Blacksad and the Question of Blind Patriotism

Blacksad and the Question of Blind Patriotism: An Ethical Dilemma Argued by the Author with Himself
In completing my read of Blacksad: A Silent Hell by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, I was again impressed by the craftsmanship and entertainment of their anthropomorphic take on American noir fiction. The volume is rounded out by an essay on the art process of A Silent Hell (which is very informative!) and two short stories, in which we are treated to two, two page snippets of an incident involving our feline shamus.Thematically the Blacksad stories in both collected volumes have attempted explorations of racism, social stratification, drug abuse, and political corruption, all using the lens, in my opinion, of a historical criticism of the time as filtered through the detective genre. Most fictional hard boiled detectives have had to only deal with dames and the mob; Blacksad has bigger, more controversial things on his plate from his creators, especially in the short story “Spit at the Sky.”
In this quick two-page story set in the 1950s Blacksad encounters a former client, a very upset older female. While out picking up the morning newspaper (which has a very important headline about America and the Korean war) at a newsstand, Blacksad notices her verbally bantering with a police officer on the street with a picture of someone she claims murdered her sons, pleading with the officer in help finding the killer. Blacksad notices the officer is losing patience and gently guides her away back to his office. Having calmed her down once inside, we find out she originally had hired Blacksad to find the murderer. She appeals to him to see if he has decided to pick up the case again, but he reminds her “I told you before, Ma’am, the fellow you’re looking for is too powerful. A second rate shamus like me wouldn’t stand a chance against someone like him.”Blacksad’s statement only upsets her more. The next few panels depict her visibly upset (wonderfully composed and executed by Guarnido), and she laments the following: “But aren’t we all equal in the eyes of the law? This man came to my house and convinced my babies, Joseph and Benjamin, to go work for him. He promised them a good job, and swore they were making the right choice […] I know him, I have his picture, I know he murdered my children, and yet no one seems to be able to bring him to justice…”
“We get the world we deserve.”As she leaves, she gives Blacksad the photograph, and implores him to keep it in case he ever changes his mind. The last few panels show Blacksad hanging the picture and saying the following: “I knew this bird, all right. He’d tricked me, to, with his promises of a better world. I’d discovered his lies in a lost field in Europe, strewn with corpses. Today, many young men were no doubt finding those same lies, in some Korean village…”

The final two panels pull back to reveal the picture of the killer, whom is a bird that looks exactly like the classic Uncle Sam propaganda posters of early America, complete with the I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY slogan.

So what are the creators stating? Is it an anti-war piece? Is it an anti-American piece? Blacksad alludes that he served in combat or military service, which would have put him in WWII in most likely the European theatre, so that would mean his final statement reflected a serious grudge with America’s recruitment services at the time. I do not agree with the authors if they really are attempting to paint Blacksad’s recruited service in WWII (which is the only war he would have served in within the time frame) in the European theatre as wrong (this is a question of course only the authors can answer), as WWII will forever in my eyes remain the great war of sacrifice (both my grandfathers served) by the free countries of the world uniting to stop an oppressive, genocidal, monstrous evil. If there were “lies” of some sort discovered by Blacksad, I genuinely hope that it comes out in the correct context in a later story by the creators. I would like to give the benefit of the doubt that the authors are presenting Blacksad in this moment as being reactionary to the situation of the grieving mother, and his emotions are unfiltered and he carries like so many war veterans lingering issues and questions about life, existence, and purpose in the actions we undertake, not only as individuals, but also as citizens.

With all those complicated thoughts and conflicts ravaging my head as I read and reread the short, I believe that the story is trying to help the reader question a certain idea or theme. The word I keep coming back to staring at that anthropomorphic Uncle Sam is patriotism. So I have been thinking some more with the help of “Spit at the Sky” about what the word patriotism can mean (especially through the eyes of the international community), and I must take into account that there are not only many uses of the word, but that there are many sides to the argument in America, and the world over, to how patriotism is exhibited or practiced (both visually and orally) in times of peace or conflict. However, I knew there was only one logical place for me to start—It all begins with my father.

