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Monday, June 05, 2006

Nation time

Glenn Greenwald opens How Would A Patriot Act? with an intriguing rhetorical move:

I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents.

I believed that voting was not particularly important.  Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track.  Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference.  I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal.  But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government.

My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably.  For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process.  I had great faith in the stability and resilience of the constitutional republic that the founders created.

All that has changed.  Completely.  Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation.  This extremism is neither conservative nor liberal in nature, but is instead driven by theories of unlimited presidential power that are wholly alien, and antithetical, to the core political values that have governed this country since its founding.

I know of precincts on the left—actually, I inhabit some of them—where Greenwald would be dismissed on the basis of those first three paragraphs alone.  Many liberals would consider him foolish for believing that the question of who controls Congress and the White House—and, thus, who appoints the members of the cabinet and the heads of the regulatory agencies—makes “only the most marginal difference,” say, to women or to people in poverty.  Many progressives would take him to task, and rightly so, for describing the edges of the Republican and Democratic parties as “plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive,” as if the Democrats have a branch office of the Khmer Rouge to balance out the GOP’s far-right theocrats.  And many leftists would conclude that anyone who opens a book by professing the firm belief that “our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse” needs a refresher course in American history before he’ll be worth listening to.  For that matter, there are leftists who would dismiss the book well before they got to the first three paragraphs, on the basis of the word “Patriot” in the title.  This isn’t caricature, you know: there are plenty of people on the left who get pissed off every time Todd Gitlin tells them they’re insufficiently patriotic.  Which is understandable, up to a point, since no sensible person on the left likes being told that they need to proclaim their one-hundred-percent Americanism before they’ll be taken seriously.  But surely, as Greenwald makes clear, there is a form of patriotism that involves civic rather than ethnic nationalism (about which I’ll say more in a moment, for it is the very subject of this post), and surely, if you were a sensible citizen of the United States in 2002, it was plausible to argue that launching a war in Iraq and creating a Cheney Archipelago of secret torture sites from Gitmo to Kabul would not, ultimately, serve the best interests of the United States.  The problem is that in order to make that argument, you have to invoke something like a “national interest,” and, for various reasons, that’s a move that some on the left are unwilling to make.

What interests me about Greenwald’s opening, however, is precisely that it positions Greenwald as a disinterested proceduralist who was radicalized by the Bush Administration.  In saying this I don’t mean to suggest that Greenwald is misrepresenting himself somehow, or indulging in a “merely” rhetorical opening; I believe he’s telling the truth about his earlier self, for what that’s worth.  Rather, I mean that the author of How Would A Patriot Act? opens by saying that when it came to welfare reform or private-school vouchers or gay marriage or the minimum wage or workplace safety or universal health care, he didn’t really have a dog in the fight.  He was all about the Constitution and the separation of powers, and as long as those things were functioning, everything else would kinda sort itself out.  But then he began to get the sense that something was rotten and beginning to smell:

What first began to shake my faith in the administration was its conduct in the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in May 2002 on U.S. soil and then publicly labeled “the dirty bomber.” The administration claimed it could hold him indefinitely without charging him with any crime and while denying him access to counsel.

I never imagined that such a thing could happen in modern America—that a president would claim the right to order American citizens imprisoned with no charges and without the right to a trial.  In China, the former Soviet Union, Iran, and countless other countries, the government can literally abduct its citizens and imprison them without a trial.  But that cannot happen in the United States—at least it never could before.

Isn’t this precisely the kind of reaction liberal Americans would like to have seen from their fellow citizens in 2002?  As opposed, say, to the more common “everything changed on 9/11” reaction known to faithful readers of this humble blog as “I used to be a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m really outraged by Chappaquiddick.” What Greenwald offers here is a mode of nationalism—of patriotism—that consists of principled opposition to the unlimited expansion of executive power by the Bush/Cheney regime.  It’s a mode of nationalism that might, and that should, be more popular than it is.

But, of course, in some circles “nationalism” is as dirty a word as “patriotism.” In the United States, it often speaks to the history of exclusion and exceptionalism—and in many other places, to ethnocentrism and funny ideas about the pure unadultered Volk as well.  You don’t want to go down that road, right, because it leads directly to Michelle Malkin and Pat Buchanan.

And that’s the point: think of all the Americans who’ve been whipped into a nationalistic frenzy in the past year—not by Bush and Cheney’s various shreddings of the Constitution but by . . . gasp! Mexicans. These are Americans who are just fine with NSA surveillance, and who think it’s perfectly OK for Bush to have lied about his NSA program repeatedly over the past five years.  Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants, though—that drives them crazy.  Why, that’s a threat to the very nation!

It’s possible to conclude, from the relative lack of nationalist outrage over Bush’s data mining and the outpouring of excess outrage over immigration, that any contest between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism will look a little like a reply of Spinks v. Tyson.  It will be ugly and embarrassing, and civil nationalism will be sent from the ring in about 91 seconds.  Civic nationalism, after all, involves a complex, reflective kind of fealty to procedure, to political forms and institutions; ethnic nationalism involves an unexamined fealty to the ethnos.  Even in the United States, which was founded entirely on civic rather than ethnic grounds, civic nationalism appears too “thin,” too tenuous a form of belonging to motivate ordinary, unaffiliated people to get up and ask how would a patriot act?  And as a result, when “patriots” do get up to act, more of them grab a gun and head for the border than grab a laptop and write How Would A Patriot Act?

It’s possible to come to that conclusion, yes.  I’ve come to it often enough myself.  But liberals and progressives who do so today, I think, give up too much along the way—rhetorically and politically.  So here’s hoping that Glenn Greenwald helps to make the (popular) case for a civic nationalism, with his tenacious love of liberty and with his many allies in the blogosphere.

Posted by Michael on 06/05 at 11:07 AM
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