Let me just say this up front: I am a true Patriot. I am also an academic. So let me, as all true academics do, offer a little background and take a moment to define my terms here.
FAKE PATRIOT ACTS
Now, most American expats go through a process of feeling extremely Americanized and feeling more "patriotic" during time spent outside the motherland. We miss our favorite downhome foods, the comfortable dialect of one's folks or family, or a regular neighborhood haunt. I went through the same process on my first extended period living overseas, when I went to Germany my senior year of high school. The next time I found patriotically pining for home was when I lived in another postwar cultural colony of the United States – South Korea – from 1994-1996. I still remember getting all Rambo when discussing the issue of the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying something along the lines of, "Well, Korea had damn well better be grateful we dropped nuked those Japs back to the stone age and fought the Korean War for them, because otherwise they'd be celebrating Kim Il Sung's birthday as a national holiday, just like the North Koreans!"
Don't ask me to recall the particulars of the conversation; let's just say that even at the moment I was saying it, I realized I had been overseas way too long. This was just the kneejerk nationalism you get when you're homesick, you live on an island off the coast of South Korea, before cable, Internet, and less-than-$2-per-minute international phone calls. The international edition of Time and Newsweek weren't even regularly sold where I was, so it was balls-to-the-walls Korea or go home. I did the hard core thing, but I was starting to go funny in the head.
A REAL PATRIOT
I think love of one's country – as defined in the ideals it stands for and worth being proud of – transcends the passing politics of the present, party affiliations, or the cult of political personality. What I mean to say is that my hatred of Bush and his administration is not the kneejerk reaction of a Democrat or unexamined "liberal" group-think. Also, I don't think blind support of the President is a duty of the truly patriotic. The American president is an office far bigger than the person sitting in it – I feel no obligation to support a president who I think has violated the powers provided him by his office. The American President is a position, not a person, and whosoever violates the limits placed upon that position by the Constitution and the people should be called out, at the very least.
OLD SCHOOL VALUES
My allegiance lies with protecting the lofty ideals of America and the governmental structures that made our national and political culture unique in the history of the world – and which also inspired countless governments that came after it with its lofty example. It is not hyperbole or jingoistic nationalism to say that American experiment offered the world a first, shining example of a truly viable democracy. And the Revolution that spawned it, while narrow in scope at the beginning – begun over a tax dispute and the subsequent limited debate over appropriate parliamentary representation – ended up being a true revolution in political thought, after which the world would never be the same. The French Revolution rolled up right behind it, as did the heads of its political opponents, followed in turn by African slaves in Haiti successfully taking back their freedom only a few years later, when they rightly murdered many of their French masters and put some of their heads on stakes. Napoleon bugged out of the "New World" and sold Jefferson the middle third of North America for a song.
Even Ho Chi Minh based his liberation movement's principles upon our own, calling upon the philosopher John Locke's idea that if a government – for which the sole raison d'être is the securement of one's property in both possessions and rights – is ever found to be negligent in doing so, or does not possess the mandate of the people, it is the right and even duty of said people to reform or even oust the government. The assumptions of Locke and the American Revolutionaries are quite radical in the conclusions they draw. Too bad the United States had become so conservative in its operation that it had completely forgotten the radical politics that created it, which would soon lead to the French being restored in power in what was then called Indochina.
By the time we get to the creation of a Bill of Rights as political compromise, as a stipulation for the Anti-Federalists signing off on a new constitution that created a central government with incredibly strong power, something that grated against their post-Revolution near-paranoia that assumed that central governments were doomed to become corrupt and abusive of their powers, the world would be witness to the most radically progressive political document ever created that protected the rights of the individual.
And the Bush administration has been taking an arrogant, extended piss on both the spirit and even the letter of our founding documents throughout his entire administration's political reign.
So I don't hate Bush just because I'm a bleeding-heart liberal with a kneejerk response to anyone of a "conservative" stripe. I love the ideals of America and its Constitution, even with the few glaring flaws that eventually needed "working out" – namely, oh, you know, its protection of the right to own human beings, not explicitly outlining the extension of political rights to anyone than propertied white men (having a certain amount of property was a requirement for most states until the early 1800's).
