Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Nationalism vs. Patriotism

When Samuel Johnson famously uttered, in 1775, that, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" he most certainly wasn't addressing what many might conceive of when they hear the word "patriotism." Instead, he was lambasting the false brand that more closely resembles a strain of exceptionalist chauvinism which translates, in practice, into a blind obedience to, and total endorsement of, every aspect of one's home country. For the sake of a short-hand, I will refer to this as "nationalism" (and I acknowledge that I am by no means the first to conceive of this distinction or choice of terms to describe it).

In Johnson's estimation, certain political powers were prone to manipulate the commendable form of love of country and sense of community that is inherent in healthier manifestations of patriotism, in order to cultivate and wield a crasser form of jingoistic rhetoric most useful for shouting down any and all critics of a nation's actions.

As much as things change, they remain the same. The tension between patriotism and nationalism has been a constant in the world since before the days of Samuel Johnson, and will likely persist for some time into the future. A simplistic description of the standard applied from the perspective of the nationalist is that any and all criticism of the "homeland" is the equivalent of self-hate at best, and traitorous sedition at worst. Bolstered by the claimed mantle of the defender of the native people, and shrouded in loudly professed unconditional love of country, these charges often prove an effective means for nationalists (and cynical manipulators thereof) to demagogue critics, gadflies and those intent on exposing wrongdoing in order to prevent it going forward.

But these "nationalists," and those that abuse their better intentions, end up hurting, in the long run, the nation they so zealously defend in their immediate reactions. Because when a citizen of a nation critiques his or her sovereign, they are doing a tremendous service to that nation as a whole. It is through this criticism, particularly internal, that symptoms are detected, changes are given impetus, terrible wrongs are rectified and legacies of injustice are corrected. In the USSR, there were many citizens decried by the nationalists as traitors. These were dissidents who fought for human rights and other protections for the citizenry. They were accused of hating their own country, betraying the homeland, giving succor to the enemy and, thus, countless numbers were imprisoned, disappeared and executed.

This scene is not uncommon. It is a dynamic familiar to the modern histories of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Patriots rise up, criticize the sovereign, are labeled self-hating traitors, and they are shouted down - or more likely worse. But eventually, they succeed in moving their respective nations forward - like Nelson Mandela who underwent the ultimate redemption from officially classified traitor to national leader.

In America, I guess you could say that our earliest patriots were the founding fathers - and those that fought (rebelliously) against the British crown - putting loyalty to the near community over loyalty to the distant sovereign. Then there were patriots so enamored with the ideals expressed in the Constitution that they mustered the courage to criticize our nation's institution of slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the abuse of working Americans during the onset of the industrial revolution, the entrenched inequality of segregation, unethical foreign policy, injustice abroad, etc. At almost every turn, they were greeted by the nationalists with charges of treason, lack of sufficient love of country and other similar accusations. The familiar refrains: "My country, right or wrong" and "America, love it or leave it."

Luckily for the nationalists, and the rest of the world in fact, the patriots chose to stick around and instead contribute to making America a better place. They risked violence, death, imprisonment and the scorn of fellow citizens to point out that, at times, the emperor really had no clothes, and that things could be done better. The patriots took the exalted concept of America and went about matching up its practices with its principles. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, those patriots tried to, "Let America Be America Again."

This is not to say that some did not, and cannot, go too far in critiquing their own country. As imperfect humans, some who take notice of their nation's flaws can develop a knee-jerk, excessive, rigid and undialectical approach. For these critics, the pendulum has swung too far to one side. Say, for example, the hopelessly misguided Ward Churchill (who, it should be noted, was rather insignificant and obscure before he became the poster boy for pushing the envelope). But the Ward Churchill's are, by and large, the exception not the rule. Most Americans are quite capable of holding two seemingly oppositional ideas in their head at once: America is the greatest nation in the world, yet America is not perfect and must remain ever vigilant to correct its flaws.

