Everyday, millions of Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, sing ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ and memorize the words on the Statue of Liberty without knowing the names of their authors, their political inspiration or the historical context in which they were written. … Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture –including many of the leading icons and symbols of American identity – was created by artists and writers of decidedly leftwing and even socialist sympathies.” (Patriotism’s Secret History by Peter Dreier & Dick Flacks. The Nation,May 16, 2002) On March 19, Adbusters, the culture jamming activist network, publishers of the magazine of the same name and known for such campaigns as Buy Nothing Day and the Corporate America Flag, launched “Boycott Brand America” as an action to protest the impending war on Iraq. Yes, it is correct to blame the transnational corporations’ domination of our government for our involvement in that war. And yes, avoiding McDonalds, Philip Morris, Texaco, Wal-Mart, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Gap and the like is a commendable action. But does the slogan “Boycott Brand America” only reinforce the already too prevalent notion that progressives are poisonous ranting traitors? Wouldn’t it be a more effective “culture jam” to take back the flag and the long history of dissent as patriotic?
Rather than dissociating ourselves from things red white and blue, we need to instead dissociate the transnationals and use patriotic iconology to show how they are destroying community and enslaving us in a regime of taxation without meaningful representation. Symbols and stories are fundamental.
Knowing history is fundamental.We cannot allow the colonization of the symbols of freedom. Citizens must own their history.
THE CAUSE OF BOSTON IS THE CAUSE OF US ALL
At the birth of this nation, the patriotic side of the struggle was the side struggling against being nothing more than a profit center for a multinational corporation.
Nearly 200 years after its founding in 1600, the East India Company had grown massive and worldwide. But its debt financed growth brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. Its stockholders, who just happened to be most of the members of the British government, including the King, passed a series of laws granting it monopoly and exempting it from taxes.
Colonists had been protesting with nonimportation (a refusal to use imported English goods) since the Stamp and Currency Acts of 1764, but this particular attack on the New England based tea wholesalers and small tea houses led to one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in American history. On the evening of December 16, 1773, members of the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Indians and tossed overboard 90,000 pounds of tea from the first tax-free shipment. A popular pamphlet of the time, The Alarm, written by “Rusticus,” asked: “Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America?
Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate that the poor could not purchase them.”
On Oct. 25, 1774 a group of women met in a home in North Carolina to write the “Association Signed by Ladies of Edenton” as their way of saying that “the cause of Boston was the cause of us all”:
“The Provincial Deputies of North Carolina having resolved not to drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth, &c. many ladies of this Province have determined to give a memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honourable and spirited association. I send it to you, to shew your fair countrywomen, how zealously and faithfully American ladies follow the laudable example of their husbands, and what opposition your Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them.”
This is just a single story from a long history of the unfinished struggle for independence in this country. As a progressive, I think it’s important to embrace patriotic symbols and remind people what the flag is supposed to stand for. I do not acquiesce to the idea that the flag stands for McDonalds and Wal-Mart and Halliburton. We need to hold America to her promise of fairness, equality, freedom and justice. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America… What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for.”
BUT WE ARE AT WAR
Contrary to President Bush’s call for us to go out and spend money in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the World War II era gives us an historical example with which a shunning of consumerism is completely compatible.
We’re at war? Fine. Let’s embrace the patriotism of WW II and slogans of that era. Wartime means sacrifices. Frugality. “Use it Up–Wear it Out–Make it Do–Or Do Without.” “Should Brave Men Die So You Can Drive?” On a poster of the WWII homefront big letters proclaimed “Make Yours a Victory Home” and a series of lifestyle actions were suggested, actions which could build a more sustainable and environmentally healthy community: (paraphrased) Find time for community work. Raise and share food.Walk and carry packages. Conserve everything you have. Save 10% of your salary.
LOCAL IS PATRIOTIC
There’s a good reason for the nostalgia in our culture for World War II and the decade after. In that era, known as “The Great Compression,” average incomes rose as never before, and the rich-poor gap narrowed as never before. That’s because most of the growth of the economy went to Middle America – rather than to the top 5 percent as we saw in the recent so-called boom. To quote FDR again, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Keeping your dollars local will reduce the profit of shareholders of multinational corporations, where the greatest fortune is already concentrated. But more importantly, if we shop with our neighbors, we will help create jobs which are more likely to pay a living wage. Locally owned small businesses actually create more than 90% of the new jobs in our economy.
Across the nation, 11,000 local pharmacies have closed their doors since 1990. Independent bookstores now account for less than 20% of book sales. Neighborhood hardware stores are disappearing: two chains have captured more than 25% of the market. An economic impact study done on the possible siting of a Borders Bookstore in downtown Austin found that “For every $100 in consumer spending at Borders, the total local economic impact is only $13. The same amount spent with a local merchant yields more than three times the local economic impact.” Local merchants spend a much larger portion of total revenue on local labor to run the enterprise and sell the merchandise. They keep their profits in the local economy, rather than immediately shipping it out to absentee shareholders. As Michael Shuman notes in his book Going Local, “A community in which money flows out quickly and never returns slowly bleeds to death.”
The first step is to show people that they really can make decisions for themselves about production, work, technologies, food and lifestyle. The mental habit of self-reliance is supported via community self-reliance, which boils down to producing locally for local needs, owning businesses locally, and recycling finance locally. All across the country, small businesses and farmers have been abandoned at every level from city councils and chambers of commerce to state and federal legislatures. They are fighting back by affiliating in local and national networks, cooperatives and alliances. Typical Independent Business Alliance schemes involve consumer education efforts, directories of local businesses, decals in participating business windows, and even discount cards for consumer members of the alliance.
Every effort makes a difference. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. And let’s do it all with a “peace” and a “flag” sticker in our window.
Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mother who was radicalized by the entry of her son into this world. She got active with the Prairie Greens of East Central Illinois during the Nader 2000 campaign, and is also involved in primary caregiver rights issues at a national level. In her previous life, she worked in IT. Joan says, “I know that I am ‘just an egg’ in the endeavor of living more sustainably, and I know there are people in this community who have been at this much longer than I have. I would like to see a group get together and begin working on economic democracy projects, such as a local business directory. If you would be interested in getting involved with this, get in touch with me and we’ll get something started.” Joan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Pay attention to where you spend your money. Spend less in the transnational corporate ruled economy; spend more in your local economy, with locally owned independent businesses and cooperatives.
* Use less energy.
* Buy more food locally from farmers and local processors. Grow some of your own food.
* Drive less; walk, bike and take public transportation more.
* Never borrow money for consumer purchases or entertainment, pay cash or don’t buy.
* You are not your wardrobe.
* Waste not, want not.Avoid buying new stuff whenever possible. Patronize the aftermarket – buy used, barter, garage sale, etc.
* Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Dreier, Peter & Dick Flacks. “Patriotism’s Secret History”. The Nation. May 16, 2002.
Challenging Empire’s Story. Published in By What Authority, Spring 2002 (http://www.poclad.org/bwa/spring02.htm).
Hartmann, Thom. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. Rodale Press, 2002. You can read excerpts, and the real history of the Boston Tea Party at www.thomhartmann.com.
Rebellions from the Winter 2003 issue of Yes! magazine, available online at http://www.futurenet.org/24democracy/hartmann.htm
Livable City – Quality of Life for all of Austin http://liveablecity.com/ (source of the study on Borders bookstore).