Karl Hess on the Country, the State, and a new language of patriotism
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.
Thanks to Netflix, L. and I enjoyed Anarchism in America the other day. No, not the condition (alas!); the 1982 documentary by Steven Fishler and Joel Sucher, recently reissued on DVD by the folks at AK Press. It’s well worth watching if you can get your hands on it. Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the interviews with Karl Hess (for those of you following along at home, it’s about 56 minutes into the film, after the segment with the truck driver Li’l John):
Well, I think there’s an implicit anarchism in any of the American tendencies that have organized people in opposition to the State. I think co-ops might have reflected this notion, organizing people not only in opposition to the State in effect, but in opposition to the major economic movement of the time. I think, as a matter of fact, just in the romantic view of the American character, there’s an anarchist tendency.
It is flawed by one thing: the abstraction of patriotism. People who will damn the government from morning till night, and oppose the State in a million and one ways will, at a time of national crisis, become incredibly patriotic, and begin to say they will do anything for the State. And they begin to talk of duty, service, sacrifice … all of the words that are the worst words in the world, it seems to me, in a human sense. … I don’t know why this is, unless it is that these are such good-hearted people that they really believe that the American state is totally different from any other state–and it’s certainly somewhat different. And they feel that it is important to preserve–they feel they’re preserving the country, but the only language that’s available is, to preserve the State. I have an idea that one of these days, there will be another language, in which we can talk about preserving the country–the landscape, the neighborhoods, the people, the communities–without talking about preserving the State. At which point there will be a lot of radical farmers, factory workers, and small-town residents in this country.
— Karl Hess, interviewed for Anarchism in America (1982)
Interesting quote. The Anarchist bookshop where I am showed that movie at a film festival a couple years back but I missed it. I might have to see if I can borrow it from them.
To me, I think it’s a result of the confusion between the political community (Or Nation, if you prefer) that is America, and the State itself. The US state has been very good at turning Nationalism, which in and of itself is a fairly healthy force into Patriotism.
While many Anarchists may disagree, I think that nationalism, when separated from Statism can be a very good thing. It’s a way for people to see themselves as part of a political community outside of their own surroundings.
When Nationalism becomes exclusive or statist, that is when it becomes a dangerous force, but I think it’s no wonder that many of the most powerful oppositions to oppression and empire, even in America, have come in the form of Nationalism. Black Nationalism and Native Nationalism have been important in restraining the American State from being far worse than it is.
I recently posted a defense of patriotism. I thought you might be interested.