To our Founders, political union meant a federation of largely autonomous states combined for security and in submission to universal principles of human decency. To these ideals we owe our allegiance—not to any collection of symbols manipulated by nihilist social engineers.
The opening line of Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois (in the “author’s notice”) reads, “To understand the first four volumes of this work, one must take note that what I call virtue in public affairs is love of country—that is, love of equality.” An interesting (and very modern) idea: patriotism is to be associated with devotion to a moral principle.
I wonder how many Americans would endorse that association in 2013—or even comprehend it. Our thought-gear seems to have be thrown into reverse in matters of abstract reasoning, now that we write so seldom and “text” so often. A reader chastised me last week for posting a piece on Veteran’s Day suggesting (in one out-of-the-way place: it wasn’t the article’s focus) that we mishandled World War II by driving our two adversaries to abject surrender while ignoring the rise of Stalin and Mao upon their ashes. I have been at the receiving end of similar charges when, in years past, I opined that our efforts to transform Iraq into a secular democracy could not turn out well. Somehow or other, in the minds of such critics, opposing an adventure on foreign soil in whose pursuit American men and women have been ordered to their deaths is seen as collaborating with the enemy. By the same measure, I suppose if I warned you not to let your child play in a rickety old building and the building later collapsed upon the little one, I would be guilty of child-murder.
I’ll never forget an “interview” that Laura Ingraham conducted with Ron Paul during the primary season of the 2008 presidential election. I do believe that Laura would have assaulted the good doctor if he had brought half as much “passion” (what an incredibly degrading virtue, this thing that we call passion!) to the exchange as she. The gist of her argument was that since Paul had not physically been to Iraq and visited wounded soldiers, he was unqualified to criticize Bush’s policy there. These young heroes with mangled arms or legs or eyes wanted to believe that their sacrifice had not been made in vain; ergo, the rest of us labored under a solemn obligation to transform into plausible objectives a quixotic lunge at Westernizing a sectarian theocracy teeming with unpaid vendettas and Kalashnikovs.
I’ll admit that my heart does not melt with an irrational, quasi-religious adoration at the sight of the Stars and Stripes. Part of it has to do with being a Southerner who was raised by Southerners. When I was a boy, the memory yet lingered in my clan of a pillage-and-plunder expedition launched beneath Old Glory. The history I learned from my grandmother was not the same as what was slickly packaged in my school textbooks; and age, with its further erudition and greater discretion, has convinced me that the former spoke more truth than the latter. I learned a mere two years ago that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to “rebel” states and that several northern states, during those very war years, retained some version of slavery legally on the books. Strange, how none of that was part of my high school course (and this was long before Common Core)! Furthermore, no matter how much right or wrong was on one side or the other in a purely abstract sense, certain incontrovertible facts have always made me view the Union with a jaundiced eye: e.g., the overwhelming superiority of the North in manpower, industrial infrastructure, and access to imported necessities—and also the blunt fact that the aggressive torching of civilian population centers was a one-way street. The War Between the States was never a fair fight, and the bullies pulled out the stops toward the end. Even Bonnie and Clyde draw sympathy when you place machine-guns in ambush on every side of them.
And even an Al Qaeda terrorist doesn’t deserve to have his small children vaporized along with him because the Drone has an easy shot, if I may dare to suggest that the chivalry of Lincoln and Grant are still with us.
Then we have Vietnam, a humid, stinking cloud of bad policy that polluted the adolescence of an entire generation. My birthday came up Number One in the draft lottery the year before I was eligible; and as every statistician knows, there’s really no such thing as a law of averages—not when the variables are purely numerical. Few of us made plans when we were twelve or thirteen about what we would be doing in ten years. Many of us doubted that we would be alive. And the worst of it was precisely that there was no Hitler to fight, no unconditional surrender to exact. We weren’t supposed to punch too hard in this match, and we weren’t supposed to step outside of lines that our adversary routinely ignored. My brother-in-law (who received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star) once told me that the VC would set up machine-gun nests among Michelin’s rubber plantations, knowing full well that the GI’s had been directed not to damage our “ally’s” cash crop. At the same time, there seemed something profoundly wrong about our dumping carcinogenic defoliant upon peasants and their meager farms. We heard that any little boy with a hoe could turn into a Charlie with a grenade in seconds… but was that supposed to make every child fair game, or to signal us that something was fundamentally wrong with this undertaking? A slightly deranged captain who survived to become our high school chemistry teacher used to show us slides of 50 mm. machine-guns spraying green jungle from helicopter doors and of tents where men queued up fifty deep to be serviced by three local whores. I never knew what his motives were in these slide shows. He was one odd, odd bird.
None of this made me want to chant, “My country, right or wrong.” I was viscerally repelled by the overt cowardice and wanton hedonism of the anti-war crowd: its members disgusted me, for the issue to me was never that nothing is worth dying for. But this… the Agent Orange and the My Lai’s and the muddy, naked orphans and local farm girls turned whore… was that the American way?