But the ideals espoused in the Constitution are as infective as they are inspired. Almost all governments in the world to that point were a system of some kind of monarchical, hereditary rule. Most societies in the world worked within a social system that explicitly placed some kind of elite at the top and gave them most political rights. Whether you're looking at the English gentry or Korean yangban, around the world, it was variations on the same theme. So it went with the peasantry, who were thought of in most societies in the world as barely human. There were exceptions, sure, but they were either too brief or too unsustainable to be duplicated.
America's democratic legacy has not to do so much with its endurance in time, but with the number of true revolutionaries inspired by our example. Right after our came the French Revolution, then the Haitian, and on and on throughout history.
NEW JACK AMERICA
One of the vaunted things we always talk about "fighting for" is the constitutional obligation to protect the rights of individuals and guarantee the equal protection of the law. So when it becomes clear that patterns of societal discrimination make an equal access to the basic rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" impossible, it is the government's responsibility to secure them. Now, I realize that poor whites, women, and people of color were not on the minds of most founders when the Constitution was written; but you basically have to argue that poor whites, women, and people of color don't deserve political rights at all in order to make use of this fact. But if you are do not follow that line of logic – which most non-members of the KKK would not (even though the KKK is a terrorist organization mostly constituted by poor whites) – you can't then turn around and talk about constitutional intent after the fact, e.g. "well, the Constitution never intended Civil Rights legislation."
It's in the spirit of the law, not within its letter. Rocket-propelled grenades, F-16's, nerve gas, and nuclear bombs were also not around at the time of the writing of the Constitution, but we all pretty much accept the reasonable conclusion that individuals owning items on such a list of tools of mass destruction would be more harmful to preserving the "general welfare" of our society than a help. The Founders lived in a post-Revolution world, in which they had just gotten through fighting what they viewed as a corrupt and power-drunk regime bent on stripping them of their former English liberties; they had waged war with their hunting rifles and privately-owned muskets; they waged the war with their own community militias; so of course such an idea as the "right to bear arms" would be included as one of the first amendments to the Constitution. We often forget about the 3rd Amendment, which says that "no soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in a time of war, but in a manner prescribed by the law."
This is an irrelevant remnant of a paranoid, post-revolutionary time. In terms of my personal rights, I am not worried about the very unlikely possibility of being asked to house soldiers, since the government usually provides soldiers with their own private bunkers. But it's interesting to note that the government is not legally prescribed from doing so. Nor has, as many people erroneously believe, slavery been abolished in our country. From Amendment 13: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." [Italics mine.] But for as many chain gangs and the later excesses of the "prison-industrial complex" as can be enumerated here, straight-up slavery as a punishment for crimes would not be tolerated in our world. The right to enslave is a value that the vast majority of the population doesn't share, and slavery as an institution is something most reasonable people have no desire to see reinstated, whatever the justification may be.
So of course, present-day society is limited by the letter of the Constitution, but we are also guided by present-day norms and values when making decisions not explicitly spelled out in that founding document. Bazookas, space-based weapons, the Internet, Civil Rights legislation, or animal rights – none of these things were on the mind of even the most enlightened and forward thinking of the Founders. We inevitably channel the spirit of the document even as we pay close attention to the letter of its laws. So it goes on, even to this day.
SELLING OUT OUR RIGHTS
So when I look at the "Patriot Act" or what's worse – the proposed "Patriot II" bill – it makes me realize how far down the slope we've started. Just like the Federalists in the 1790's, when power-crazed John Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition acts to crush his political opposition (which later coalesced politically into the Jeffersonian Republicans and the first real political parties) in the name of war and rumors of war, the Bush administration has decided that it is worth sacrificing our way of life – the basic protections of individual rights from the prying interests of the state, as promised to the Anti-Federalists as condition for them signing off on the Constitution in the first place – for the sake of countering the phantom menace of "terrorists."
