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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Patriotism Amuck

What gave the president of the United States the right to shut down my government?

There was something really weird about the shutdown, now finally over after 35 days. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the federal government became the property of the president, and its operation the tableau for his gamesmanship. This is wrong, remembering back to 8th grade Civics. One imperative now for Americans upset with the current administration, is to know the Constitution -- to know what it means to be American, and to embody it.

Citizenship Papers was published in 2003, less than two years after the 9/11 attacks, and at a time when patriotism was being newly discovered and discussed in America, albeit confusedly, by a wounded nation. It contains 19 essays by Wendell Berry, the first of which – A Citizen’s Response, ­­was generated by a then newly released National Security Policy, which the White House put out in 2002. Its centrally significant statement was this:

While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists.

I’ll admit that when I first read this, I wasn’t disturbed by it, especially in thinking back to that time, which I remember as disorienting and threatening.

I didn’t see its anti-Americanism, its contradictions, and its proto-Trumpism. But reading Berry’s essay all these years later helped me see the hypocrisy of a militant government. “America First” did not begin with Donald Trump. It didn’t begin with George W. Bush either, but a straight line is easily traced from 2019 back to 2001. It’s been 18 years -- almost a generation – since our security was shattered here at home, and in that time, questions of trust, consent and national identity in America have only gapped wider.

The National Security Policy of 2002 certainly intended to reassure Americans that their government was protecting them. But the first question Wendell asks of the policy is who, precisely, is meant by the pronoun “we?” Shouldn’t this be the same “we” as we find in our Constitution, which refers to we the people of the United States? Or the “we” of the Declaration of Independence, which was signed to activate the idea that governmental power is derived from the consent of the governed?

The content of the policy precludes this reading. Berry points out that the willingness to “act alone,” and strike “preemptively” can only mean that the “we” of this policy is the president – the royal “we.” That’s because a preemptive defense cannot possibly be planned, debated, authorized and carried out in public. In fact, such a defensive action would not require, or even permit, a president to gain the consent of the governed. A foretelling of Trumpism lurks quietly in this policy,

which depends on the acquiescence of a public kept fearful and ignorant, subject to manipulation by the executive power, and on the compliance of an intimidated and office-dependent legislature. Even within the narrow logic of warfare, there is a substantial difference between a defensive action, for which the reason would be publicly known, and a preemptive or aggressive action, for which the reasons would be known only by a few at the center of power.

Conscientious objector that he is, Wendell Berry again (and again) refuses to have his consent coerced or taken for granted. He will not abide a secrecy-based defense policy. He refuses to differentiate the violence of terrorism from the violence of state-sanctioned war making. He will not go along with a polarization or digitization of countries and people into a singular binary: good or evil.

He does consider that we might be imperiled by a rising terrorism and hatred of American influence. But as we’ve talked about before (see Fighting Words), vilifying your enemy doesn’t make much sense if you want security for yourself and your family. Instead, our democratic and religious traditions of love and mercy beseech us to examine whether we are somehow complicit in our insecurity.

If we want to protect ourselves from terrorism, Berry rightly asks, maybe we should ask what causes terrorism. The National Strategy Policy does not do this, preferring instead to chalk it up to the “evil” of an “embittered few.” This is same reductionism that President Bush used at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, when he said that America’s responsibility was to answer the attacks and rid the world of evil.

The problem, so constructed, presumes that a nation, so charged, must be inherently good. Though political rhetoric is sometimes useful and necessary to bind the wounds of a hurting nation, as policy, such a premise is, as Berry puts it, “an insult to common sense.” Such a proposition is not only silly, give the multidimensionality of a thing as enormous as a nation, but dangerous as well “as it precludes any attempt at self-criticism or self-correction; it precludes public dialogue.”

If a nation cannot be simply or incontestably good, Wendell asks, what can it reasonably be that is better than bad?

It can be charitable, as we were to other countries after World War Two and as we are to the elderly and infirm under our social security and social safety net programs.

It can be civilized, as when are when we honor the rights and lives of those who are unlike us.

It can be lawful. The rule of law protects us when circumstances are against us, or when calls for efficiency, especially in the name of our protection, seek to abridge the separations of power that provide harbor for us against currents that lead to dictatorship.

It can be independent, less so by military advantage as by sustainably feeding, clothing and sheltering itself through its own working people.

It can also be, in the truest sense of the word, patriotic, which means to love the land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining and protective love – and to not have that love confused or degraded into loyalty to a symbol, person or party.

The sadness of early 2019 is how mixed up we continue to be in all this – especially enablers of this president. America may not be unequivocally good, but we have been, and still are, in spots, charitable, civil, lawful, independent and patriotic. And we must be more so.

We may conclude, reasonably, rightly, and with no touch of self contempt, that … we are less charitable, less civil, less independent, less patriotic, less law-abiding than we might be, and than we need to be. And do these shortcomings relate to the president's perception that we are less secure than we need to be? We would be extremely foolish to suppose otherwise.

Thomas Jefferson justified the need for general education not, as history would have it turn out, as preparation for economic productivity, but rather as essential training for citizens to learn how to criticize their government, “for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence.”

The government belongs to the people who enacted it, and their duty is to distrust it. The land belongs to the people who care for its good use and fertility. These are two of America’s foundational cornerstones, and as elegant ideals, describe the very heart of patriotism. Both require hard work and vigilance; neither require enemies at home or abroad.

Turns out “America First” is un-American. It is patriotism run amuck.


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