Here’s a post that I neglected to publish timely, but since it will just sit around and become more obsolete, I reckon now’s as good a time as any to put it out there.
For the record, I love my country and I’m fairly fond of sports, both as a participant and a spectator. I just don’t understand slavish devotion to either.
From McCain’s repeated calls for some sort of expanded national service corps (here’s an example) to Obama’s vague and vaguely threatening “civilian national security force” whatever that means to dreams of Olympic glory, these United States seem awash at the moment in nationalistic demagoguery and expressions of national pride. Not to mention the folks who are all worked up over flag pins and the latest pledge kerfuffle.
Speaking of the pledge, I’ve made a practice of not saying it for several years now and a recent post by Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution illustrates why the pledge is not something those who value individual liberty and civil society should really be fans of. He quotes from Gene Healy’s excellent article on the origins of the pledge and I will do the same:
From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state. Bellamy’s novel was extremely popular, selling more copies than other any 19th century American novel except Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club.
After leaving the pulpit, Francis Bellamy decided to advance his authoritarian ideas through the public schools. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. With the aid of the National Education Association, Bellamy and the editors of Youth’s Companion got the Pledge adopted as part of the National Public School Celebration on Columbus Day 1892.
I got to thinking about all of this recently during the Olympics, when sentiments like “we’re doing well” or “we’re ahead in the medal count,” which is all well and good, national pride being what it is. Such language always jars me a bit though and makes me realize that in some way many of the folks I interact with on a daily basis identify as members of a nation-state. Don’t get me wrong, I love the US and am glad to have been born here and to live here. However, I don’t really think of myself as having any special affinity with the 300 million or so other US citizens that I don’t know or even the Olympic athletes representing the US at the games moreso than any other unknown person living under a different political regime somewhere else in the world. In fact, I might feel more kinship with someone in another country who shared my particular viewpoints, interests or beliefs than many of my countrymen who have little in common with me.
Want to know the origin of the modern Olympics? It had less to do with athletic competition and more to do with fanning the fires of nationalistic fervor:
Despite the high-flying rhetoric of athletic competition, the modern Olympics, restarted in 1896, were conceived of as a political act—a way for the French to avenge on the playing field their battlefield defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (it’s one reason why participants compete as part of national teams rather than as individuals). True to this origin, the Olympics have always provided a stage for world politics, both official and unofficial, well-intentioned and murderous. Hence the grotesque displays of Nazism in 1936, the student protests in ’68, the terrorist atrocities of ’72, Eric Rudolph’s bombings in ’96, and various boycotts, such as President Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of the United States team from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.