As many of my readers know, I enjoy watching shows with strong nationalistic leanings. The main reason being that I think nationalism is:
A. One of the most destructive ideologies in human history;
B. Fascinating, as are all human belief systems;
C. Something I once fell for; and
D. Fucking stupid.
Some of the anime I enjoyed watching the most include such nationalistic classics as Gasaraki, Gigantic Formula, Gunbuster, and even shows as subtle with their nationalist messaging as Gate and Mahouka. The other day I was discussing the nationalism in Seikaisuru Kado with Marina, and she encouraged me to write a blog post. So here we are.
Nationalism in my Youth
From as early as I can remember, I recited the pledge of allegiance daily both at school and at the Christian camp my family went to each summer. At the time, I didn’t think much of it.
Later, after I moved to Texas, the enlightened Texas legislature decided to make all the students also recite the pledge of allegiance to Texas every day. (Many people— including, if not especially, other Americans— do not believe me when I tell them this. It is a fact. This happened.) This was not a popular policy in Austin, where I lived. Many of the teachers actively discouraged students from participating. I also refrained. I lived in Texas, but I didn’t feel any particular loyalty to it.
But it got me thinking about the pledge of allegiance to the American flag as well. I had done it since such a young age that I’d never really thought about it.
Fun fact: shown above is the original salute that accompanied the pledge.
Why should we make children recite a loyalty oath at school every day? That is fucked up. And in it, we say that the United States of America is “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” What a joke. Liberty and justice for all? And “under God”? What happened to that separation of church and state? And more importantly, what blasphemy against God! (more on this later)
I also engaged in many of the other patriotic rituals accompanying life in America. In elementary school I went on a field trip to the Texas Capitol, where I met then-Governor Bush (my parents still tease me about how I came home and told them he encouraged me to “Do drugs and don’t read”). And I had the usual liturgy of fourth of July fireworks, “supporting the troops” (what a phrase!), national anthems at sporting events, flags everywhere, including in churches behind the altars, and a general certainty that America is and always will be the greatest nation on Earth.
All this occurred as the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush and America invaded Iraq.
Growing Up with Perpetual War
The invasion of Iraq occurred as I was entering into political awareness and was a formative event for me. I vaguely remember watching on television as the reporters were holed up in a hotel, with the bright lights and sharp noises from the anti-aircraft fire. We knew it would lead to death and destruction, but everyone was excited about it in those adrenaline-filled days, hoping that our country would be victorious. And I remember reading in the following days about the reasons for the invasion and being utterly bewildered why anyone would possibly think it was a good idea. We had just spent a lengthy unit studying the Vietnam War in school (my teacher was a Colonel in the army during the war, who better to teach children that war is the stupidest thing ever?) and came away with the general impression that America had learned something from that. Apparently not.
I recall Cindy Sheehan camping for days outside Bush’s ranch while much of the nation reviled her. I recall the transparent lie after transparent lie that no one seemed to care about. (I thought it was bad then… and now…?) I recall how our hometown heroes, the Dixie Chicks, were despised and boycotted throughout the entire country for admitting they were ashamed the President of the United States was from Texas. I, of course, felt the same way. Was I also a traitor? I recall the disgusting torture throughout the war on terror and especially at Abu Ghraib which was brushed under the rug, its instigators left unpunished to this day. I recall how everyone publicly lamented and worshiped the coffins of soldiers who returned, even as they supported the policies which led to their deaths. Secretly, I thought that the American soldiers were uniformed murderers, if at best unwilling ones. And most vividly of all, I recall how no one spared a single thought for the countless more Iraqis who were killed, by American soldiers, by American guns, by the American people, and by me.
Escape from Civil Religion
As many of my regular readers are aware, I am a Christian. And I was taught from a young age (albeit not in church) that America was a holy nation, a city on a hill. A nation “under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Fortunately I was born into a more liberal religious tradition which, although it utterly failed to combat this narrative, at least had the decency to be uncomfortable with it.
As a child, of course, most of the details went over my head. I simply had the vague idea that God had “blessed” America, because we were a more moral and free nation that any other. But one thing made me particularly uncomfortable, even as a child. The idea of hell. Even if my own church glossed over it, I had absorbed the idea from the popular culture that non-Christians would spend an eternity suffering in hell. This, of course, included most non-Americans, who probably deserved it.
But my father is Jewish.
I did not find it particularly appropriate that he, or my other relatives, should spend an eternity suffering in hell. One day, I asked my pastor at church about it.
