When I was in grade school in the 1950’s I attended a predominately Irish Catholic institution called St. Peter in LaPorte, Indiana. We would start each day with Mass and then once we had left the church and reached the classroom we would begin the rest of the day with the pledge of allegiance. In hindsight I now recognize both of these activities for the not so subtle forms of child abuse and indoctrination that they were.
I escaped the clutches of this myopic worldview I feel in no small part through the transformation that occurred with my getting in touch with my queerness. The idea of a person who calls themselves a patriot to me is someone who often unthinkingly is a member of a tribe and this results all too often in a blind and selfish xenophobia. A working title for this piece could have been “Patriotism- Tribalism Run Amok”.
You could view ‘patriotism” as a particularly perverse manipulation of our innate hard wiring to belong to a tribe. Quoting Edward O. Wilson from his great new book The Social Conquest of Earth: “People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous.” It is a bit ironic I suppose that I escaped the white, insular, Irish Catholic, lower middle class and very “patriotic” tribe I was born into by discovering and joining another tribe. For many of us our initial realizations of being ‘different or other’ were very disorienting and dangerous. The early coming out process is a struggle to give ourselves a name that will create meaning for us in what we correctly perceive to be a very chaotic and often hostile world.
Was Mother Nature though handing us little queers a truly change creating gift in the form of our ‘otherness’? Was this a possible genetic gift to the human race with the potential to allow us to actualize a more constructive way of relating to one another as human beings? Quoting again from The Social Conquest of Earth: “…homosexuality may give advantages to the group by special talents, unusual qualities of personality, and the specialized roles and professions it generates. There is abundant evidence that such is the case in both preliterate and modern societies. Either way, societies are mistaken to disapprove of homosexuality because gays have different sexual preferences and reproduce less. Their presence should be valued instead for what they contribute constructively to human diversity. A society that condemns homosexuality harms itself”. I would follow this by saying ‘take that’ all you queer theorists who think we are nothing more that social constructs resulting from societal oppression. A question I have often asked myself since the late 1970’s is have we abdicated our birthright or legitimate power to contribute constructively to human diversity in our often craven desire to be accepted and to emulate the straight world by insisting that we are no different than they are except for what we do in bed. Rather is our true purpose to be the valuable expression of some of humankind’s most altruistic impulses?
I was first introduced to the writings of Edward O. Wilson through none other than Harry Hay who turned me on to Wilson’s 1978 book On Human Nature. For those unfamiliar with Wilson he is a professor Emeritus of Biology at Harvard University. Wilson wrote in 1978: “Homosexuality is normal in a biological sense, that it is a distinctive beneficial behavior that evolved as an important element in human social organization. Homosexuals may be the genetic carriers of some of mankind’s rare altruistic impulses.” Well you can just imagine what sort of manna from heaven this prominent biologist’s theories were for an activist like Hay who had been running around for years saying we were a ‘separate people whose time had come’. It was actually through an email I recently received from Don Kilhefner that I was alerted to Wilson’s most recent work. Kilhefner along with Hay, John Burnside and Mitch Walker birthed the Radical Fairies in 1979.
It is certainly my contention that we are a separate people who time is here and that many of our great queer thinkers long ago saw through the manipulative jingoistic, sense of exceptionalism that passes for patriotism as something beneath us as a people. We are the guardians and hopefully proponents of some of mankind’s rare altruistic impulses and certainly we must know in our hearts that as Oscar Wilde so succinctly stated ‘patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”. Patriotism simply does not suit us if we bother to own our revolutionary potential.
Having said this I certainly own the fact that we often as a people do not live up to our potential as change creators for the better. I do think we veer off course most frequently though when we try to emulate straight society and particularly certain qualities most often seen in the heterosexual male of the species.
American patriotism seems to have a very dangerous component of exceptionalism – we are God’s chosen people. What could possibly go wrong with a worldview in which might makes right especially when driven by a sense of manifest destiny? I think much of the social unrest and sharp disconnects between segments of our U.S. population today are caused by the fact that many folks are realizing that America is not particularly exceptional as a country creating a cognitive dissonance that is truly unsettling. In fact we are responsible for much of the grief inflicting the planet from climate change to drones and kill lists to tapping everyone’s phone on the entire planet to name just a few examples. The war against terror and certainly our last two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been made possible in part by the unscrupulous manipulation of our misguided sense of what true patriotism might be.
I am aware that we are reading our pieces on patriotism on Veterans Day. It seems particularly crass of me I suppose to be trashing patriotism on such a day but I have no problem separating the men and women in the armed forces from the puppeteers manipulating the strings of false patriotism. Chelsea Manning as a young, frail, tormented teenage queer from some God-forsaken part of rural Oklahoma saw military service as the only honorable way out of hell. I am sure she felt she was also doing her patriotic duty. But you see the playing field is not level. The interests of corporate America are really not the interests of the 99%. The corporate oligarchs have no compunction when it comes to playing the patriotism card in order to sustain their empire. A recent example was sited in a piece in Salon today called “Stop Thanking the Troops for Me: No They Do Not Protect our Freedoms” by Justin Doolittle. Doolittle pointed out the patriotic stunt from the opening game of the World Series where Bank of America pledged to donate a dollar for every posting of a troop supporting video to an agency or group helping veterans. No mention was made of the many, many homes of active duty personnel and veterans foreclosed on since 2008 by the Bank of America.
It was either in one of his more provocative moments, or perhaps something I just dreamed up, that Harry Hay once said something to the effect that there are really only two races on earth – gay and straight. I certainly can view queer folk as change creating seeds sprinkled throughout the globe in every country and among every people. This it seems to me lends a compelling element of universality to the human condition that gives lie to the false concept of patriotism. If you buy, albeit, this rather fanciful picture of the human family which I guess I do then our responsibility as queer folk is too pursue in every country on Earth that wonderful and subversive change creating Homosexual Agenda. We truly are all one people on one planet, One Taste.