I agree – we are dealing with bad people. They did bad things to us and others in the world. But this kind of political reaction has many precedents in history – including especially our own – and the menace we faced has usually not in actuality posed a threat commensurate with our overreaction. The "missile gap" idea during the Cold War in a case in point. In the same way, the Islamic extremist terrorists pose a concrete and definable threat to the United States and its interests. But this is not because of bombs or planes crashed into buildings, but because the true power of terrorism lies in exacting long-lasting economic, social, and psychological damage upon its target. Because of a single incident meta-incident, on a single day, perpetrated with cheap cutting tools that were not even contraband items at the time they were used, America has entered into two separate wars that have not made the world a safer place for Americans or anybody, our already-shaky economy has been pushed to the breaking point, Americans live in constant fear in a world that is not decidedly more dangerous than before (Al-Quaeda has been officially attacking the US and its interests since 1993 and I believe the reports of CIA spooks who say they stopped a major set of attacks on New Year's Day 2000).
Certain groups of people have formed small organizations – for a variety of reasons, some reasonable and some not – to take out hatred of America as terrorist acts. But we're still talking people who number in the several thousands, not millions. We're talking about specific groups who mostly have a long and identifiable history, who are not unknown to us, who can be traced and eliminated. We're talking about groups whom even the Taliban – post-9/11 – wanted nothing to do with, and with whom Saddam Hussein himself, according to actively-ignored CIA intelligence, wanted nothing to do with and even offered his condolences to individual Americans after the attack, even if he was still salty with Bushes I and II about US sanctions. International cooperation to catch terrorists? Totally possible after 9/11, but somewhat soured by American unilateralism and bullying. The cooperation of groups who could actually locate and isolate these badguys better than we can? Possible, until we started behaving unilaterally, as if we were the first country in the world to experience terrorist attacks that have rocked and shocked a nation. Did we have the sympathy of basically the entire world – even erstwhile enemies – to work with? Yeah, but we squandered that pretty fast. We even alienated the populations of our staunchest, Cold War-era NATO allies – our teammates throughout decades of fighting against the dreaded "Red Menace." 50 years of hard-won and defended diplomacy – gone in a flash. Perhaps we should listen to the words of the coldest of Cold Warriors – Robert McNamara – as put down in the documentary The Fog of War, when he was specifically talking about Vietnam, the other ill-thought war to which the present Iraq war is being increasingly referred to: 'If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." All these interviews took place well before the second Iraq war.
WHO IS "CONSERVING" WHAT?
What is the meaning of "conservative?" I believe this term has been misappropriated by people who could be better described as "reactionaries." If there is anything that most "conservatives" are trying to preserve, it is a way of life that never really existed. There was never a "good old days" when everything was good for all people, when there were no social inequalities and associated tensions, when there was no political contention, when everything was hunky-dory. Maybe for some middle and upper-class white folks, but not for a lot of other people. Perhaps that's why most self-described "conservatives" are – you guessed it – middle and upper-class white folks. Oh, my gosh! What a revelation in political science!
Most "conservatives," in my estimation, are trying to preserve nothing more than the status quo, or the particular conditions that make their lives comfortable, defined in terms of not just economics, but ideology and cultural power as well. So as Spanish-speaking immigrants, as myriad immigrant groups before them did in American history, enter our society with the carry-on baggage of foreign customs and a foreign tongue – certain people freak out. As paltry government policies give groups – who've experienced the discrimination of centuries of pro-white, both de facto and de jure "affirmative action" – a little tip of the scale in the opposite direction, certain people freak out. When making fiscal policy, many of these people also support those they most directly benefit from – not the ones that might benefit the most number of people. This also goes along with what I'm talking about.
These people are far better described as "reactionaries" working to protect their own, best interests. I define myself as a "conservative" in that I am protecting an original set of American ideals, as defined in the tenets of the wave of revolutionary republicanism that inspired our Founders to pick up weapons against the British, or the waves of populist democracy that redefined political participation from the late 1820's. These are true American ideals, albeit marred by the political concerns and moral limitations of their respective times, but for which their true merit has endured until the present day. These are the ideals worth "conserving," since they are the very definition of what it means to be "American."