Afghanistan and Iraq have brought all this back to me. The student of mine who spilled into my lap a stream of stories that he was sworn not to tell—stories like the one about seeing his buddy shot down at close range outside Baghdad, then finding the killer in the US compound a week later collecting weapons and receiving training to serve as a native security officer, then telling his CO about it and drawing the response, “Shut up, Corporal. Just shut up….” I wonder: would a session with Laura Ingraham or William Krystol have made this young man feel that three years of such adventures had been productive? Would it have stopped his occasional fits of uncontrollable shakes? Might it have persuaded him to lift the long-brimmed cap from over his eyes so that people could see what he actually looked like? Would it have left any sane father among the rest of us, that Neo-Conservative Paean to Globalism, wishing that his own son could become such a hero for “love of his country”?
I might as well come right out and say that I don’t think the government of the United States has been very concerned about defending its citizens at any point during my lifetime. In the twenty-first century, it seems particularly interested, on the contrary, in shrinking or canceling Constitutional rights and leaving legal citizens defenseless against such predations as we of the Southwest see happening daily along our nation’s border. If my son wanted to put on the uniform of this country right now, I would do everything in my power to dissuade him. I would urge him not to listen to a bunch of manipulative claptrap from cynical, unprincipled people who might one day soon actually order him to open fire on me. I would remind him that his potential commandeer-in-chief had referred to people like me as “tea-baggers”—a name so scurrilous and insulting, when I finally found out what it signifies in uncleaned gutters, that I would instantly slap anyone who used it to my face. For I will make a place for passion in the defense of honor, though that may well be un-Christian of me. Perhaps the only true Christian is a struggling Christian, especially in these times.
Come to think of it, I would want my son to know that the military elite, as currently constituted, have either initiated or connived at several incidents wherein soldiers are denied an occasion to practice their Christian faith or else punished for practicing it overtly; and I would recall to him, as well, that the current Secretary of State considered the trembling boys conscripted to serve beside him in Vietnam to be ruthless rapists and butchers, and that he has labeled volunteers of our own time a pack of blockheads too dull to find any other kind of work. Boys and girls in uniform are stupid, ravening animals to this insufferable snob and his ilk—but the flag-draped dignitaries like him who send them into hell’s maw are the voice and hand of God.
(A footnote: why is it acceptable in this President to fling at people he despises a derisive street term for a homosexual act, yet unacceptable for these same objects of his contempt to protest politely against teaching the gay lifestyle? And why can this Secretary of State sneer at military enlistees for not being able to find a better job while, at the same time, he collaborates in a massive effort to keep millions of Americans drawing unemployment indefinitely?)
I agree with Montesquieu: I believe that love of country, for any genuine American, must be love of certain ideals. The philosopher mentions equality. Viewed in historical context, this probably signified to him an abhorrence of arbitrary autocratic power and an acknowledgment under the law that individual lives count, even when they belong to the most humble. Our Founders knew Montesquieu’s work inside-out and would certainly have shared his ideals. To these they would have added freedom in its various dimensions—the freedoms implicit in “equality”. They loved the freedom of the individual to speak out against tyranny and to protect himself against ruthless abuses of power. They loved the freedom of the individual not to have the fruits of his labor confiscated by thuggish police or redistributed to lazy wastrels with nothing to sell but a vote. They loved the freedom of the individual to instruct his children in values and morals as he saw fit—a freedom which includes the right to declare certain brutish types of behavior wrong.
By this standard of patriotism, I must say that no true patriot can salute symbols of the central government of the United States today with an engaged intellect and a clear conscience. A true patriot must loathe the leaders of this government as traitors to everything our nation was originally meant to stand for.
I would further inform misguided enthusiasts for the Pledge of Allegiance that this disturbing oath has a bastard pedigree. Written by defrocked Baptist minister and social progressive Francis Bellamy in 1892, this scarcely century-old concoction of statist mumbo-jumbo was intended to program grade school children for willing service to a powerfully centralized authority. I have refused to say it for the last several years since learning of its provenance. I do NOT pledge allegiance to a flag behind whose whitewash imperious nihilist social engineers have led young men and women to the slaughter for years and years. I do NOT pledge allegiance to a State that rides roughshod over its component states, ignoring their Constitutionally guaranteed privileges and forcing one-size-fits-all formulas into the church, the classroom, and the doctor’s office. I certainly do NOT pledge allegiance to a “republic” about half of whose members are not ashamed to live off plunder, who think the quality and frequency of their orgasms should be a matter of public concern, who consider a fetus indistinguishable from a cancer, and whose notion of civil discourse is to spit “racist” and “tea-bagger” at their opponents. I recognize no tie to such institutions and such people. They are not mine: I am not theirs. If they ever need my banned gun to defend their sorry arses, they can whistle Dixie.
I pledge allegiance to freedom: to the right to fail, the right to grow, the right to doubt, the right to be different even unto utter aloneness, the right to create as the spirit moves me, the right to keep my own creations or share them with whom I choose, the right to impart moral lessons to my child, and the right to die as I have lived rather than be forced into some uniform or hospital bed. And I don’t need any flag to tell me how much these rights matter. The stars in heaven are better reminders of our potential and our destiny than white scraps stitched into a napkin.