He brought me into his office and closed the door. He told me that it was the vocation of God to judge, and of man to be judged. That no human could know the judgement of God, and to think otherwise is pride. That God is love; and if I, a middle school boy, thought I was more loving than God, then I was woefully mistaken. Later I would continue to read the Bible and realize that the popular notion of hell I had been taught was wholly absent.
A year later, I met a retired missionary who had spent her adult life running a Christian school in India. She told me that many missionaries share what she called a “dirty little secret”: a belief in universalism, the idea that all people will be saved. I had never heard of this before. She told me that she didn’t give a fuck if she converted anyone. She simply wanted the children she taught to receive a good education and rise out of poverty.
The next year, I went with a group from my church to a neighborhood right on the border with Mexico, where we were going to spend a week helping them construct a church building. Most of the people living there were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. I feel like being an “illegal” immigrant didn’t have quite the stigma attached to it back then that it does now, but even if it did, the importance escaped me. I was more nervous because this would be my first time interacting on a large scale with “non-Americans” who didn’t speak English. I had the vague impression that they would be dirty and mean, and many of them would be nasty criminals. It would be a dangerous trip.
After a few hours, I quickly realized that my worries were ridiculous. Sure, they were poor, and didn’t speak English, and lived in used cars or houses made of cinderblock. But while we had little to offer them, they welcomed us into their homes, greeted and hugged us enthusiastically, and prepared a delicious feast for us every night. I felt as safe walking the streets of this destitute, poverty-stricken border town as I felt in my home. As we prayed, worshiped, and shared communion with them, I began to understand what it meant that the apostles had spoken in tongues and proclaimed the gospel to all the ends of the Earth.
All of these experiences led me to study the Bible and pray for the next decade. I read how the “holy nation” of Israel continued time and time again to do the most despicable things in the name of God, just as America did. I saw the concern for foreigners throughout the law. I studied the ten commandments: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me”; “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images”; and “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” as every day at school I pledged allegiance to a flag, claiming it was “under God” (also, Jesus’ injunction not to take oaths). I read how Elijah had gone to heal none of his countrymen, but a destitute foreigner. And again and again, the prophets raged against a “holy nation” that God abhors due to their oppression of the poor and needy.
I read the gospels, and saw how, despite the popular belief in America, the empire was right to kill Jesus. He was indeed a threat. No one can serve two masters. One can serve God or serve America, but not both. And I thought on how I was taught that Christianity was “apolitical”. What a load of bullshit. I read another remarkable book, the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, I saw how the apostles proclaimed the Gospel to all the ends of the earth. How Peter ate unclean things. And how there was nothing to prevent anyone from being baptized, since they were all filled with the same Holy Spirit.
Finally, I read the book of Revelations. I realized that America is not Jerusalem, as is popularly believed in America. America is Babylon.
To College with the Infidel
I went to a college with a large number of international students. As a result, probably half of my friends in college were not from America.
I quickly learned that nationalism was not specific to America. Everyone I met thought their nation was the best, and superior to America in every way. I became so sick of hearing the thousandth lecture on the superiority of the metric system. What’s more, they thought their countries were sinless. They had always been oppressed but never the oppressor. (I must give the Europeans credit here: they did not share this particular belief. But unfortunately they were convinced that the imperfections in their nations did not extend to the present day.)
The Chinese students were particularly interesting: they were convinced that their country was superior because it had the world’s longest 4000 year history. To which I honestly had no idea where to even begin in my response. Also the usual suspects of “Tibet has always been part of China”, “Taiwan is part of China”, “the Tibetans are all grateful that we have civilized them”, etc.
Also, I learned that foreigners believe that their countries are more enlightened and aren’t filled with racists like America is. Of course, most of these countries don’t actually have people of other races in them… I had one amazing conversation with a European, where she told me in the same breath that Americans were all racists, unlike Europeans, and that Roma are all thieves who stink and should not be allowed to have children. And I learned that unlike Americans, Asians tend not to even be embarrassed about their racism.
Every single foreign student believed that their country’s cuisine was vastly superior to America’s. They would tell me that their cuisine was so much more diverse than America’s. That their cuisine was older and more refined, since we were such a young country, we had just copied everyone else’s. (Of course, their cuisine usually included potatoes, corn and other ingredients which… came from America…) Invariably, it turned out that they were convinced that American cuisine consisted of hamburgers and fried chicken. Everything else was imported from some other country. I had some very entertaining experiences taking these people to Jewish delis, barbecue restaurants, and Tex-Mex restaurants. They wouldn’t recognize a single dish on the menu, but would still maintain that they knew all there was to know about American cuisine.
