About 10 years ago, I used to work with a woman named Callie, who was from New Zealand. She was about as apolitical as they come – I don’t think she’d ever voted in her life, in either New Zealand or the US.
We were sitting around the office one evening with a couple of beers, shooting the breeze after a long, hectic day taking care of the last of the seasonal inventory, and I asked her, “What was the first thing you noticed about America when you arrived here?”
She sort of paused, as if to judge my possible reactions to what she was about to say, and then said, “Well…everywhere you go here, you’re swimming in propaganda.”
I was surprised, and asked her what she meant, and she said, “I always hear people on the news and in the government saying that ‘America is the most powerful nation on earth.’ ”
“Well…I guess it’s true, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Sure, of course. But have you ever asked yourself why that is said on a regular basis?”
I guess I looked even more confused, because she said, “Let me ask you to try something for me. The next time you go to the city, just drive around randomly and stop every 5 minutes. Get out of the car, and look around for an American flag. I would bet you good money that there will never be an occasion where an American flag is not visible.”
So, the next weekend, my girlfriend and I drove over the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco, and tried this. I drove, she kept time, and every 5 minutes she would say, “Stop!” and I would pull over at the next safe spot.
Callie, my coworker, was right: there was never a place where an American flag was not visible. We made 20 stops, and most of the time we did not even have to get out of the car to find one. This was not the 4th of July or Memorial Day (and well before 9/11/2001).
Nationalism saturates American life – it is just the ever-present, ambient sound coming from every form of corporate media, 24/7/365, so ever-present that it has become, in an odd way, invisible. I have come to understand that it is idolatry – subtler, arguably, than building a golden calf, but no less idolatrous. And it disturbs me a great deal.
I wish Catholic priests and laity would stand up more often against this sort of thing. We Catholics, at every level of our society and in every vocation, me included, have failed to do our jobs of providing clear witness against this spiritually destructive idol.