Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Best We've Got

A patriot says “My country, right or wrong.” A nationalist says, “My country can never be wrong.” Implicit is a different view of what “my country” is. Simone Weil made the distinction in The Need for Roots between country as land, people, culture, and language; and nation as authority, state, army, and flag. And I would add to that list the notion of a dominant or privileged class. The nationalist wants to be in a dominant group, and will kill his fellow countrymen en masse in order to achieve that.

In the United States, the tension between these two ideas of country is at a height, and the lines are often blurred. We hear a lot about the founding fathers these days, and the ideas and principles that guided the U.S. at its birth. Everyone wants to claim that mantle. But history is never simple, and when we try to make it so in the service of our ideals, we do ourselves a disservice. When I truly love someone, with the deep and unconditional love that comes with time and effort, I don’t just love certain attractive aspects, but the entire flawed human being. I would argue that the same is true of loving one’s country.

The right-wing extremists who still dominate public discourse have an antique schoolboy veneration for the founders without displaying much insight into their ideas, the principles that shaped the Constitution of the United States. American revolutionary thought was anti-autocratic. Despite major differences in the views of such figures as Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, they shared the vision of a republic that would represent the will of citizens rather than the desires and caprices of a monarch or dictator. The founders, being British, were enormously influenced by the British parliamentary and legal tradition. It was, however, too easy for Great Britain to succumb to despotism in one form or another, and the founders therefore sought remedy for this by fashioning a purer kind of republic that had no monarch to be revered, but three branches of government with powers divided between them, all servants of the people.

To this structure was added a Bill of Rights that restricted the government’s ability to interfere with people’s lives. If you study the first ten amendments as originally ratified, you get a good idea of the threats that the founders were worried about. A tyranny would try to control what religion people could practice, what they could say or print, their ability to gather together in groups for peaceful purposes, and their ownership of arms. A tyranny would attempt to break into people’s homes without legal warrants based on probable cause. It would try to arrest and imprison people without formal charges, without the right to confront their accusers, detaining them indefinitely without trial and without a jury. A tyranny would steal people’s property from them, or force them to give their property over for the use of the military.

All these threats, these fears, sprung from the founders’ experience of treatment by the British government. They all reflected the desire to prevent untrammeled authoritarian power, which they called tyranny, and to make government a servant of the people rather than a master. The founders differed as to how much power and authority the government should have—Hamilton believed in a strong central power, whereas Jefferson and his followers tended to think in decentralized terms. All shared the belief that the legitimacy of government power depended on the consent of the governed. What exactly this “consent” is, and how to determine it, was the perennial issue of debate, and it was in the very nature of a republic for this to be the case.

If we look at the right-wing “patriots” of today, outside of the pure libertarians, it is remarkable how indifferent they are to the actual thought of the founders. What we see here is crude authoritarianism, in which “America” needs to be the greatest and most powerful country in the world, providing its citizens with a good measure of economic affluence. The Bill of Rights is mainly viewed as an obstacle to getting things done, and other than the part about bearing arms (which makes money for the gun companies), the “rights” enumerated are painted as threats to national security, law and order, morality, and the Christian religion. When someone outside of the right-wing becomes President, the “patriots” start squawking about rights again, but it’s only political warfare, not principle, since the same rights didn’t mean anything to them when a right-wing President was in office.

What we have, then, is an American “patriotic” movement that is essentially no different than monarchism or dictatorship—the polar opposite of the republican ideal aimed at by the founders.

Turning from the schoolboy notions of American history to actual history, in the air and sunlight of reality, there is a painful tension between the ideas of the founders and the historical conditions in which they grew. British colonists settled on a new continent, killing and displacing native populations in the process. The cultivation of land and the development of this new society were greatly facilitated by the importation of African slaves. The property owners held power, and enjoyed the greatest benefits, including the benefits of education. They were the true “citizens,” not the laborers or the poor. Women had no vote—that went without saying, as it was the condition of women in all of Europe as well.

Post-revolutionary history reflects all these tensions quite explicitly. The killing and displacement of Indians increased as colonization expanded westward. This expansion brought out other imperialist tendencies, such as in the Mexican War. And of course, the existence of slavery became an impossible moral and political burden, resulting in a huge civil war between the northern and southern regions of the country. Although slavery ended, the struggle over the status of African Americans continued.

