#158 – Bob Barkley: “Useful to those in power….”

Written by admin on February 13th, 2010

I have been reading Howard Zinn’s A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. It is a collection of his essays on a variety of topics all of which portray the benefits of civil action to reign in the powerful.

About half way through there is an essay on Nationalism. In it I was struck by the term applied to certain factors that are “useful to those in power.” I had not thought of this label applied to many of the attributes the concern me but it is about as apt a description as I have heard for many of these negatives.

There is nationalism – the blind support for the fictitious boundaries that separate people only, for the most part, due to the pure chance of their birth. Nationalism is used to rally support for “your country” against any other country that does not agree with your leader’s espoused definition of what is best for your country. It is terribly useful to those in power in your country, and they almost always exploit it to their ends. Often those citizens who are not in agreement with their national leaders at a particular point in time are labeled as traitors to their nation.

There is religious fundamentalism – the extreme and historically and theologically unsupported allegiance to a literal interpretation of conveniently isolated and selected excerpts from the Bible or other holy document. Those in power in the US and in many Middle East countries almost always introduce or close their official statements with some utterance of loyalty to a popular divinity. It is exploited to the point that there is almost never a second thought given to it.

There is imperialism – the assumption that through whatever means your country has at its disposal, and for whatever purpose/need your leaders assume is justified, your nation can impose itself on others. By dramatizing that purpose/need, a nation’s leaders exploit popular zeal for imperialistic invasion and occupation of foreign lands. It is extremely useful to those in power to trumpet the threat of others to the selfish and often shortsighted wants of the people. Such behavior is specifically inconsistent with the teachings of all major religions yet this is conveniently ignored by those in power – EVEN many of those in power in these religions.

There is patriotism – the expectation for all those in a particular country to steadfastly display loyalty to one set of beliefs about how a country should behave as defined by that country’s leaders. Allegiance to those leaders themselves is misplaced for allegiance to what the country actually stands for or the principles upon which it was founded and established. Almost without exception national leaders define patriotism as loyalty to their particular beliefs and goals and anyone who does not espouse those particular beliefs and goals are branded as unpatriotic. In deed, we go on to celebrate events and people who have adhered to the popular beliefs and goals at a particular time in history even when history proves beyond doubt the inappropriateness of such adoration. Columbus Day comes to mind.

There is divine sanction – the almost incredible and inane conclusion that whatever evil or violence a nation imposes upon others is justified by some message from a divinity of some sort. While this grows out of the religious fundamentalism spoken to earlier, it is unfortunately and often unconsciously adhered to even by those that would not be considered religious. “In God We Trust” emblazoned on the coinage of the nation or on our license plates is an example of the aura of divine sanction that subtlety engulfs us all – often with not a second thought by many. We even have presidents who proudly proclaim that “God told me to do it,” or “I prayed about what to do” to explain away their actions that seem inappropriate to many of us.

There is the claim of moral purpose – the ultimate in an ends justify means mentality. And too often the moral purpose is, in fact, immoral and is little more than violent revenge and reactionary and driven by emotion rather than reason. At these times the hard work and competence demanded of nonviolence is rejected out of hand. And, throughout history, in the case of military super powers, the easiest alternative is military action justified by some strange morality.

There is the sense of moral superiority – the illusion that whatever is done is acceptable because of the erroneous assumption that ones own country is surely more moral than any of its competitors/enemies. This sense leads to the claim of moral purpose. Those in power almost never reveal any thought that their country could be wrong and is certainly as moral as it could possibly be – at least comparatively. And the people find it convenient to fall in step with such thinking, so leaders exploit it without exception.

To sum this up there is the over riding loss of any sense of proportion – the inability and/or unwillingness to apply reason and deep thought to the grand scale of what is happening around us. We have been wired to emotional and shallow reasoning. Psychologists have been pointing this out repeatedly. It is not new but it is fatal if not challenged. It is an outgrowth of a combination of stunted education and continual spin by the media and politicians. It is easier to follow than think, and leaders exploit this phenomenon endlessly.

All these characteristics are present in trump today. They serve our leaders well and we the people poorly. They must be raised to public consciousness and publicly challenged.

Bob Barkley, counselor in systemic education reform, author, and retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association. Worthington, Ohio.