Let me take that back: I was not always a patriot. I was a political skeptic until I went to college. For example, in high school, applying Occam’s razor (before I knew what it was called), I decided that the reports of Stalin’s purges, atrocities and Orwellian show trials more likely were propaganda than true. It was edifying to discover I had been wrong.
My skepticism had been encouraged and legitimized by my eighth grade history teacher, Mr. Bartlett who, I realized later, taught a Marxist view of history. I’m sure Mr. Bartlett was not a Communist, he might even have voted Republican from time to time. Trim, dapper – he was the only one of my male teachers who wore a neatly pressed suit to school instead of a rumpled sport jacket and ill-knotted tie – with distinguished salt and pepper hair and a quiet, patrician manner, he was conservative through and through. Mr. Bartlett might even have been A Conservative. He was a Marxist only academically. I assume that the Marxist historical perspective – which boiled down to the principle that all history is based on economics – happened to have been the prevailing theory in the Faculty of History wherever he had received his Masters degree. For example, Mr. Bartlett taught us that the Civil War was not about slavery, but was an economic struggle between the industrialized North and the agricultural South.
What made me into a patriot at college was a required two year course called Contemporary Civilization. The course seemed to demonstrate that history was a progress, in which the development of individualism led to independent, objective thought, which in turn led to social reform based on rational principles. The course’s strength lay in that its readings consisted entirely of source material. We read excerpts from Sartor Resartus, for example, instead of an essay on Carlyle.
I felt a particular affinity for the 18th century: Berkeley, Voltaire, Burke, Paine, Hume, the Federalist papers. It was David Hume, a close reading of An Essay on Human Understanding in a Philosophy class, that changed my life, as they say. I applied Hume’s argument against cause and effect to my deepest questions, questions so deep that I wouldn’t have known how to put them into words, and became a sort of Buddhist (intellectually, at least) before I knew what “Buddhist” meant.
While Hume may have turned me into a proto-Buddhist, what made me a patriot was reading the other political philosophers of the 18th century, and then learning how invested the Founding Fathers were in Enlightenment thought. I became an exceptionalist – a term which, among my friends, at least, usually is accompanied by a scoffing grunt.
The United States was an exception. While the identities of other Western nations had been formed over millennia, usually from tribal roots, and were encrusted with traditions, social protocols and points of view whose origins were lost in the mists of time, the United States, as the first colony of a European power to become independent, was brand new – sprung fully-formed from Rousseau’s forehead, to put it one way. Alone among nations, it had no ruling class. There was an upper class, an establishment but, the Tories having fled, those who remained were revolutionaries, steeped in the social contract and perfectly aware that monarchy was patently absurd. We were the embodiment of Plato’s Republic of Philosophers. Until recently, the United States was exceptional, in the word’s meaning of “better than the rest” instead of simply “unique.”
Of course, like all nations, we have been guilty of murder and cruelty, invasion and appropriation, hypocrisy and short-sighted stupidity, but while other nations dealt with the inhumanity and crimes perpetrated on their behalves in terms of national honor and moral and religious precepts, for the United States, such evil passages in its history were violations of its founding principles, its constitution, its existential core.
I ceased being a patriot yesterday.
The Senate’s torture report has been on my mind. Its details are sickening, it makes me feel ill at this very moment to recall some of them. Still, it is not the CIA’s policy of torture that has lost me to my country, it is the reaction to the Senate report of them: the reaction of the Administration, of Congress, of the press, of my fellow countrymen who were more anxious about catching Ebola than enraged that their country, our country, the United States, as a matter of policy, had deliberately, systematically, repeatedly brutally tortured prisoners in its custody.
But forget the press, forget the public, specifically it was the inaction of the Administration after the publication of the report, the inaction of the White House, of the Justice Department, of the CIA itself, and of the military, under whose jurisdiction the crimes took place, that lead me to realize that I was no longer a patriot.
I don’t understand why the Obama Administration has spent more time talking about non-consensual sexual intercourse between inebriated college students than about the repeated rape of prisoners – for that is what forced “rectal feeding” is – on orders from the White House. Or maybe I don’t want to understand; the betrayal – by Barack Obama, of all people – of basic human norms for political ends is too sad to think about. I will continue to be a good, law-abiding citizen. I simply no longer love my country.* I see it as just one more large, powerful geopolitical entity among others.
In 1902, when it was disclosed that the United States Army was waterboarding captured Philippine rebels, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a telegram to the Commander of the Army in the Philippines which read, in part:
The president desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts...for the very reason that the president intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work; he also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American military.
Roosevelt went on to order the court martial of the nastiest of his generals in the Philippines, Jacob Hurd Smith, and when the court martial cleared him, Roosevelt, on the recommendation of Secretary of War Elihu Root, invoked executive privilege and had the general cashiered.
Between the time of Teddy Roosevelt and now we seem to have gone from being a new and self-assuredly moral nation to an old and forgetful evil one. Our Enlightenment roots have atrophied. Unfortunately, this atrophy has happened to have occurred in an era of relativism, in which moral and religious precepts have become vague, and we are not yet ancient enough to have developed a sense of national honor – that is, to have a set of standards we would be ashamed to breach. Considering the details of the Senate report, there is, evidently, no criminal depravity for which we cannot cheerfully find an excuse.
My divorce from my country may not be irrevocable. If the FBI were to arrest Dick Cheney and send him in handcuffs to The Hague, I might again be a believer. But barring a belated nationwide revulsion and the criminal prosecution of at least the gang-leaders of the Guantanamo sadists, the United States will remain one patriot less.
*Postscript Feb. 20: I can say I don't love my country, but my heart tells me otherwise. Let's say I love my country as one would love a delinquent parent -- with anger, with frustration, with shame and with a begrudging gratitude for past kindnesses.