Some could argue that the fruits of this vigilance are what actually enable those same people to make the audacious claim about our country's greatness. Gadflies are necessary anti-bodies for a disease free body politic. And even when nefarious characters like Churchill are thrust into the spotlight, we would do well to consider some of the substance of their critiques before addressing their shortcomings. Even those that take things too far can be useful irritants that spark more productive and well reasoned discussions.

Although this shouldn't be a controversial statement, it is to far too many: America is not America again - yet. We have made remarkable strides, but we still have farther to go. And we patriots still have to contend with the scurrilous attacks of the nationalists who, quite ironically, take the position that any suggestion that we should deviate from the status quo, any acknowledgement that we are not yet in a perfect state of being, is "hating America." For them, proudly endorsing every mistake we make, stubbornly defending and justifying every indiscretion, is an expression of love for our country. But this is the love of the enabler, the love that allows for the corrupt and morally repugnant behavior to persist unchanged and unaddressed.

Dick Durbin recently faced a hail of nationalist vitriol when he had the temerity to suggest that the abuses chronicled at American detention centers sounded more like abuses you would discover in facilities run by "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings." Though Durbin's analogies might have been a bit on the excessive side (in scale especially, if less so in character), the interesting, and perplexing, response from many right wing nationalists was: Dick Durbin hates America because he stated that the use of torture and abuse was more reminiscent of despotic regimes than America. The unstated premise of this critique of Durbin is that this reprehensible behavior sounds exactly like America, and Durbin was wrong to suggest otherwise. And somehow that is supposed to be patriotic? To defend torture and abuse as "typically" American and not "typically" something else? How misguided.

The most recent American patriot to dare criticize certain actions and policies of our nation that run contrary to our most cherished notions of liberty, due process, the rule of law and respect for human rights is Al Gore. Here is what Al Gore said at a recent event in Saudi Arabia.

Former Vice President Al Gore told a mainly Saudi audience on Sunday that the U.S. government committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment. [...]

The former vice president said the Bush administration was playing into al-Qaida's hands by routinely blocking Saudi visa applications.[...]

"The thoughtless way in which visas are now handled, that is a mistake," Gore said during the Jiddah Economic Forum. "The worst thing we can possibly do is to cut off the channels of friendship and mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States." [...]

Gore told the largely Saudi audience, many of them educated at U.S. universities, that Arabs in the United States had been "indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable."

"Unfortunately there have been terrible abuses and it's wrong," Gore said. "I do want you to know that it does not represent the desires or wishes or feelings of the majority of the citizens of my country."

It should be noted, for fuller context, that he went on to critique other human rights abuses in the Muslim world and suggest that a nuclear Iran should be a concern for the rest of the Middle East as well as the United States (two sentiments that most nationalists would agree with no doubt).

Now let's look at the substance of Gore's "controversial" criticism of some of the United States' conduct post-9/11: he pointed out that cutting off cultural and personal exchanges through heavy-handed visa rules was a counterproductive mistake, and he apologized for the mistreatment that many Arabs and other Muslims received in the US in the aftermath of the attacks - mistreatment that involved disregarding due process protections, improper detentions, abuse by detainers, wide-netted and indiscriminate sweeps and other actions that do not live up to the standards of the Constitution in specific, and America more generally.

It's important to point out that the substance of Gore's speech is more or less corroborated by the record. These activities did go on, and everyone in that room knew it. For some, probably first hand. So, like any patriot, he pointed out where his nation failed to live up to its promise in order to encourage improvements in behavior, and to provide a message to those effected that America can do better and is better than some actions might convey. Gore expressed the principle that we Americans have higher standards, and do not condone abuses - despite the fact that some inevitably occur. To me, and Al Gore, the behavior he cited doesn't sound representative of America any more than Dick Durbin's recitation of torture and abuse at Guantanamo should remind one of our nation.