The tragic and bloody history of the United States has caused many on the left to be skeptical about the republican ideals of the founders. If Washington and Jefferson held slaves, how can we take their notions of liberty seriously? This is an understandable reaction to the schoolboy version of American history. Moreover, the awareness of economic power and the class system as crucial factors in politics makes the founders’ reliance on Enlightenment ideals seem naïve. They tended to rely on moral explanations based on character, without reference to economic realities. Yes, despotism has its root in greed and selfishness, but these character defects thrive in a socioeconomic culture.

But to be aware of the truth of our history does not necessitate turning against love of country. For the right wing, in the spirit of “my country can’t be wrong,” the only recourse is denial or minimizing. Slavery wasn’t so bad; the Indians mostly deserved what they got; that sort of thing. For progressives who still retain love of country, however, the answer lies in a vision of the United States as work in progress. We view the republic as an ideal to which successive generations add their experience and insights, expanding the scope of what liberty means. In fact, this is largely in the spirit of the founders themselves, who had the foresight to make the Constitution a document that could be amended and variously interpreted. They even made provision for more constitutional conventions by which the people could revamp the founding document. We were not stuck with slavery, or with no suffrage for women. Provision was made for change, although it was deliberately made rather difficult to actually amend the Constitution, perhaps more difficult than has been good for us. The rapidity of social change has made our founding document seem rather rickety at times.

The states, for instance, were very important entities in the beginning. It really meant something to be from Virginia, or New York, or Massachusetts. The U.S. Senate owes its origin to this notion of state autonomy. In modern times, though, with migration between states becoming so common as to be the norm, there just isn’t the same significance attached to the idea of one’s home state, at least not in the political sense. It has created an imbalance of power in the legislative branch, since sparsely populated states such as Wyoming have just as many senators as California or New York. This reinforces an American provincialism which empowers the most backward elements of society. It would require a major Constitutional change to correct this, and it’s not at all clear that this would be to our ultimate advantage.

The biggest problem with the form of government bequeathed to us, in my view, is that it did not prevent the rise of an industrial capitalist ruling class that has effectively assumed power in the U.S. government since the 19th century. Critics point to the use of the 14th Amendment to confer personhood (and thus citizenship status) on corporations as the nail in the coffin. As long as corporations are treated as free entities with rights, their dominance of the political process is assured.

No Constitution will ever be perfect, and ours is no exception. At heart, though, I think the system of government devised by the founders is better than any of the alternatives so far attempted in other countries. I suppose this makes me old-fashioned. I just think it’s the best chance we’ve got, and I see many of the problems posed by an imperialist, corporate, authoritarian America as a turning away from the American tradition, a regression, if you will, to older monarchic and despotic ways of thinking. There is no mention of Wall Street in our Constitution, or of a two-party system. The equation of the United States with such things is a convenient myth for the powerful. As an American progressive, I embrace love of country, and love of our Constitution as a living document capable of growth and adaptation. I accept this framework as what we have to work with, and I look with suspicion on those who claim to support it while undermining it with their actions.


Liberality said...

British colonists settled on a new continent, killing and displacing native populations in the process. The cultivation of land and the development of this new society were greatly facilitated by the importation of African slaves. The property owners held power, and enjoyed the greatest benefits, including the benefits of education. They were the true “citizens,” not the laborers or the poor. Women had no vote—that went without saying, as it was the condition of women in all of Europe as well.

Happy Columbus day to you as well Dashiell. Another well thought out post!

Shaun said...

Good stuff, certainly, but a slight quibble, Chris. I think you yeild nationalism to the right a bit too readily, but I imagine it's a matter of definition more than disagreement.

I consider myself to be both a patriot and a nationalist, my nationalism based on my firm support for American sovreignty. For instance, I don't think any American citizen, regardless of their crime, should be subjected to prosecution by an international tribunal not obliged to recognize that citizen's rights under the United States Constitution. That position, to me, presents no conflict with my essential liberalism.

Or maybe that is a point of disagreement. It doesn't completely lack controvesty on the left side of the fence...

Shaun said...