Patriotism requires no apologies. Like anti-Communism and anti-Fascism, it is an admirable and thoroughly sensible a priori assumption from which to begin making more nuanced judgments. Nor does patriotism need to be exclusionary. I am an American patriot, a Jewish patriot and a New York chauvinist pig. My patriotism is not about governments and armies; it’s about unions, civil rights marches and the ’69 Mets. It’s not Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”; it’s Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land Is Your Land.”
Of course, not everyone on the left concurs. While many nonpatriots share an idealistic belief in a kind of cosmopolitan, humanist internationalism, some–like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the right–really do hate this country. These leftists find nothing to admire in its magnificent Constitution; its fitful history of struggle toward greater freedom for women, minorities and other historically oppressed groups; and its values, however imperfectly or hypocritically manifested in everyday life. This became obvious in a few of the immediate reactions we heard in the wake of September 11. How could anyone say with certainty why we were attacked when we couldn’t be sure who attacked us? All they could know, really, is why they thought we deserved it.
This “Hate America” left must be rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism. It is difficult enough to “talk sense to the American people” in wartime without having to defend positions for which we have no intellectual or emotional sympathy. Many on the right are hoping to exploit a pregnant political moment to advance a host of antidemocratic policies. Principled dissent is never more necessary than when it is least welcome. American history is replete with examples of red scares, racist hysteria, political censorship and the indefensible curtailment of civil liberties that derive, in part, from excessive and abusive forms of superpatriotism. We are already seeing the beginnings of a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Given the importance most Americans place on patriotism as a bedrock personal value, it is folly to try to enjoin them in a battle that fails to embrace their most basic beliefs.
Moreover, the refusal to draw this line invites the kind of McCarthyite thuggishness we see on display in the writings of pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly, and in the pages of (predictably) National Review and (sadly) The New Republic, tarring anyone with a wartime question or criticism as a pro-terrorist “Fifth Column” (Sullivan’s term). Casting as wide a net as possible for their poisonous attacks, they choose examples so tiny as to be virtually nonexistent. In defense of his slander of the people of New York as well as virtually everyone else who voted against George Bush in the “red” areas of the nation, Sullivan pointed to an obscure website based in Denmark run by something called United Peoples. To smear opponents of unfettered free trade and globalization, TNR editor Peter Beinart seized on a bunch of anonymous postings to another, no less obscure, website whose name I cannot even remember. Kelly has now devoted two Washington Post columns to attacking all pacifists as “evil,” “objectively pro-terrorist” and “Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites.” But in neither column could he find the space–or the courage–to name a single one.
Because none of these writers have yet developed the reputation for malevolent hysteria enjoyed by, say, Marty Peretz on Israel or David Horowitz and Ann Coulter on everything, there is a serious chance that the larger mass media, never good at making distinctions on the left in the best of times, will swallow and repeat their reprehensible assertions. The net result will be the exclusion of all progressives, America-hating or no, from the spectrum of “responsible” debate where decisions are made and the nation’s future is determined.
The potential for politically motivated official censorship–beyond that which is genuinely necessary to protect the safety and security of our troops–is never far away in wartime. Politicians and generals quite understandably find the temptation to abuse this power irresistible. We saw countless such examples during the Gulf War, and we can discern hints of future threats from the lips of presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, who endorsed the attempts of a few Madison Avenue mullahs to withdraw advertising from ABC’s moronic talk show Politically Incorrect when host Bill Maher used the word “cowards” regarding the US military’s use of cruise missiles. “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” (Speaking of cowardice, the White House edited Fleischer’s remarks in its official transcript of the exchange.)
Yet another wartime peril to democracy derives from hyper-caution and self-censorship on the part of the media themselves. Why are newspapers like Newsday and the Daily News censoring comics who raise even the gentlest questions about George Bush? Exactly whom does the communications conglomerate Clear Channel imagine it is defending when it instructs its deejays not to play “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Ticket to Ride” on the radio? Why do newspaper publishers in Grants Pass, Oregon, and Galveston County, Texas, feel the need to fire writers and editors who wondered why the President “skedaddled” into a “Nebraska hole” on the day of the attack? Most disturbing of all, why has the consortium of national news organizations decided to postpone, apparently indefinitely, the news of who really won the Florida election last winter? The estimated publication date for the collective effort, overseen by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center and costing more than $1 million, had been September 17. But New York Times political reporter Richard Berke wrote that the now “utterly irrelevant” report “might have stoked the partisan tensions.”
In other words, the threat of “partisan tensions” arising from a potentially stolen election is more dangerous than continuing to live the lie. How wise of our media minders to decide that America needs to be protected–not from terrorists, but from truth.