Reflexive Patriotism, Last Refuge of a Scoundrel Nation

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Of course one of the difficulties in putting across the benefits of, the need for, secession is the very deep-seated fundamentalism of we're-number-one American patriotism. If there is no perception that the American government is thoroughly malodorous, corrupt, and iniquitous, if at the base of every brain is the belief in one-nation-indivisible (a phrase, by the way, created in 1892 by a socialist ideologue to brainwash young boys), and if there is no underlying sense that what we do around the world as a imperial power ranges from maladroit to evil, then there's no way anyone could possibly comprehend, much less support, secession.

What brings this to mind is the reactions around the country this past May to the announcement that U.S. Special Forces had assassinated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. At so-called Ground Zero, in front of the White House, at stadiums across the country, on college campuses and village greens coast to coast, those who happened to be up late on a Sunday night, a number fortified by alcohol, burst out in wild flag-waving celebrations and raucous yoo-ess-ay cheers.

It didn't matter that this was an achievement that for some reason took intelligence agencies a full ten years to bring off, that its significance in the actual putting down of Islamic terrorism would seem to be uncertain, or that it had and would have no effect soever on the bogged-down war in Afghanistan. It didn't even matter that this kind of killing — assassination of political leaders in foreign lands — is generally regarded as contrary to an international law that in general discourages people going around offing bad guys they don't like, and contrary indeed to an American regulation that operated for nearly three decades until overturned in the heat of 9/11.

President Ford, following recommendations of the Church Committee, in 1976 issued Executive Order 11905 saying, "No employee of the United States shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination," which was understood to mean the killing of foreign leaders, and that was endorsed by every succeeding President because it just seemed a sensible and intelligent — and perhaps moral — policy. That was changed in September 2001 with a law that then allowed the President to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organization, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks. That apparently gives Obama the legal cover he needed to go after Osama, but it still carries a bad odor — which is why the word "assassination" still has negative connotations the world over.

Yet none of this seemed to operate in an American public that quickly adopted the Wild West mentality of Wanted-Dead-or-Alive that George Bush used to stir up. You don't bother to capture and try the Devil — you shoot him down in cold blood. And any sidekicks that go down with him, that's collateral damage, not killing.

I'm not saying that bin Laden was anything but a dangerous enemy of this country's, even though it was clear his influence was waning and his army shrinking. I'm saying that assassination of a political leader on foreign soil is a reprehensible practice and a moral trangression, and that's why for three decades it was taken as a given in this country that it was impermissible and is more or less outlawed in international codes. And I'm saying that those who unblinkingly and reflexively approve of it with wild public demonstrations are guilty of the worst of patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel nation.

And that last refuge is sought perhaps most desperately when that nation is entangled in the morass of at least four foreign wars (including Libya and Pakistan, leaving Somalia aside), that are not being won and are not winnable, and are costing many trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of casualties, military and civilian. Which is an indication of the depth of that unthinking and unreasonable sickness of mind that supports America unreflectively and stands in the way of any sensible contemplation of the virtues of secession.

Thinking about the hold of this sickness I began to reflect why it was that the movement, though obviously getting stamped on the national consciousness in the last few years and drawing enthusiasm in a number of quarters, has not made more inroads than it has. Why, in particular, has it not drawn more attention on college campuses, where fringe ideas with good intellectual credentials are often picked up and supported, at least by the politically-minded minority of students and the more adventurous of the faculty. Why, for example, has there never been a single faculty member of Middlebury College or (with one exception) UVM to come forth to join the Second Vermont Republic or any of its sister causes? Why haven't there been academic studies in Vermont supporting secession by showing how the state would be better off economically if it were free of Federal taxes and regulations?

And it dawned on me that actually the American academia would be the last place in the world that would be critical of the American empire, much less interested in breaking it up. It is a creature of that empire, it gets funding in the billions from it, its research is heavily directed toward its needs, its faculties are intertwined with Federal agencies, and insofar as academia may be said to have a philosophy it would follow more or less the liberal support for big government, and the bigger the better.

So how could I expect any enthusiasm for secession from that quarter?

The American university system is enormous and it plays an enormous role in making the nation what it is — it is not too much to say, in fact, that it is an equal partner in the military-industrial-academic complex that essentially runs the country. And it continues to expand its role and power every year, getting added money in tuition and fees every year ($37,000 annually for Harvard) despite a tight economy, and getting added Federal money every year (now about $60 billion, including student grants).

I would argue that this is a bubble that will eventually burst, because it is more and more obvious that just having an expensive college education doesn't guarantee a job, even less a job that will pay enough to pay off that expense. But while it lasts, there's no sign that academia is in danger of loosing its comfortable place in the national pantheon of imperial power.

And here's the kicker: while it lasts it will obviously continue its role of conditioning and indoctrinating the young minds in its care to have a deep and abiding belief in the singular virtues of the American republic, indivisible even at 310 million people, and its legitimate business of imperial domination, regardless of party or faction. They wouldn't call it patriotism, the liberal faculties, and they wouldn't call it knee-jerk reflective, but that is what it is. And it ill becomes institutions that once were in the tradition of skeptical criticism.

Kirkpatrick Sale [send him mail], scholar and prolific writer, heads the Middlebury Institute.

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