Altars of the Nation — What Does It Cost to Love Your Country? | Andrew Gu
From its very inception in the fires of the Revolution, the United States has walked a tightrope between civil liberties and the demands of conflict, or so it appears. For the most part, American governments have again and again sacrificed civil liberties at the altars of patriotism, national security, and any number of other (sometimes justified) causes. While it’s important to take those sacrifices in context, it’s also very important to note that those causes always demand more sacrifices, that they’re so deeply embedded in American history and culture that sacrificing for them has become normalized, and that they can quickly morph into something much less worthwhile.
For example, take a culture of self-sacrifice; despite being admirable and attractive, once imposed by institutions such as conscription, it can become, in the words of the late historian Howard Zinn, “a way of forcing large numbers of reluctant people to associate themselves with the national cause, and by the end of the process believe in it.”
In a similar vein, patriotism, love for one’s country (the Athenian statesman Pericles famously used the word eros to describe patriotism), is not inherently evil; in many ways, it’s necessary for a functioning society, especially for one as addicted to war as the United States. However, of all the ideals ingrained into society, it’s one of the most unsettling. To use a well-trotted out example, it’s extremely difficult to say that Hitler did not love his country so long as you accept Hitler’s restrictive definition of what his country constituted. Though that’s admittedly extreme, you only have to look at the size and composition of the electorate for most of American history to see similar dangers in pretending that patriotism is a love for anything more than just the political or social in-group of the times.
The expansion of surveillance in the wake of the Patriot Act and the ironically-named USA Freedom Act has also helped drag patriotism’s name through the mud, as the Patriot Act in particular infringed on rights to privacy in the name of national security, forming the basis for today’s particularly vitriolic debate. But even before the two decades of the war on terror, patriotism provided a cynical backing for the abuse of power in the name of protecting war efforts in both world wars and the Cold War.
Infamously, the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, passed during World War I but advocated for prior to American entry in the war, infringed civil liberties by punishing dissent in the press and in normal Americans ostensibly in order to prevent American forces from being compromised. Resulting organizations like the 100,000-strong American Protective League and ominously-named Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, whose members were usually drawn from the upper classes, began wildly accusing up to 3 million (a probably-exaggerated League number) fellow Americans of disloyalty. Completely coincidentally, many of the two thousand people actually prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts (though more fell victim to intimidation and vigilante “justice”) were members and leaders of the Socialist Party, including Eugene Debs, activist and Socialist Party candidate for president. Advocates for two acts bundled them in terms of necessity (during conflict) and, again, patriotism. Though the Sedition Act was never repealed, much of the Espionage Act remains to this day, recently being used in the cases of whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Similar events, like the suspension of habeas corpus in both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War 2, and the Red Scares during the 20th century, all highlight America’s wartime tendency to toss aside the rights and ideals that Americans are supposed to be fighting for.
However, when dealing with American mistakes and Orwellian scenarios recounted here and elsewhere, it’s crucial to understand that, at the time, amidst atmospheres of fear and xenophobia, all of these actions seemed rational, even if their military value was usually negligible, and some will argue that they were justified. Most of the perpetrators were not stupid; many were opportunists, and others were swept up in a mix of misinformation and anxiety. You can draw parallels with any number of groups that you dislike, but remember that any of us can be swept into another Red Scare or 1917, while our governments, despite reforms over time, have not demonstrated an ability to keep the ravenous altars of American ideals from consuming themselves — and us with them.