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Talking Philosophy with the Kid: Patriotism

February 26, 2012

A couple weeks ago we were at the public library looking for books on Native American history. Nearby were the shelves of US history and the kid picked up one to look through it. It was well-illustrated, full of jolly pictures of children, fireworks, flags, and dead presidents. It even had an odd picture of a bunch of dead presidents, their faces taken directly from old portraits, portrayed as members of a brass band, while children looked on and cheered. She wanted to check out this book.

“No,” says I, and attempted to redirect her back to the Native American books.

She persisted. “Why not? I like this book.”

After a few more tries to ignore it were thwarted, I saw that I would not escape without some kind of explanation. So I tried. I told her that countries are run by governments and that the primary function of these governments is to take care of the people of the country, but that generally they fall into the hands of rich people whose primary interest is to make themselves more rich, often at the expense of the people of the country. I pointed out the presidents in the picture, a bunch of rich old men, who largely represented the interests of other rich old men. Then I explained that sometimes countries need to fight wars to wars to protect themselves and their people, but that sometimes wars are fought just to further enrich the rich old guys in charge, and that the people whom they are supposed to be protecting get sent off to fight and die for them to get richer.

Now why would the people be willing to do this? Because they have been taught to be patriotic, and to equate love of their country with blind following of what the guys in charge say. So when the guys in charge say that you should go fight and die, people do it, because they think that it is in the interests of their country that they do so. They are being brave and loyal, but they aren’t really questioning whether they are fighting for a good cause, they just believe the people who tell them they are.

I pointed out the picture at the very beginning of the book, the Uncle Sam ‘I Want You’ image. This picture, I explained, is bad news. It’s a jolly, cartoony character telling you to go to war and fight for the rich old guys in charge. You, a small child. Books like this are written to convince small children like you to become blindly patriotic so that when the time comes you will do what the rich guys say and fight in their wars without question. Then I showed her how many more books of this sort there were, full of bright pictures and lies about the history of this country. Several prominently displayed ones were authored by Lynne Cheney. And all through this talk as we sat on the floor between the shelves, I peered around nervously, afraid someone would overhear and berate me for teaching my child anti-Americanism.

Of course, that’s not at all what I’m trying to achieve. This is her country, at least as long as she chooses to live in it, and by all means she should love it. But not unquestioningly and not ‘right or wrong’. One of my biggest goals is to teach her skepticism, to question and think through absolutely everything for herself, so that no one may convince her of anything without her consent. I’m not sure how much she really got out of this talk, as hard as I tried to present it at a 5 year old level. But a friend of mine had a good suggestion, when I told her about it later: talk about this sort of rhetoric whenever and wherever it appears – point out the brightly colored candy bars in the grocery checkout line and the sugary cereals at kid level with cartoon characters on the boxes. What tricks are being played on you with these things? What questions should you be asking yourself? It’s not just religion that tries to rope us into unquestioning belief, but all manner of things in our lives around us at all times. I have tried to shield my daughter from advertising by not allowing it into the house (we have no television, no magazines, junk mail doesn’t make it past the recycling bin by the door), but my friend is right, this isn’t enough. She needs to learn how to be immune to it when she encounters it.

Putting the program into effect. I’ll report back on how it’s going.

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