Thursday, July 6, 2017

Girls Have Cooties

Now that the fires of the Fourth of July barbecues have cooled to embers and the previously unfurled flags have been folded and placed back into storage for another year, it’s time to consider the dangers of patriotism.

Patriotism is like ice cream: A little bit is a wonderful thing, but too much leads to bad consequences. Patriotism is defined as proudly supporting or defending one’s country and its way of life. It sounds reasonable until you realize the “Us versus Them” mindset lies at its foundation.

From the time we were children, we’ve been indoctrinated with the “Us versus Them” dichotomy. The world is divided into two groups and you must pick your side or be assigned to one camp. Boys to the left, girls to the right. School sports captains divide the physical education class into two teams. Students at large cheer for their school against the competing team. At Sunday school, children form new groups based on religion. It’s always “Us versus Them” whether it’s gender, sports, or religion.

The obvious problem with the “Us versus Them” dichotomy is we always have to be better than “them”. Boys are better than girls. My team is better than your team. My god is the real one. When you divide the world into two competing groups, no one wants to be on the losing team. The first problem with patriotism is that it can lead to nationalism: excessive or fanatical devotion to a nation and its interests, often associated with a belief that one country is superior to all others. In America, we call this “American Exceptionalism”: the belief America is the best country in the world because it chose a different and better path than any other nation.

Nationalism leads to two even more dangerous propositions: jingoism externally and xenophobia internally. Jingoism is extreme patriotism expressing itself in hostility toward other countries. Unscrupulous leaders will often play on jingoism, whipping up public fervor to take their nation into war. After all, it’s “Us versus Them”. Their very existence poses a threat to our way of life, so such leaders ask Us to Rally-‘round-the-Flag and march into battle against Them. While on the home front, such leaders or political aspirants will stoke the flames of Xenophobia: an intense fear or dislike of foreign people, their customs and culture, or foreign things. This targeted hatred of “Them” often quickly turns violent, taking the form of physical attacks on individuals, pogroms, or genocide.

Perhaps more insidious is the subtle effect of nationalism: the devaluation of the life of anyone who is not one of “Us”. I found the answers to these two questions from an online quiz to be illuminating. The first question was “Are some human lives worth more than others?” Overwhelmingly, the response was ‘no’. I disagree. Each individual makes a positive or negative contribution to society, so those who contribute positively are of greater value. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Plato, Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare: their lives were more valuable than those of Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler. If Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden, and Mother Teresa are on a sinking ship and there's room in the lifeboat for only one of them, who would you choose to save? If you answered 'no' to the question, then we'll flip a coin to decide who lives while the others go down with the sinking ship.

Yet, what I learned from the quiz answers was most people say, if not believe, all lives are of equal value. But that’s when weighing individual lives against each other. The second question was more revealing:“True or false, the life of one of your fellow citizens is more valuable than the lives of 10 foreigners.” Once again, an overwhelming majority placed me in the minority by answering ‘true’ to this question. The same people who thought all lives were equal added the corollary that  "our lives” are more valuable than “10 of theirs.”

Why would one human life be worth more than 10? I would argue it might depend on the individuals: say, one foreign humanitarian vs. 10 American convicts; or one American murderer vs. 10 foreign schoolchildren. But the respondents weren’t balancing individuals; they were comparing groups, looking at “Us versus Them” and concluding “we” are always far more valuable than “them”. The insidious effect of nationalism is the devaluation of the life of anyone who is not one of “Us”. We see examples of this constantly in news reports where “129 people were killed, including three Americans” implying the American lives are somehow more valuable than those of the other unfortunate people. 

Girls have cooties. Your team sucks. Your religion is false. I am better than you.

Divisiveness is destructive. It’s one thing to take pride in America because of the democratic beliefs on which this country was founded but we must be careful pride does not become hubris that leads us to believe we are better, or our lives more valuable, than anyone who by happenstance was born somewhere else.

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