Should Never Yield to "Patriotism"
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax: (512) 471-7979
copyright Robert Jensen 2002
, May 29, 2002
By Robert Jensen
"Are you an American first, or are you a journalist?"
Unfortunately that question -- posed to a journalists' meeting in Salt Lake
City in April by distinguished newsman Bill Kovach -- is necessary after
Sept. 11, as the few who dared critique the rush to war were attacked for
being insufficiently patriotic. Too many journalists responded to the post-9/11
hyper-nationalism by waving the flag, literally and figuratively.
Even Dan Rather, perhaps the most vocal journalistic patriot after the tragedy,
has had second thoughts, confiding in a BBC interview May 16 that "patriotism
run amok" has led to self-censorship by journalists, himself included.
Kovach's challenge and Rather's confession are compelling, but unfortunately
formulated in a way that diverts journalists and citizens from a more crucial
question: Are you an American first, or are you a human being? That's the
question for everyone after Sept. 11.
The answer depends on the meaning of patriotism. Two definitions competed
after the terrorist attacks. One was the patriotism of President George W.
Bush: "You are with us, or you are with the terrorists," meaning "get on
board with plans for war, or ..." Or what? The implication was that real
Americans rally around their government and traitors raise critical questions.
This poses an obvious problem for journalists, who get paid to raise questions.
But for anyone - journalist or not - such a crude patriotism abandons moral
responsibility. What if a war violates international law or is prosecuted
using immoral tactics? Nations -- including ours -- are not benevolent institutions,
and U.S. history is replete with inhumane acts. If patriotism requires we
support such acts, then patriotism becomes inhumane.
An alternative, kinder-and-gentler patriotism is offered by others, especially
war opponents: patriotism not as reflexive support for a policy or leader,
but allegiance to American ideals of freedom and democracy.
Freedom and democracy certainly deserve our allegiance. But what makes them
uniquely American? Is there something about the United States that make us
better able to achieve freedom and democracy than, say, Canadians or Indians
or Brazilians? Are not people around the world -- including those who live
in countries that do not guarantee freedom -- capable of understanding and
acting on those ideals?
If the justification of this notion of patriotism is that these values are
realized to their fullest extent in the United States, then there will be
questions from the people of Guatemala and Iran, Nicaragua and Vietnam, East
Timor and Panama. Victims of U.S. aggression -- direct and indirect -- might
wonder why our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of
freedom and democracy, overthrows democratically elected governments, supports
brutal dictators, funds and trains proxy terrorist armies, and unleashes
brutal attacks on civilians in war.
Before claiming America is the fulfillment of history, the ultimate expression
of liberty and justice, we might think a bit about our history -- the near
extermination of Indians, for instance.
At its worst, patriotism can lead people to support brutal policies. At its
best, it is self-indulgently arrogant in its assumptions about our uniqueness.
But rejecting patriotism isn't moral relativism. We should not be afraid
to judge systems and societies, using principles we can articulate and defend
-- so long as they truly are principles, applied honestly and uniformly,
including to ourselves.
And we should maintain a bit of humility. Instead of claiming, "America is
the greatest nation on Earth," we might say, "I live in the United States
and have deep emotional ties to its people, land and ideals, and I want to
highlight the many positive things while working to change what is wrong."
We can say that without suggesting other people are less capable of understanding
democracy or defending freedom. We can believe that and encourage spirited
debate about policy.
In such a world, the question by Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned
Journalists, would be irrelevant; there would be no conflict between being
an American and a journalist. Journalists would simply pursue professionally
-- with the extra time, training and resources they have -- what everyone
would pursue privately: questioning those in power and challenging ourselves.
Everyone, including journalists, needs to ask: Can we move beyond being American?
Given the destructive capacity of the United States -- and our history of
using it in the interests of power, not people -- never before has our answer
been more important.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at
Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective
, and author of the book
Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream
. His pamphlet,
“Citizens of the Empire,”
is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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