Eventually I developed a ritual. Whenever someone told me they hated American food, I would invite them to my house and cook them the most American meal I could come up. Macaroni and cheese, with cornbread and pumpkin pie. Not exactly a traditional pairing but whatever. Here’s what would happen:
- (Asians only) wtf is macaroni?
- You eat NOODLES with CHEESE????!
- No, I’m not going to eat this. This is disgusting.
- Fine, I’ll at least have a bite, but I know I’ll hate it.
- (sees the macaroni) Oh my god is this really edible?
- (three servings of macaroni and cheese later) Hmm… that was better than I expected.
- (the next day) Please send me the recipe.
And after all this, they would still maintain that they didn’t like American food, and that it only consisted of hamburgers and fried chicken. They were proud of their ignorance. Most of them would eventually came around, but it took time. Years of lived experience.
In summary, I learned that nationalism is still present and pervasive. It is by no means specific to America. Although it is often not as powerful a force as it once was, it continues to be a force to divide peoples and cultures. And keep in mind that the people I engaged with were among the most well-educated and intelligent in their respective countries. Meeting these people from other countries, seeing their own versions of nationalism, made it clear to me that nationalism was a hollow pride in the place of one’s birth, something one has no control over, held up by a stubborn prideful ignorance. The last vestiges of respect I had for American nationalism faded away. I was born in America, and I want the best for my country and the people who live there. But if that includes the oppression of others, as it often does when nationalism is invoked to short-circuit empathy and logical reasoning, then no thanks. I’ll pass on blind devotion to my country.
Nationalism in Anime
“Isn’t this an anime blog? Will this guy ever talk about anime?” Fine. If I have to.
In college I began watching anime. One of the most interesting things to me was how, although it shared a lot in common with American culture, many of the ideas I thought were universal were very specific to my own culture. Some of the first anime I watched involved Christianity: D. Grayman, Trigun, Chrono Crusade, Ruroni Kenshin, and Trinity Blood. And… yeah. Very different from my own culture lol.
One of the things I found especially interesting was the nationalism in anime. Compared to talking with other people, this nationalism came across as especially cartoonish. Well, it was a cartoon, but you know what I mean.
And it often involved cases of Japan triumphing over those evil, foolish Americans. Which all my foreign friends at least had the decency to not actually say out loud. I particularly enjoyed Gigantic Formula. The nationalism is particularly transparent towards the end, but it’s actually a really good show. It does have the message that Japan is the best, but it still treats the characters from other countries with a great deal of respect and humanity.
Then there were the shows that glorified the Japanese empire from WWII, such as Gunbuster and Gasaraki (if I remember correctly? been a long time since I watched this one). I couldn’t believe that people in this day and age would actually defend the Japanese empire. But I supposed that America still had people crying about the lost cause of the confederacy, so why not.
Still, to me the nationalism came across as utterly ridiculous.
And keep in mind that this was much more subtle than later shows I saw such as Mahouka.
And I realized that American nationalism was no different.
Should People Watch Nationalist Anime?
Absolutely. The world would be a better place if all Americans were forced to watch Mahouka. While they would be bored out of their minds, maybe they would begin to question their own nationalism, which often isn’t all that different from the nationalism in Mahouka.
I think something is gained by confronting horrible ideas. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. I personally gained a lot by reading of the horrible genocides in the Bible, the unabashed racism of Lovecraft, and the sexism of too many shows and authors to count. And I once read an article about how Huckleberry Finn was banned from a school library for use of the word “nigger”. What the fuck?
Finally, onto what prompted this entire post. While nowhere near the levels of Mahouka’s “eradicate them all” mentality, Seikaisuru Kado also suffers from some insidious nationalism.
The entire premise of the show is that only Japan is fit to receive the advanced technology from the aliens. The reason being that they are the only ones who would share it with others. That they are a holy, superior nation.
A metaphor based on sharing bread is central to the show:
According to the show, not everyone would share the bread. Only those who have more than they could possibly eat would share the bread. Japan, as one of the world’s most prosperous countries, can afford to be more generous.
While this is a much softer form of nationalism than Mahouka’s subtle “kill all the Chinese” philosophy, it is a form of nationalism nevertheless. Central to Seikaisuru Kado is the idea that Japan is a more generous nation than any other. And therefore a morally superior nation. This is the same idea, albeit in a different form, that it took me most of my life to reject. The idea that you and your neighbors are better than other people because of where you are born. That is a ridiculous notion that in the past few hundreds of years has led to enormous bloodshed.
(And as an aside, from my experience, this bread metaphor is ass-backwards. I have found the poor to be infinitely more generous than the wealthy.)