Patriotism: I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means

I’ve been thinking about patriotism recently, as I’m sure many of you have as well. Recently, an ostensibly conservative armchair politician and columnist named Michael Gerson really got my goat up when he wrote this smarmy piece lecturing right-wingers about “overreacting” to the recent NSA and IRS scandals.  It’s not that I was surprised to see Gerson writing something smarmy. It’s that this was an especially insulting specimen of his smarminess.

On the one hand, he can’t escape the disturbing nature of what our government has been doing, even granting the “swaggering… incompetent” nature of Holder and the administration. But for some reason, he balks when people like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin use words like (gasp!) “regime” and “police state” to describe Obama’s ideal vision for America. Now that just crosses a line:

It is one thing to oppose the policies of the administration; it is another to call for resistance against a “regime” and a “police state.” It is the difference between skepticism about government and hatred for government. And it raises the question: How is it even possible to love such an Amerika?

In other words, Gerson is hinting (and will hint more broadly later in the piece), that these right-wing opinion-makers are calling for sedition, and that this is unpatriotic. Changing “the government” to “government” is one subtle way that he manages to caricature them, as if they’re generally anti-government when of course he knows it’s the outrageous behavior of this administration that’s ringing alarm bells for them. Allowing “skepticism” about this government, Gerson wrinkles his nose at the faintest whiff of something stronger, waving around vague phrases like “call for resistance” without specifying what he even means. Armed rebellion? Marching on Washington? I doubt it.

He attempts to clarify by example in his next paragraph by bringing up Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who defected after uncovering the scandal:

If our country is being run by a regime, then those who expose its machinations are heroes, as some on the right have called Snowden. If the U.S. government is a fallible institution doing its best to protect citizens from terrorist violence, then a libertarian loner who reveals classified material (including U.S. cyberwarfare plans) and bolts for a communist country might be viewed in a different light.

First of all, saying that Snowden revealed “classified material” as if that automatically makes him anathema is very ingenuous. The government has a habit of labeling anything “classified” that it doesn’t want to be publicized. Secondly, saying that Snowden “bolted for a communist country” as if that were significant or suspicious is frankly a low blow. It’s misleading because Hong Kong hasn’t always been considered a part of China, and it’s unsavory because we have no evidence that Snowden is in cahoots with any of our enemies anyway. He was looking for anywhere that would agree to take him in. Finally, it’s breathtakingly naive to assume, as if it were indisputable, that of course our government must always have its citizens’ best interests at heart.  It may be bumbling and misguided sometimes, but its heart is in the right place… right? This is doubtful, to say the least. Gerson continues:

Some libertarians and populist conservatives are not merely attacking Obama; they are slandering U.S. intelligence services. There is no evidence, or even a serious allegation, that the NSA has made political use of data it has gathered. This is not a rogue operation. The NSA, with the permission of a court and under the supervision of Congress, built a searchable digital database. Listening in on phone calls still requires a warrant, based on probable cause.

His faith is touching, but recent developments have proven this very paragraph to be untrue (ironically, surfacing a mere two days after his article was published). The NSA has declared that they can indeed listen in on phone calls without a warrant.  One order of crow for Mr. Gerson, coming up.

Gerson also makes the tedious argument that it’s just not nice or helpful to question Obama’s patriotism, since people on the left do the same thing about Bush. Not that the truth of the matter has any relevance, of course!

Finally, he ends his little tantrum with this petulant whimper:

Questioning the legitimacy of our government is the poisoning of patriotism. It is offensive for the same reasons it was offensive when elements of the left, in the 1960s and 1970s, talked of the American “regime.” Because it distorts the United States into something unrecognizable in order to advance a partisan ideology. Because this is still the “last best hope of earth,” not a police state. Because Americans have fought and died for this country, and to turn on it in this way is noxious. It is dishonest. And it is dishonorable.

Somehow, Mr. Gerson seems to have conflated love of country with devotion to its government at all times. Since when did patriotism come to be defined as never once opining that the corruptible people in charge of the government just might be corrupt? Gerson can stamp his foot and protest that Obama does NOT want to turn America into a police state until he’s blue in the face, but saying doesn’t make it so. Gerson’s own defense of the NSA has proven to be hopelessly naive. Moreover, it is no disrespect to the sacrifices of America’s military in wars past to lament the decay and corruption it is undergoing in the hands of a self-serving, mean-spirited, power-hungry administration. The people who are sounding the alarm about this corruption are, in fact, speaking out against the destruction of those good things in America for which those soldiers fought and died. It is Obama who has betrayed this country, not they. The only “dishonesty” apparent here is the self-deception of Michael Gerson and his ilk.

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