“If you’re a good American, stand up!”

 

By Warren Hern and Dan Nickelson

 

The Colorado Daily   Friday, May 12, 1961

 

Churchgoers

Warren Hern and Dan Nickelson took a trip down to Denver recently

 to go to “church” after seeing an ad  in a Denver newspaper

advertising a sermon on Americanism with a free movie thrown in –

 “Operation Abolition.”  Hern is a fifth year  student with a distributed

 major. Nickelson is a senior political science major.

 

 

   “If you’re a Good American, stand up!”

 

     The people rise from their seats.  “Amen”  “Glory.” “Praise God!”  You are afraid to turn your head to see.  The choir is marching up the side aisle in step to the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Each choir member carries a hymnal and a tiny American flag.  They march to the chancel and past a single-standard row of six American flags.  Across from these, another solid row of flags.

     You notice a movement to your left; a file of boys in Boy Scout uniforms present the flag to the congregation.  The speaker begins the Pledge of Allegiance, and while you are saying it you notice the boys’ uniforms.  They are not boy Scout uniforms, for each has a sleeve-stripe at the shoulder.  The youngest uniformed boy looks about four years old.

     After the Pledge of Allegiance, more patriotic hymns accompanied by a very bad, but very loud trombone.  Suddenly, you notice a man in front of you to your left.  His eyes are closed, his fists clenched, his arms moving in time to the music, his head shaking in ecstasy.  The music stops, and he cheers and claps.  The people sit down.  “Praise be to God!”  “Amen.” “That’s right brother!”  The man you were watching turns nervously to look at you, looking up and down looking scared.  He turns back, begins to chew on his fingernails.  The loudspeaker startles you, blaring, Are you a Good American?  Stand up if you are!”

     The city: Denver, 1961.  The scene: a non-denominational “church.”  The atmosphere: strikingly similar to the ritualistic settings shown in the propaganda films of recent authoritarian political movements. 

     The loudspeaker screams at you, drowning every other sensation; you are reminded of the “Two-Minute Hate” in 1984.  The speaker is saying, “America for Americans for America!”  He screams accusingly, “There are Communists here tonight…right now!  We know you’re here!”

     You are afraid to move, afraid to look away from the speaker, afraid to cough lest the speaker seize upon your action as proof of black sin.  The speaker waves a large Bible, quotes J. Edgar Hoover, pours Hell-fire and damnation on “You…you…you….”  “That’s right, brother!”  “Oh, Lord!”  “GOD SAVE US!”

     The man in the next row has his eyes closed again, cheering and striking the air before him.  The speaker’s voice becomes quiet.  He says, “We believe in freedom of opinion, freedom of speech…We believe in the American Way of Life…We hate COMMUNISTS!” “Amen.” “That’s right, brother.”

     His voice rises…”If you aren’t an American and for America, we’re AGAINST you!”  If you don’t agree with us, GET OUT OF THE COUNTRY!”

     The man with the hyperthyroid eyes turns to look at you over  his shoulder.  You cringe, look away, try to appear calm.   He turns back to his ecstasy, and you relax a little, but you feel like turning up your collar to hide the back of your neck.

     “If a teacher won’t pledge allegiance to the flag of America, he shouldn’t teach your children…he should be RUN OUT!”  “Praise God!”  “That’s RIGHT, brother!”  “…America for Americans for America!”  “Glory!” “Amen.”

     After the shouting speech, a collection is taken.  You’re in the second row of the middle section.  The plate comes to you already heaped with five and ten-dollar bills.  You furtively put in some loose change.  You look up to see the man in the next row staring at you, his eyes wide, nervous, suspicious.  You look down, away, anything to avoid his glace, knowing he will jump up any second and shout, “He’s a COMMUNIST!”

     Finally, they show the film you came to see: “Operation Abolition.”  The crowd reacts as before, cheering the police and booing the students, laughing when a demonstrator is washed down the steps. 

     After the film, a different speaker takes the platform.  He works up the crowd to a frenzy again, but you notice he is less effective than the first speaker.  He tells of a group they will be organizing on nearby college campuses.  The group will be called “The Student Patriots of America.”

     “We will start a newspaper,” he says.  The newspaper will be called “The Student Patriot.”  The speaker tells the people it will take $5,000 to start the newspaper and college organizations.  “Who is a Good American?  Stand up.  Who is a Good American who will pledge $100 tonight for this cause?”

     One man stands up, then another, and another.  Finally, no more respond.  “Who is a good American who will pledge $50 tonight?”  The speaker works down to $25, to $10, to $5, to $1, and then he and the first speaker start going through the audience, row by row, collecting $1 and $5 bills.

     When we got outside, we estimated that the second speaker had received over $850 in pledges, not counting the offering before this film and the row-by-row collection afterwards.  Not bad…not bad at all.

     As we started back to boulder, we were sobered by what we had just seen.  Why?  Why do these people turn to demagogues?  Why do they let themselves be used?  Why are these demagogues so effective?  Why do people surrender themselves to blind, mindless hate?  Why the strange alliance of religion and super-patriotism?  We came to no definite conclusions, but many things became clear as we discussed the experience.

     The speakers had alternatively played on feelings loyalty, rivalry, conformity…but most of all, fear.  The people are afraid, but powerless to act.  They feel insignificant in a mass society, confronted with inscrutable forces  while cut off from any immediate means of dealing with those forces.  They feel threatened, but they are not sure what threatens them.

     The speakers directed this diffuse fear toward a faceless ogre, a scapegoat on which the people could focus their emotional energies.  With it the “ministers” coupled an authoritarian religious attitude drawing the people into a masochistic feeling of blind, selfless submersion in a pseudo-“loyalty,” a perverted devotion, an ultra-nationalism. 

    The “in-group” appeal was strong, expressing overt hostility to all “foreigners” and persons of different opinions.  Absent in the tirade was any rational analysis of communism as an ideology or movement.  Not one word was spoken about the effects of communism on individuals or groups. 

      No rational exposition whatever was made of the ways of dealing with communism in actual situations.

     The main argument against communism was that it is “Godless and atheistic.”  After all, God is on our side.  Ours is the Truth, the Way, and the Life.  We noticed also an almost conscious effort on the part of the “ministers” to obscure thought and foster blind obedience.

      What are the consequences?  What does this do to our society?  We shudder to think of what might be in store.

     During the Conference on World Affairs, Henry Steele Commager pointed out that nationalism throughout the world is becoming more and more militant while our problems are increasingly global in nature.  It is clear that we, as leaders of the “free world,” cannot afford to become more nationalistic.  We cannot afford to draw into ourselves.  Yet it seems to be happening.

     The kind of attitude and hysteria described here can only destroy us from within by dissipating our energies on mutual suspicion.  It can only choke our efforts to deal with Communism on an effective basis in the rice paddies, deserts and jungles across the world. 

     We might call it “The new Hypnosis,” for it paralyzes thought abolishes the individual, and fills the vacuum with a political trance.  It is the old totalitarianism with new fixtures.  Don’t say with the aristocrats of the 30’s that “it can’t happen here”…because it could happen here.