Patriot Politics; Political Disagreement Is as Old as America, but Critics Still Are Debating When Principled Dissent Ends and Seditious Opposition Begins

Insight on the News, June 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Patriot Politics; Political Disagreement Is as Old as America, but Critics Still Are Debating When Principled Dissent Ends and Seditious Opposition Begins


Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

At an antiwar teach-in earlier this year, a Columbia University anthropology professor named Nicholas DeGenova announced his hope that the United States soon would face "a million Mogadishus." It was a startling and disturbing wish, to say the least. What DeGenova referred to was a 1993 incident in Somalia when 18 American soldiers were killed by al-Qaeda operatives.

The professor wasn't alone. At demonstrations against the Iraq war which were relatively few in number and carried little punch compared with Vietnam War protests activists carried signs callously declaring "We Support Our Troops When They Shoot Their Officers."

Others who opposed the war chose not to be so extreme. They said they supported American troops in the Middle East in a time of conflict, but opposed U.S. policies there and regarded the war effort as a big mistake.

It was a distinction lost on the president's supporters. As pro-war conservative gadfly David Horowitz tells Insight, they thought that in time of war "you postpone criticism" and "defend your country." Pro-war people tended to wear flag pins on their lapels. They displayed flags from their cars and homes. Often they planted "Support Our Troops" signs on their front lawns and sported yellow ribbons or tied them around trees beside roads. They also looked with dismay on the antiwar demonstrators, complaining that the peace crowd got far more than their fair share of time in the national media for opinions blatantly disloyal and even traitorous.

What's interesting is that both sides called themselves patriotic. Many antiwar activists said their criticism of America sprang from their deep love of the country that they wanted to save from a grave error the war in Iraq. Pro-war Americans, on the other hand, agreed with Horowitz who asked, "What is the meaning of patriotism if you don't defend your country?" After all, "Patriotism means that you have to have a fundamental identity and loyalty to America. It means defending the real country, the actual existing country."

Such divergence of opinion never has been unusual in the United States, even in times of war. Americans were divided over the Revolutionary War, for example, and seriously disagreed during the War of 1812. The War with Mexico had its opponents, including Abraham Lincoln, who later as president found preserving unity in the war with the Confederacy one of his hardest tasks. There were Americans who opposed the Spanish-American War and U.S. entry into World War I. World War II and the Cold War had their disclaimers, as did the Korean conflict and (most definitely) the Vietnam War.

Yet it is likely that, if asked, most of those on both sides of the issue would have described themselves as patriotic and having their nation's best interests in mind. How can this be? Is one side in its claims of patriotism dissembling or badly mistaken? Can patriots stand on both sides of an issue so important and fundamental as war?

The answer is yes and no. Americans tend to tolerate a variety of opinions on policies, even in wartime, as long as they regard those opinions as being held sincerely and based on a love of country. But toleration ends once the public senses that the opposition to a war is mean-spirited and bred of a dislike for the country's traditional values and a desire for its humiliation or defeat an anti-American position that's been taken more often than many Americans believe, critics will say.

Of course what we believe to be patriotic depends on what we mean by the word. Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "love for and devotion to one's country." And if asked for an example of a patriotic act, most Americans might cite one of the earliest in the nation's history that of Nathan Hale. Executed by the British as a spy in 1776 during the first year of the Revolutionary War, Hale was only 21 when he died. …

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