May 13th, 2005

Obligation to the State Section from Zinn's Declarations of Independence

Obligation to the State Section
from Zinn's Declarations of Independence

Despite all I have said about the gap between law and justice and despite the fact that this gap is visible to many people in the society, the idea of oblgation to law, obligation to government, remains powerful. President Jimmy Carter reinstated the draft of young men for military service in 1979, and when television reporters asked the men why they were complying with the law (about Io percent were not), the most common answer was "I owe it to my country."

The obligation that people feel to one another goes back to the very beginning of human history, as a natural, spontaneous act in human relations. Obligation to government, however, is not natural. It must be taught to every generation.
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If Plato had lived another 2,000 years or so he would have encountered the argument of Henry David Thoreau, the quiet hermit of Walden Pond who wrote a famous essay on civil disobedience. Thoreau said that whatever good things we have were not given us by the state, but by the energies and talents of the people of the country. And he would be damned if he would pay taxes to support a war against Mexico based on such a paltry argument.
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And so it is that the admirable obligation human beings feel to one's neighbors, one's loved ones, even to a stranger needing water or shelter, becomes confused with blind obedience to that deadly artifact called government. And in that confusion, young men, going off to war in some part of the world they never heard of, for some cause that cannot be rationally explained, then say: "I owe it to my country."

It seems that the idea of owing, of obligation, is strongly felt by almost everyone. But what does one owe the government? Granted, the gov- ernment may do useful things for its citizens: help farmers, administer old-age pensions and health benefits, regulate the use of drugs, apprehend criminals, etc. But because the government administers these programs (for which the citizens pay taxes, and for which the government officials draw salaries), does this mean that you owe the government your life?

Plato is enticing us to confuse the country with the government. The Declaration of Independence tried to make clear that the people of the country set up the government, to achieve the aims of equality and justice, and when a government no longer pursues those aims it loses its legitimacy, it has violated its obligation to the citizens, and deserves no more respect or obedience.

We are intimidated by the word patriotism, afraid to be called unpatriotic. Early in the twentieth century, the Russian-American anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman lectured on patriotism. She said,

Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. . . . Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others."

Even the symbols of patriotism - the flag, the national anthem - become objects of worship, and those who refuse to worship are treated as heretics. When in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a citizen has a right to express himself or herself by burning the American flag, there was an uproar in the White House and in Congress. President Bush, almost in tears, began speaking of a Constitutional amendment to make flag burning a crime. Congress, with its customary sheepishness, rushed to pass a law providing a year in prison for anyone hurting the flag.

The humorist Garrison Keillor responded to the president with some seriousness:

Flag-burning is a minor insult compared to George Bush's cynical use of the flag for political advantage. Any decent law to protect the flag ought to prohibit politicians from wrapping it around themselves! Flag-burning is an impulsive act by a powerless individual-but the cool pinstripe demagoguery of this powerful preppie is a real and present threat to freedom.'

If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one's country, one's fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles... (page 299) Patriotism would mean not blind obedience to a nation's leaders, but a commitment to help one's neighbors and to help anyone, regardless of race or nationality, achieve a decent life.