Courtesy of Bill Moyers' Journal, and Public Affairs Television...
What Patriotism Is, and Is Not
By Michael Winship
At the beginning of the week, a friend sent me a scurrilous, anonymous e-mail attacking Barack Obama that has been circulating around her elderly cousin’s Jewish senior living community in New Jersey. Headlined “Something to Think About,” it lists 13 acts of assassination, kidnapping, war and terrorism, all of which, it notes, were committed “by Muslim male extremists between the ages of 17 and 40.”
After several other claims, including a bogus citation from the Book of Revelation, the e-mail concludes, semi-literately, “For the award winning Act of Stupidity Now... the People of America want to elect, to the most Powerful position on the face of the Planet -- The Presidency of the United States of America to A Muslim Male Between the ages of 17 and 40? Have the American People completely lost their Minds, or just their power of reason? I'm sorry but I refuse to take a chance on the 'unknown' candidate Obama.”
To point out the obvious errors, that Barack Obama’s a Christian, not Muslim, and that he’s 46, not “between the ages of 17 and 40,” feels a bit lame, like damning with faint fact checking. Let’s call this appalling missive what it is – bigoted, hysterical and more than a little nuts. Unless, of course, it comes from the hands not of a mere delusional crank, but one of those beneath-the-radar smear forces that we all know are out there, ratcheting into higher and higher gear as November gets closer.
E-mail’s such as the one my friend passed along are insidious, appealing to our deepest fears and prejudices. A front-page story in Monday’s Washington Post profiled retired worker Jim Peterman of Findlay, Ohio. He’s a decent guy who “believes a smart vote is an American’s greatest responsibility,” the Post’s Eli Salsow wrote. “Which is why his confusion about Barack Obama continues to eat at him… “Does he trust a local newspaper article that details Obama's Christian faith? Or his friend Leroy Pollard, a devoted family man so convinced Obama is a radical Muslim that he threatened to stop talking to his daughter when he heard she might vote for him? “’I'll admit that I probably don't follow all of the election news like maybe I should,’ Peterman said. ‘I haven't read his books or studied up more than a little bit. But it's hard to ignore what you hear when everybody you know is saying it. These are good people, smart people, so can they really all be wrong?’” So it goes across the nation.
Chances are, many of the perpetrators of this nonsense think they’re being patriots, saving us from Obama and ourselves. And goodness knows, there’s a long history of this kind of guttersnipery in American politics. As Obama pointed out in his Monday speech on the nature of patriotism, “Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Federalists of selling out to the French. The anti-Federalists were just as convinced that John Adams was in cahoots with the British and intent on restoring monarchal rule… the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the Republic.”
Details of Obama’s speech got buried in the wake of General Wesley Clark’s politically lunkheaded comment about John McCain that, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.” But over the Fourth of July weekend, it might be appropriate and enlightening to take a few minutes to read or watch the whole thing. It’s a good speech.
The senator talks about American history and his own patriotism, about the need for service and sacrifice. “For those who have fought under the flag of this nation,” he said, “for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country – no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides.”
And this: “I believe those who attack America's flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand America… But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism.”
Which brings me to what I think was an unusual and especially fine expression of American patriotism. It’s the June 19 closing argument of Air Force Reserve Major David J.R. Frakt, arguing for the dismissal of charges against Mohammed Jawad, a young detainee at Guantanamo, charged with throwing a hand grenade that wounded two GI’s and their interpreter in Afghanistan.
Frakt argued that Jawad should be released because sleep deprivation – two weeks’ worth – was used to torture him. You can read it on the website of the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/safefree/detention/35753res20080619.html).
Frakt stood before the military commission upholding the inviolability of the American principle of due process, even for an alleged enemy of the United States. “Under the Constitution all men are created equal, and all are entitled to be treated with dignity,” he said. “No one is ‘undeserving’ of humane treatment. It is an unmistakable lesson of history that when one group of people starts to see another group of people as ‘other’ or as ‘different,’ as ‘undeserving,’ as ‘inferior,’ ill-treatment inevitably follows… “After six and a half years, we now know the truth about the detainees at Guantanamo: some of them are terrorists, some of them are foot soldiers, and some of them were just innocent people, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the detainees at Guantanamo have one thing in common — with each other, and with us — they are all human beings, and they are all worthy of humane treatment.”
Thus, in the face of adverse public opinion and White House opposition, Frakt bravely defended a constitutional principle as all-encompassing, including under its protections even those who might seek to destroy us and the very constitutional principles for which we stand. In fact, he said, “It is a testament to the continuing greatness of this nation, that I, a lowly Air Force Reserve Major, can stand here before you today, with the world watching, without fear of retribution, retaliation or reprisal, and speak truth to power. I can call a spade a spade, and I can call torture, torture.”
To me, that makes Major David Frakt a patriot and this a great country. Happy Fourth of July.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.