But for some who might be displaying nationalistic impulses rather than patriotic circumspection, Gore's words amounted to an expression of America-hatred. Over at Winds of Change, Armed Liberal suggested that Gore wasn't "standing for American interests" by pointing out and criticizing these seemingly un-American activities. Unless violations of due process and abuse of detainees are "American interests"? Or the hardening of borders to the point of stifling the exchange of ideas (our most subversive weapon in so many conflicts)? Not to me.

At Tigerhawk, the author offers this (via The Editors):

There is simply no defense for what Gore has done here, for he is deliberately undermining the United States during a time of war, in a part of the world crucial to our success in that war, in front of an audience that does not vote in American elections. Gore's speech is both destructive and disloyal, not because of its content -- which is as silly as it is subversive -- but because of its location and its intended audience. He should be ashamed. But he won't be. The leadership of the Democratic party should disavow Gore's Jiddah speech. But it won't.
Allow me to disagree. The fact that the audience in question doesn't vote in American elections is entirely beside the point. As even the Bush administration is fond of observing these days, the "war on terror" is a war of ideas - a war for the hearts and minds of moderate Arabs and other Muslims that Osama is trying to win over. So the audience is more than relevant to that cause - in some ways, all the more so. Far from "undermining" our nation in this conflict, Gore is assisting our efforts by portraying us as a nation that takes human rights abuses seriously, and will take responsibility for our own shortcomings in this regard.

It is important to remember that Gore wasn't providing any new information here. The people in the room were well aware of the incidents Gore referred to - and unfortunately many more that he didn't discuss. The suggestion that somehow Arabs and Muslims were ignorant of these events that so greatly impacted their community before Gore came along and "exposed" them is ludicrous, and demeaning to Arabs and Muslims. Rather than breaking a story, Gore was trying to impact the interpretation of events already known to the audience by showing them that Americans expect more, and are cognizant of the fact that these are legitimate complaints. Do you think he would have had more opportunity to influence this interpretation if he denied the underlying events? Downplayed them? Talked about frat-hazing and the like? I don't.

The exceptional thing about the United States is not that we have never erred, because we have - in enormous ways. Our strength lies in our ability to acknowledge mistakes, take responsibility and change the source of injustice. In a region of the world where our commitment to human rights and democracy is all too often viewed as hypocritical and self-serving, Gore is offering an object lesson in accountability and an example of the application of consistent standards.

It should also be noted that the "before foreign audiences" critique is becoming less and less relevant with our modern forms of information dissemination - from wireless and the Internet to satellite and 24-hour cable TV. In other words, you didn't have to be in the room to hear what he was saying. Neither Armed Liberal, Tigerhawk nor myself was present after all - yet oddly enough we have all read his words. Today, vast amounts of information travel at the speed of modems, from one end of the globe to the other. Muslims are, unsurprisingly, capable of using these means of communication and information gathering as well.

Speaking of which, maybe the real people undermining our interests in the war for hearts and minds are those that hype the "clash of civilizations" storyline - the same narrative that Osama Bin Laden and other Salafists are trying to indoctrinate fellow Muslims with. Then there are pundits and figures like Rush "Holiday at Guantanamo" Limbaugh and Michael Savage who say things like we should "nuke an Arab capital," or those that partake in eliminationist musings about the ethnic cleansing of Muslim people from Europe (Andrew Sullivan). Ann Coulter offered up a classic example of "supporting America's interests" and NOT undermining our dual mission to win moderate Muslim hearts and minds and stave off the "clash" at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) attended by such presidential aspirants as Bill Frist. Said Coulter:

"I think our motto should be post-9-11, 'raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'" (This declaration prompted a boisterous ovation.)
"Raghead" huh? That doesn't sound like America to me. The antithesis of patriotism in my book. She should be ashamed. But she won't be. The leadership of the Republican Party should disavow Coulter's CPAC speech. But it won't.

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