In thinking about what a word like patriotism may or may not connote or even denote I think of my father first. My father was a ground troop Marine in the late 1960s at the height of the Vietnam conflict. While often he and I do not speak of his time there, I have been able, through the years in a moment now and again in random anecdotes or reflective parts of conversations, to piece together the hows and whys of that coming about. Like most males of his generation, as part of the baby boomers born into a post-World War II America, he volunteered for his duty, not waiting for the draft to pluck him up. He was, and remains, a spiritual man rather than a political one—someone who received the best public school education that the state of California could offer him growing up. Even as he is dismissive of politics and the state of many governmental choices in America, we were raised to support our military, which I still do to this day.

I think of my father, in the context of a discussion of what patriotism is or can be, because my father, despite his unwavering dedication to his country in a time of conflict and instilling of support of our soldiers in our household, today displays no military regalia, insignias, badges, or veteran markers, which some would think is odd. He neither has a bumper sticker, a t-shirt declaring his post-service status, nor any type of indication that he was ever in the service. No medals or commendations have ever adorned the house, inside or out, regardless of days such as Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or any national holiday that goes out of its way to try to honor the troops. It seems that everyone else’s fathers or family who serve wear or even display the flag to display service and honor for their country, what many would probably define as a patriotic act. So is my father—a veteran of two tours of duty in a major conflict where so many died—and his family, by association then, not patriotic—much like as Gloria Ladson-Billings describes in her essay “Once Upon a Time When Patriotism Was What You Did”—because we have never waived flags around or displayed them “properly” in neighborhoods or from cars?

This is part of the problem with a concept such as patriotism, especially as it appears that Blacksad is challenging it; it can be slippery, malleable and adjustable but yet is kept in a stranglehold of stasis by so many. No ideas can remain static or in any type of stasis for the simple fact that life does not remain still. Ideas/words/concepts communicated verbally and symbolically must change as part of the organic process of generational renewal; i.e., every generation needs to evaluate questions of ideas that are meant to be meaningful and engage in discussion about it. In these instances it is indeed good to quibble over the details as it were, and that is what the Blacksad short story is doing, as it makes the reader (me) think about patriotism and what meaning may be derived from it. The purpose of the following writing is not only to create a dialogue with myself but also hopefully open up other dialogues with those who read this and the Blacksad story so that other avenues of discourse and debate can be explored.

Traditional vs. Blind Patriotism

This principle of traditional patriotism I speak of has been taught in schools for well over a century, and as Howard Zinn discusses in his forward to Joel Westheimer’s Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools, he extrapolates that this principle has been taught to the youth of America through learning a selected history filled with being patriotic and doing what is right for a government that wants to do right for you and in a unquestioned and uncritical manner.

By defining patriotism as an unwavering allegiance to one’s country, I can support that I am being a good citizen, and trustworthy person within the community. Such an idea has roots based on the deontological stance of Immaunel Kant’s ethical principle surrounding the categorical imperative: “We are to ask ourselves, before any action, whether our personal principle of action can be acted on or willed by everyone without contradiction.” Why would I not want to have a unified idea about a larger and agreed upon good? Is it not rational to wish to attain such things? Such an idea is grounded in deontological, or duty/law bound ethics. This deontological idea also finds support in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in which I can say that defining patriotism in such a way is just an extension of “[…] the idea that society is based on implicit agreements between its members.” In its own way the categorical imperative, this deontological ethics, is really trying to coalesce as all for one and one for all, which should act rationally as a unifying move toward establishing the “good” for a patriotic nation.

