America is in the throes of a nationalist plague. Our great country, founded on principles of liberty and suspicion of government power, is in increasing danger of becoming a fascist nation.
I often get e-mails from readers who think that I hate America, that I seek to destroy our country, that I would feel more at home in a Communist nation. These people — and I don’t know why they would bother reading LRC — equate love of country with loyalty to the state, and patriotism with loyalty to "our Commander in Chief." Sometimes people even say they wish I were thrown out of the country, tried for treason, or beheaded by Islamists.
I wonder how many of these folks felt the same way during the Clinton administration.
During the years of Clinton, conservatives and libertarians freely talked about their disgust for the president. Some critics said they "hated" the man, that he should be imprisoned for crimes against the Constitution, and that he was a "traitor." The establishment Left didn’t take these criticisms that seriously. Sometimes Clinton’s detractors were accused of being unpatriotic, but rarely, as far as I remember, were critics of Clinton accused of hating America or threatened with violence. To the extent that criticizing Clinton was a risk, the danger came from the Clinton administration itself. Slick Willy didn’t have hordes of brown shirts and nationalist crazies who took it upon themselves to defend the president’s honor by threatening and lashing out at all his opponents, calling them un-American and crying out that they should be thrown into the Gulag for dissidents.
Hating Clinton was not seen as hating America. This is another benefit of having conservatives out of power: they don’t as easily mix up patriotism with nationalism when their guy isn’t in charge.
Under Bush, the nationalist pro-war American Right has gone nuts. Freedom of speech is under attack in ways I never thought I would see in this country. The government and its uncritical cheerleaders seek to enforce their version of patriotism — not to America, but to the state.
I was listening to Michael Savage the other day, and he wants to shut down MSNBC and all other media outlets that dare to report the war without the one-sided pro-Bush perspective you might find on Fox News. He says that during the 1940s, the US government would have never allowed the media to get away with criticizing Roosevelt’s war, or portraying the enemy as anything more than subhuman cockroaches. What "we" should be doing now, he says, is treating criticism as sedition. "We" need to take seriously the bold precedents of Lincoln and FDR, and try opponents of the US government as seditionists. He doesn’t seem to know that most of FDR’s harshest critics were patriots of the Old Right, who saw themselves as defending the old American Republic from the perils of FDR’s warfare-welfare state. He also doesn’t seem to recognize the irony of accusing opponents of the nationalized US war machine of being "Nazis" — a term he frequently uses to label antiwar and anti-Bush Americans.
The people who share Savage’s views have a bizarre concept of freedom and government. Many of them at least seem to understand that tax cuts are good, because they free the people from the burdens of big government. They say they don’t want big government bossing us around or treating us like dependent babies with its burgeoning welfare state.
In the next breath, the hyper-nationalized "small-government" conservatives say that opposing the warfare state is treason. This is the height of hypocrisy, and a very dangerous sort as far as the preservation of America is concerned.
During the World Wars, the United States suffered under a similar nationalism, both from the top-down and from grassroots warmongers. In the midst of the First World War, critics of the draft and the war were thrown into prison and German-Americans were lynched by fanatical mobs. Under the Sedition Act, mere criticism of the US flag or US allies was branded a crime. Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison, and movie producer Robert Goldstein received the same sentence for unfairly characterizing the British — an American ally — in his film, Spirit of ’76, about the American Revolution. Not only opposing US entry in World War I, but supporting America in the American Revolution, became a crime!
This irony has some logic behind it, however, for in opposing the warfare state, we actually reaffirm the founding principles of America. The minutemen of 1776 fought against empire, as do those of us who oppose the "War on Terror."
I love America. I love the liberty that still exists here. I do not wish to live in a socialist dictatorship like North Korea. But what makes America great? Is it its status as Superpower and World Policeman, its two-trillion dollar federal government that feeds on its economic strength and uses those resources to bully the world? Of course not.
What makes America great — what has always made America great — are its civil society, its relatively free markets, its respect for civil liberties. It is these qualities that allow ethnic groups that fight constant bloody battles in other regions of the world not only to coexist in harmony, but also to make each other wealthier and better off through the wonders of market exchange. It is the principles of freedom that allowed America to rise quickly from a third-world country to become the wealthiest nation in the world. It is the individual liberty that once made America unique and allowed the country to trade and interact peacefully with the world, set a good example to other countries as a nation of peace and freedom, inspire revolution and liberation around the globe, develop the principles of abolitionism and equality under the law during the late 18th century, and impel millions to come to America or work to make their own countries more like ours.
What always made America great was not what the government did: it was indeed what the government didn’t do. It didn’t disarm its population, treat the citizenry as property of the state, extract high percentages from their income, wage imperial wars around the world, despotically search and seize private property without due process, attempt to run the economy, circumvent the free choices of individuals, jail people without trial, create thousands of regulations and laws against peaceful behavior, or interfere with the freedom of people to speak and worship.
Of course, there were atrocious exceptions. The federal government early on supported slavery and brutally displaced the Indians, and throughout its first century occasionally meddled in the economic affairs of Americans or waged bloody, unnecessary wars. To the extent that the government grew and interfered in civil society, we see historic examples of America’s greatness compromised and sullied by the state.
But throughout its early history, America was great to the extent that the government was limited, and kept out of people’s affairs. America was tarnished and bloodied to the extent that government grew and gained power.
The same is true today, when we have a much larger government than even the least libertarian Founding Fathers would have ever imagined or desired. To the extent that America is now great, it is because of what government doesn’t do, not what it does.
And today’s nationalists are not cheering on America when they cheer on the police-warfare state and lash out at its critics. They are cheering on Amerika — the nationalized, bureaucratized, militarized version of our country. Whether or not they know it, they seek to destroy the real America with a totalitarian replacement. The choice is between a free America and a nationalist Amerika. We cannot have both.
It’s the opponents of federal leviathan and the imperial military state that are the true patriots. It is they who have inherited the spirit and tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine. The hawkish Bush loyalists get their tradition from somewhere else, not from the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They inherit their nationalist fervor — their belief in Amerika Über Alles — from a much different episode in history.