I'm "progressive" in action, but in terms of working to fulfill the still unrealized dream promised by our lofty ideals. I don't think of our initial Revolution as a failed one because it could not rise above the material concerns of its time, i.e. slavery; many historians call the Civil War "the last battle of the American Revolution" because it simply took that long for the initial, inherent contradictions evident in our founding documents and ideals that long to work themselves out. the Civil Rights movement is another echo of that initial Revolution, as the infective rhetoric of "freedom from slavery" had been channeled through the voices of African-Americans in bondage from as far back as the Stamp Act Riots of 1765. That voice remained unquelled for centuries and only found true purchase in an America existing in very different circumstances than when it had originally been founded. But that voice remained constant throughout, a true American ideal. So it goes with every social liberation movement before or since – the ideas of social equality and the equal protection of the laws is as American as apple pie.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is simply a "reactionary." Spanish-speaking immigrants are not a threat to our language, any more than the Eastern European, Chinese, Japanese, German, or non-voluntary African immigrants who have come throughout American history have been. But they are a threat to a contemporary notion of the status quo and an idealized, imaginary time when things were supposedly "better" (although many people were not included in that rosy picture). Blacks demanding basic equal access and rights were a threat to the status quo. So were women asking for an Equal Rights Amendment (which still has not been passed). Gays demanding the right to the secular institution of marriage (contrary to uninformed popular belief, the particular origins of marriage as a religious sacrament doesn't make it a religious institution, since there are no religious requirements to get married, hello!) in the same way that interracial couples did only 4 decades before.
Many of the Founders didn't like each other, and the Federalists based the Constitution on a politics of contention, not consensus. It assumed the existence of different political interests and factions. The nature of such factions and contention was different, naturally, but the principle the same. "You don't have to agree with each other to get along," they were saying." In fact, the inclusion difference of opinion and even vested interests in the political process – what Madison called "factions" – would help guarantee a natural balance of society's myriad sectors and interests within the government. Faction was not a threat to balance within a republic, but rather the guarantor of its integrity. And we've gained a lot more interests and factions than were extant in America during the 1780's; the fact that this is reflected would be neither surprising nor new to the Federalists who were arguing for the adoption of a new Constitution. You Rush Limbaugh-listening, O'Reilly Factor-watching radical bigots should go back and read Federalist #10. Everybody has a stake in government and every voice should be heard.
TOWARDS SOME NEW DEFINITIONS
You don't have to be a scholar to call yourself a true "conservative." And most of the people who now describe themselves with that term actually aren't, in my humble opinion. According to the principles contained within our Constitution and our broader ideology of freedom, equality, and giving everyone a fair shake to do well in this life, true "conservatives" should be happier about these freedoms being given to the increasing number of people who want to claim them. We should be defending to the end our ability to speak up in an unfettered way about anything we want to, up to and including calling the President of the United States a coward and an international criminal. If indeed he and his administration indeed hoodwinked the American people into war, outed a CIA field agent's cover to the world as political retribution,
Standing up and saying something takes moxie, especially when your opinion is unpopular. Walking in formation like lemmings over a cliff while our country keeps shooting itself in the foot and continues to squander its economic, strategic, and moral power – that's easy.
In the end, history will be the judge of Bush, his cronies, and everyone who supported him. Politics is in the moment and easy to get caught up in. History is a much cooler-headed judge. The direction our nation has been taking in terms of burning our old NATO allies, giving the UN the finger, arguing that the US economy is more important than the environment we are leaving to our children, running up a national debt that a previous president had just paid off, and trampling all over international law to bomb Iraqi civilians while Al-Queda and Osama bin Laden continues to laugh in our faces – we'll see how history judges our behavior and what we did with the moral high ground we had on September 11, 2001.