So as I engage in good citizenship by supporting the idea of patriotism as defined as an unwavering allegiance to the nation, I need only justify my belief in it being necessary as an extension of the greatest good for my community, country and its citizens, both current and future. In doing this, I am acting as a good citizen and ensuring that I am contributing to the needs of the greater good of a fully supported government on all levels and the safety of my fellow citizens, who are also in turn doing the same for me.

But there is a series of large problems that develops from taking such a stand as mentioned above. First, to pledge towards a definition of such an unwavering allegiance is to, as postulated by Kahne and Middaugh in their essay “Is Patriotism Good for Democracy,” engage in a “blind patriotism,” which is when one “adopt[s] a stance of unquestioning endorsement of their country—denying the value of critique and analysis and generally emphasizing allegiance and symbolic behaviors.” Such a definition of patriotism is then very problematic and should be considered as potentially dangerous, as it can cause a very myopic view towards any persons (or nations) who in any way challenge or oppose the system as a whole. Hence, blind patriotism rubs against a basic foundational question in America—Is American not a place where the individual is promised certain individual freedoms to pursue what they see as in their best interest (e.g. freedom of speech, beliefs, religion, etc.) as a way to balance power between the people and the government?

Secondly, to engage in unwavering allegiance based on a principle of the higher moral good to a controlling ideological definition would be to continue to engage in, as Joel Westheimer argues in his essay “Politics and Patriotism in Education,” a more authoritarian patriotism. This kind of patriotism is one that “asks for unquestioning loyalty to a cause determined by a centralized leader leading group.” Patriotism, in an authoritarian sense, allows the individual to be controlled, while simultaneously giving a false sense of power in the form of elections and other supposedly democratic activities that rally around pre-existing accepted normed ideologies (e.g., Non-questioned loyalty, superiority of ones nation, conformity) and simplified jingoistic slogans (e.g., America: love it or leave it). Therefore, authoritarian patriotism is being practiced when I define patriotism as an unwavering allegiance to the nation.

Lastly, the aforementioned good in defining patriotism as an unwavering allegiance to the nation brings us back to the problems in accepting the Kantian universalized criteria. Kant is assuming with such a universal criteria (in our case, the idea that patriotism should be defined as an unwavering allegiance to the nation) that through the logic of the categorical imperative that contributes to the greater good, that all functions of society are functioning at the same type of logical level. However, as Nel Noddings once pointed out in discussing Kant, this can not really be so as “Kant depend[s] too exclusively on rationality and the procedures that grow out of purely logical processes […] real people are affected by all sorts of things that are not strictly logical.”

In weighing the possible positives and negatives of this question of patriotism I find it difficult to really grasp the principle as one that should be seen as not being malleable. As a citizen, I believe that to always represent patriotism as an unwavering allegiance is not the best choice, and in fact, based on the arguments and viewpoints I have reviewed, is counter-intuitive to the idea of an individual being an individual even in the context of being an American citizen. To not listen, to not engage with others with opposing definitions and instead impose will upon them with such a misguided notion of the blind patriotism described by Kahne and Middaugh is ultimately counterproductive and harmful. Therefore, if I engage in only displaying one idea of anything (in this case patriotism defined as unwavering allegiance), than I believe I am ultimately not doing the best job of being a free-thinking critical citizen.

The Blacksad short “Spit at the Sky” then for me (and hopefully others) serves two purposes. One, it presents the reader directly with an opportunity in thinking about the difficult idea that perhaps what we hold dear does need to be challenged. What that means is, secondly, the story is providing us with an avenue into introducing such topics as what is it to be patriotic or what is patriotism into a much larger conversation. Whether one decides to agree with the viewpoint, or disagree, is fine, its not about being right or wrong, it is about functioning as a tool of discourse about moral and ethical problems in our cultures. Often, the comics medium has to constantly struggle to be legitimized as a place for serious art that is thought provoking and entertaining. This short story, tucked away inside a beautifully drawn, narratively entertaining volume of a well executed mystery, is another step in broadening the conversations for all comics fans.