among 
others. Let's forget about appearing patriotic. 
Rather, let's insist on the ability of all people 
and communities to self-determine and control 
their own destinies in a global society premised 
on cooperation and mutual aid. As the Italian 
anarchist Errico Malatesta once proclaimed, 
"Everything depends on what people are capable of 

* * *

We hope that this essay will spark a constructive 
dialogue among antiwar activists, and challenge 
our allies' ideas regarding patriotism and social 
change. In today's political climate, those of us 
who are willing to speak out against the rising 
tide of militarism need each other more than 
ever. Let's work together to demand a world where 
direct democracy, freedom, and diversity prevail.

--Free Society Collective
  Central Vermont
  14 February 2003

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