True "conservatives" should have revisited our original values and principles and taken a cold, hard look at the monster our country created, who came back to bite the old, now-hated master on 9/11. Look at our foreign policy. We support dictators (Saddam Hussein in the 1980's) and suppress true democratic revolution (Iran in the 1950's). One wonders if Commies--on-the-brain policy wonks hadn't mistaken talk of mere land reform and redistribution in Iran for "Communism" and let the first true democracy in the Middle East settle in, instead of installing the Shah, a ruthless dictator. One wonders if America had simply removed its troops from Saudi Arabia as per our promise and Mr. Bin Laden's subsequent demand. After all, wasn't he our friend from the fight with the Soviets in Afghanistan? Hadn't he received our funding, training, and weapons? We could've been at least a little responsive to how sensitive having American bases in the Middle East was. Perhaps a plan of gradual reduction and withdrawal? Who knows? But in the end, Team America's attitude is "who cares?" – which is what keeps getting us into deeper and deeper trouble in recent years.
Anyway, in reality, so-called "liberals" and "progressives" are not going to lay claim to the "conservative" moniker anytime soon. I make the suggestion to do so facetiously, but with serious moral indignance. I'm also angry that so many "progressives" and "liberals" are so close-minded and dismissive of anyone who doesn't think exactly like them. I'm somewhere in the middle, although blind Bush disciples and Team America cheerleaders tend to set me off; but I also can't stand the strident whining of liberals who wear their hearts and politics on their sleeves, whose sense of moral rectititude tends to come off like sneering elitism as they look down on so-called "red states" and engage in classist discussions of white "trash" and trailer parks. Yeah, no wonder self-described "conservatives" hate us. I also
kinda hate the people with whom I share similar liberal political opinions, if only because so many of them are irritating, prudish snits. Grrr.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
Let's declare ourselves the true "Conservatives," who have the best intentions of seeing the world fairly, while giving others, as well as themselves, the room to not be perfect and not act like they know every-goddam-thing. Let's work towards making a better America and better relations with the world within a true spirit of morality – and not act out of revenge or spite while using the rhetoric of "morality" as mere hollow justification. For you religious "conservatives" out there – how about acting in the spirit of Christ's message of forgiveness and God's grace, rather than Old Testament spite and revenge? God punished those who broke his Laws or ignored his Word in that era; with the advent of Christ's sacrifice, even those who committed the worst trangsressions against God's laws were offered forgiveness. Where is the spirits of Christian charity? And I mean that in the strictest sense of the word –Christian charity – Christ's actual words and the spirit of them? Support for a regime that lies, tortures, and kills innocents in our name shouldn't be something a true "Christian conservative" conservative believes in, either because it violates the American values I like to think of as good, or if that doesn't sway you, because it violates both the letter and spirit of God's law.
I'm not even a nominal Christian and I've figured it out. Why can't many self-described Christians, whose actions seem to be more motivated out of hate than love, do the same? And why don't Americans, who would like to say that they stand for freedom and democracy, when the actions taken by their country – in their name – actively prevent the spread of these very values that we would like to think we value?
Americans need to stop, take a deep breath, and look both our recent history and foundational experiences squarely in the face. What you will notice is that the values evident in our actions between our foundational and present periods do not at all match. In fact, they are contradictory – just as contradictory as the Founding Fathers of our freedom who, for all their wisdom and political sagacity, owned other human beings. This inherent contradiction and failure of the Revolution worked itself out in the Civil War, and took yet another century to deal with the cultural leftovers of the racist economic institution of slavery. I hope it won't take a "fire next time" for Americans to start realizing that we are going to have to pay for the consequences of the contradictions between out ideology and actions.
I really wonder what it would be like to live in a powerful country that used its might for moral good, instead of unabashed self-interest. We could use our force – as well as restraint in using it – to gain the moral respect of the rest of the world. For better or worse, our Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, and myriad other aspects of our culture have laid a cultural groundwork all over the world – the rest of the world tends to actually like the US in terms of the fantasy that they see portrayed as the "American way." It's the reality that doesn't match up. But as a concerned citizen of the world's most militarily powerful country, I am more disappointed at this dissonance than any non-American could be, since I know America's potential to be great; this is why it pains me to watch our country piss our once-respectable name away for no good reason nor greater benefit.