A Surfeit of ‘Patriotism’ by Joseph Sobran

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A Surfeit of ‘Patriotism’

by Joseph Sobran

As a result of the 9/11 attacks, we are now suffering from a surfeit of patriotism – or what passes for patriotism. "In the immediate aftermath of the attacks," writes Michael Elliott in Time, "the courage and grace of ordinary Americans inspired millions around the world. But anyone who has traveled in the last month or who follows the foreign press knows that the store of international goodwill is fast being depleted – in part because we seem to think that others should recognize that our wounds, or needs, our flag exist on a higher plane than those of anyone else."

American narcissism can also turn ugly. I rarely sympathize with Tom Daschle, the US Senate Democratic majority leader (a pro-abortion Catholic liberal), but I did so on February 12 when Rush Limbaugh all but accused him of treason. In an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, Daschle had politely and thoughtfully demurred at President Bush’s labeling of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil." He said the phrase had had unfortunate repercussions around the world, upsetting even America’s traditional European allies. And he expressed doubt that military action against Iraq is justified.

What a country. The first time in memory Daschle has said something really patriotic, he’s called a traitor. The next day he backed off, saying he agreed with Bush. You can always tell when a politician has spoken from the heart: He takes it back.

Impugning patriotism is an American tradition. During the Civil War, Northerners who didn’t want to kill their fellow Americans in the South were branded "copperheads" and "traitors." The Lincoln administration prosecuted many of them, or simply jailed them without charges – though we should note that Lincoln always refrained from branding the enemy as "evil."

During World War I many were jailed for protesting the war, and countless others were intimidated into keeping quiet. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt revived the epithet "copperhead" to smear people whose motives were far more patriotic than his own.

During the Vietnam War the country was so divided that it was hard to make charges of disloyalty stick, even against those who were clearly pro-Communist. Most of the antiwar protesters did sincerely believe the war was both wrong and bad for this country. I could never make up my mind; I was put off by the anti-American tone of much of the protest, but also by simplistic, reflexive jingoism on the other side. I knew that Communism was truly evil, which made it hard for me to oppose the war, but I also felt keenly that the war was doing something terrible to this country, so I couldn’t support it wholeheartedly.

My feelings were further complicated by the fact that I was safely exempt from having to go. When a wonderful friend of mine, a heroic young officer, died in battle, I was sick with moral confusion. And guilt.

Still, for me Communism remained the defining evil of the political world.. During the Reagan years, my great relief at the recession of the Soviet threat was almost matched by my alarm at the decadence of this country, which Reagan had done little to counteract.

I couldn’t share the optimistic patriotism that prevailed among conservatives. "We" had "won" the Cold War, but what was left of "us"? This was no longer the free Christian republic I remembered. Just what were conservatives supposed to be conserving?

Instead of embracing peace, now that the Soviets were effectively out of business, the US went abroad in search of new enemies – and conservatives supported the absurd and nasty little war on Manuel Noriega as if he had been a Stalin-scale monster. It was the "patriotic" thing to do. Shortly afterward, a new Hitler was discovered in the Mideast: Saddam Hussein. Again "patriotism" mandated support for the war; Bill Buckley wrote that Hussein posed a "global menace." I asked a friend if he favored the war. "Yes," he said, "you have to support the home team." I replied: "But we’re the visitors!"

We generally are. On September 11 we suddenly found out what it’s like to be the home team. And since I don’t mind saying that those attacks, awful as they were, were in part provoked by US meddling in the Mideast, I find my own patriotism under attack.

You are now "anti-American" if you judge the current US government against the standard of the American political tradition. "Patriotism" means obeying and supporting the incumbents, no matter what they do, but especially if they are making war. Even Roosevelt, whose contempt for the Constitution was boundless, found it necessary to get a declaration of war from Congress. George W. Bush, who favors "strict construction" of the Constitution, can dispense with that formality.

What is patriotism, if not fidelity to your country’s best traditions? And if "We the People," having spoken through our Constitution, find our state officers ignoring our fundamental law, it is they who are disloyal and rebellious. They hold their power in trust, conditionally and temporarily; they weren’t born to rule us, but hold office at our pleasure. And if we allow them to abuse and usurp power with impunity, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

In America, rulers are, in theory, "public servants." The idea that we owe them obedience beyond the powers we ourselves have delegated to them is absurd and slavish. It amounts to a perverse commandment: "Masters, obey your servants."

Yet many simple-minded Christian conservatives take St. Paul’s dictum that "the powers that be are ordained of God" to mean that we have a duty to submit to anyone in power, never mind whether that power is legitimately or justly held and exercised.

Real patriots should be at odds with the US government today. This seems to me too obvious to need arguing. I see a lot of flags around, but not many patriots.

March 1, 2002

-- Anonymous, March 02, 2002

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