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Love It, Don’t Leave It
Lea Oksman • What is an American?
Commencement 2003

Is it anti-American to be anti-war? It is tempting to dismiss the question as a matter of petty wordplay. However, it seems crucially important for one’s political education to understand the issues involved.

We have seen in the last few months a number of ways to oppose the war on Iraq. The first, and least interesting, is the selfish way. Some people feared for their loved ones in the army; others worried about terrorist reverberations in their home towns; and still others just did not care to confront with rational argument the bad taste that the thought of war leaves in any civilized person’s mouth. These were certainly not the most patriotic of attitudes; but to label them American or anti- American one would have to lift them above the gut level at which they were formed.

Many others opposed the war because they believed it to be not in our nation’s interests, or to be doomed from the start. It is hard by any stretch of the imagination to call those objectors anti-American, even if one defines anti-Americanism as strictly the act of disagreeing with American policy. After all, American policy is formulated by people who often disagree with each other for prudent and patriotic reasons.

There were, however, a few ways in which the war was opposed that were truly anti- American. There were those who openly declared their hatred for American ways — they burned flags and called out anti-imperialist slogans. It is no great accomplishment to certify as anti-American people who would say so themselves; indeed, the only thing these people have left to do is pack up and depart for one of the many non-arrogant, non-imperialist, peaceful nations where the rivers flow with milk, honey, and dollar bills. God only knows why they are stalling.

The less clear case is those who claim to have a better conception than the government of the values America should be representing and fighting for. This is, roughly speaking, the “No Blood For Oil” crowd. One variation on this theme is hatred for the American government and not America itself; buckets of mud poured over the Bush administration are supposed to serve as proof of patriotism. These groups are the most difficult to deal with. After all, we all want to feel that American principles have great absolute value — that is, that it is rational to care for them over American policy. This illuminates a most fascinating and complex conflict between individualism and community.

One way to approach this is to tackle the war cry so frequently uttered by these folks, “Not in my name!” The very idea that every voice can and must be heard, and that the behavior of a nation must pass the scrutiny of each citizen’s beliefs is childish and presumptuous. If we should have learned one thing from high school biology, it is that new properties arise at higher levels of complexity – in all aspects of life, and particularly in human societies. This is a deeper problem than the mere fact that perfect Greek-style democracy is impossible to enforce: namely, that decisions at group levels – and certainly national levels – by necessity engage different criteria of judgment than personal decisions.

Take the death of Rachel Corrie, which so recently shook newsrooms and hearts across America. It has been trumpeted by many as a deliberate and cold-blooded murder. A similar scenario within the borders of a single country at peace would have been immediately recognized as just that, and the perpetrators would have been prosecuted with the full harshness of the law. But Corrie, however genuine and strong her concern for individual lives might have been, applied personal values to a situation involving governments. The people she tried to protect were not merely individuals treated with cruelty; they were a national symbol, and part of a situation that bred terrorism along with misery. The people who killed her were not monsters deprived of compassion but soldiers charged to protect their country in accordance with general commands and not case-by-case considerations. It is not that Corrie’s intentions were wrong, by any standard that one individual might apply to another; it is simply that those standards had no place in the situation she was trying to handle. Her personal morality was not an equal player in the game, and it lost – as it should have.

All of this does not go to say that it is anti-American to have dissenting opinions on issues of policy. What is anti-American is to protest key American objectives, to claim that one’s personal sense of the moral objectives that should be pursued in a specific situation should be considered on an equal plane with the moral agenda of the nation. There are a couple of points here. First, such protestations, when voiced after decisions have been irrevocably made, boil down to a rejection of the American democratic government on the grounds that it disagrees with the protestor. It is the responsibility of every American citizen to voice his opinion on key issues, such as war. However, once America is at war, it is immature and anti- American to protest the actions of the country. Second, it is foolish to deny that some things are just too complex for an individual to deal with – some things must be left to the territory of the government. When a citizen feels that his or her compassion for Iraqi blood is more valid than the president’s concern about possible threats to the nation, it is this sort of foolish denial; and it is anti-American.

Along these lines, one may ask: was Schindler anti-German? The answer is: yes. This makes it clear that “anti-American” should be an insult only to those who care about and respect American values and proclaim to defend them despite American policy; for all others it is a fairly meaningless term. What the people and the nation should do about these folks is quite a different question. There is another reason, besides the incomparability of individual and national morality, that the “struggle to protect America against America” is utterly irrational and dangerous. What does America mean? Great Britain today espouses rather different ideals from those it cared for a couple hundred years ago; this is also the case for France, and, to a lesser extent, of Japan. Two people could argue endlessly about whether this difference is a result of moral evolution and can be traced to the same core principles, or whether drastic changes have actually occurred; the answer is not simple, and, here, ultimately not important. What matters is that the British, or French, or Japanese ideological stereotype and political agenda change dramatically from epoch to epoch, and a resident of one of these countries today would barely agree with his own greatgrandfather about political goals or the meaning of justice. Yet the terms British, French, or Japanese have never been too ambiguous; we always knew where to go to find a proper representative. Their continuity has been guarded by national pride and solid protection of borders. Cases that seem like exceptions – for instance, the Jews and the Gypsies – demonstrate that at least shared conditions of living are necessary for national identity to be maintained. Political and philosophical values alone never made or kept a people.

Thus we must strive first and foremost for the security of our borders and the unity of our actions not only because a weak society cannot protect the liberties its citizens value (although that in itself is an excellent reason), but also because we are kidding ourselves if we think that American ideals are selfsufficient without the American nation. America is what our government does; to disagree with that is just as anti- American as to directly undermine government action.

While the anti-American label has its proper targets, using it is dangerous. As long as people take it as an insult and at least strive to prove why their actions are very American indeed, it encourages self-examination and may kick some people back into reality from their idealistic dreams. Yet it seems that to be labeled anti-American has increasingly become a mark of open-mindedness and an object of pride. “I hate America” is today an acceptable, if not a frequent phrase in certain circles of American citizens.

The people who claim to possess a better vision of America are losing their footing. They alienate themselves from the society that has bred them, instilled in them their values, and allowed them to express themselves. They strive to blur the line between nations and individuals and pit them in conflict to the point where neither is helping the other, and, being co-dependent, both are reduced to impotence. And that is utterly anti-American.

Lea Oksman is a freshman in Trumbull College.


 
 

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