Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been traveling around the country recently as part of a nationwide post-9/11 effort to promote debate about civic values in schools and colleges. According to the Boston Globe, Kennedy spent a day in that city’s top public school, Boston Latin Academy, and proposed a scenario in which “students accidentally end up on a three-day layover in a very poor (imaginary) nation called Quest, where Drummer, a young charismatic man, preaches that the decadent United States should be destroyed. Quest citizens say Drummer offers hope for change and that America is corrupt.” Quest is described as pervasively corrupt; although it has a written constitution, “promises are not kept.” The students were challenged to defend American democracy.

The idea of getting students to excavate and examine the values they hold most dear is an excellent one, although I must say I’m suspicious of such a flatly simplistic scenario. I’d want to know a lot more about the politics, history and economy of Quest. What’s driving the resentment–is it poverty? If so, is the anti-American sentiment merely due to the abstract symbolic wealth of the United States, or is there some specific industrial business presence in Quest–say an Enron–whose unethical exploits have, by exacerbating living conditions, been mistaken for the people and values of the United States? Does anti-American resentment in Quest cut across all socioeconomic spectra–hinting at some more ideological or religious discontent? Or is it the result of some specific trauma, like Bhopal? Has the United States supported oppressive regimes in the region? Is Quest an ally, like Iran or China?

I suppose Justice Kennedy would not appreciate a devil’s advocate like me; I suppose he wants students to imagine Quest along the lines of Zimbabwe or Iraq. I suppose the “right” answer would be that I’d spend my three days proselytizing, as I do right here at home, about the salutary effects of due process, free and honest elections, the Bill of Rights and equal opportunity for all. But any good player in strategic games knows that studying the motives and designs of the opposition makes all the difference.

So I question what was accomplished by the vagueness of this exercise. Indeed, its open-endedness made me think of an essay I read recently by Harvard law professor Richard Parker, in the spring issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Parker urges the “making” of patriotism as a mobilization of emotion–“a political equivalent of love”–that must be “grounded like electricity.” He poses a set of questions to test those sensibilities: “Recall your own early reactions to the September 11 attack. (1) Did you feel that it was, in fact, an attack ‘on the United States’? (2) Did you believe that the United States should defend itself–including preemptive self-defense to the extent necessary? (3) Did you focus mostly on the past misdeeds of our country. (4) Did you adopt a ‘pragmatic’ stance and argue that we ought to govern ourselves by attending to ‘the way we and our actions are perceived’ abroad? those who love our country are more likely than not to give one set of answers: yes, yes, no and no.”

Much of this essay struck me as romantic, murky nonsense; but what troubled me most was its source. Like Justice Kennedy, Professor Parker is powerfully positioned to be advancing a Rorschach test no more reliable than a mood ring–patriotism reduced to “which side of the line did you see yourself on if I flash this picture of September 11.” And it is irresponsible if one is then prepared to fashion a set of consequences for being on the wrong side–as could well be under the USA Patriot Act, which authorizes increased surveillance and interference in the activities of those deemed unpatriotic.

What I thought on September 11 was considerably more tangled than Parker’s test. Lots of people were confused–people whom it would be quite foolish to characterize as unpatriotic. When I first heard of the hijackings, for example, I feared that it was retribution for Timothy McVeigh’s execution only a few months before. That gut reaction might place me on the wrong side of Parker’s test–my fears didn’t “privileg[e] insiders” more than “hostile outside forces.” Moreover, in my conviction that our civil rights are on a continuum with human rights, I might run afoul of his assertion that “strict commitment to universal values,” including the notion of human rights, tends to “stretch and break the bonds of patriotism, as their enthusiasts proclaim themselves ‘citizens’ of nothing less than ‘the world.'” Indeed, by this measure, Timothy McVeigh might have had a greater chance of passing Parker’s test than I, which is distressing, to say the least.

Back in Boston, Justice Kennedy asked “whether it was right to let people in other nations choose dictatorships.” That troubled one senior, who felt that the Justice was saying it was OK to impose democracy. “I don’t agree…[but] if I was in another country, I wouldn’t be able to say such things to such important people. You probably wouldn’t see me tomorrow.” (I do hope the student was a citizen; if not, he could be subject to President Bush’s order allowing indefinite detention of noncitizens without charge in undisclosed locations, with no recourse to lawyers of their choice.)

If I were designing such an exercise, I’d use specific examples–like Argentina under the junta or Turkey under martial law–rather than a one-size-fits-all fictional foe. I’d have students compare the text of the Constitution with the text of the USA Patriot Act. I’d have them studying the right of habeas corpus, to my mind the greatest contribution of Western jurisprudence. And I’d remind them of playwright Arthur Miller’s concern that we not turn our civic engagement into a crucible where a “political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congeries of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”