March 25, 2003
On Being an American in America
The authority of a king is physical and controls the actions of men without subduing their will. But the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America
Michael Moore held nothing back when he took his opportunity to “thank the Academy” for his Oscar Sunday night. Neither did the audience when it tried to boo him off the stage for candidly stating his sentiments about America’s recent foreign policy. While Adrien Brody was more elegant and Susan Sarandon was elegantly minimalist, each found a way to speak up about the Iraqi War.
Whether you agree or disagree with their beliefs or methods each, of course, has the right to state his or her opinion. But I’ve become increasingly concerned about the less-than-subtle pressure and psychology behind voicing a minority viewpoint during these dark and intense times. Once again the definition of patriotism is up for grabs. Some would say the freedom to express unpopular beliefs is what makes this country great while others question the loyalty of those who do.
Celebrities, familiar with the public stage, often have little problem expressing difficult points of view. Moore knew what he was doing and was willing to take the heat for what he said. But what about people like you and me? What about children, smart children who think about the issues and come to similar conclusions? What message are we sending to them about our notions of freedom of speech when the debate is reduced to black or white and loyal or unpatriotic sides?
This is an old story. American heroism couldn’t protect Charles Lindbergh when he spoke out against the first World War. Dick Polman stated in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer: President “Woodrow Wilson…touted a coercive patriotism during World War I. At his behest, Congress banned antiwar publications from the mails, and criminalized spoken and written remarks that might cast ‘contempt, scorn or disrepute’ on his administration. Eugene Debs, a five-time Socialist presidential candidate, was jailed for an anti-war speech.” It would seem hard to believe we could stumble down that low road again.
Polman: Conservative activist David Horowitz frames the pro-Iraqi invasion camp’s take on patriotism: “In a war, some sort of basic unity against the enemy is necessary. To seek to disrupt that unity is to aid the enemy.”
While dissidents aren’t being arrested for speaking freely, their patriotism is still being called into question. We are being asked to fall into line and stand behind both our President and our troops with one simple step. Despite the fact that our country is divergent and prides itself on its diversity, our loyalty is treated as black and white. You either are or are not a patriot. There is no subtly and there is no questioning. One can simultaneously support our troops and question the wisdom of invading Iraq. It’s unfortunate that this needs to be continuously reinforced and repeated.
It seemed acceptable to question the war before hostilities broke out but not so once the first cruise missiles were launched. Senator John McCain has told former President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Jimmy Carter to “shut up” for expressing his views. Senate Minority Leader Tom Dashel has been called the “Senator from France” for speaking his mind. And we seem to have revoked France’s passport for speaking theirs. De Toqueville would not be pleased. Questioning and dissent are at the heart of our country’s beginning.
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There is a sign above a highway leading to Washington that advises motorists to “Report Suspicious Activity,” along with an 800 phone number. When Washington Post writer Courtland Milloy set out this past weekend to report on “things that struck [him] as suspicious,” he never realized his quest would, itself, become suspect.
After he started asking questions about a metal box equiped with a high-tech antenna and receptor dish near the Jefferson Memorial the US Park Police began to question him. “We hear you’ve been asking questions,” Park Police Officer Michael Ramirez stated. “Why are you doing that?” The reporter in Milloy made the mistake of asking “why” when he was asked to produce an ID. They called for backup.
Police confiscated his notebook and began to search him. Eight officers responded to the call and Sgt. R.J. Steinheimer told him: “There have been reports of suspicious activity regarding you.” “By whom?, Milloy asked. “Can’t tell you that,” he replied.
Milloy: I pointed out that people all around us were using video cameras and cameras of all kinds to photograph who knows what. Even knowing I’d never get a straight answer, I pointedly asked whether I had been detained because I was African American or whether I looked Middle Eastern. The officers just smiled wryly. A Park Police detective would later say that “a tourist” had reported me to police.
Milloy’s experience reminded me of my own 9/11 anniversary memorial ceremony on the tidal basin next to the Pentagon last year. Suspicious until proven otherwise seems to be replacing innocent until proven guilty in these questionable times.
Interestingly, Corporate America is being excused from the Patriotism Litmus Test this time around. According to Suzanne Vranica in the March 20 edition of the Wall Street Journal, “The concern is that companies adding flags or other national symbols to their advertising may be tainted as opportunistic.” “Patriotic messages could have a negative effect on a brand,” according to Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett USA.
While I’m relieved advertisers have decided to stay out of The Coalition of the Willing, at least publicly (talk about branding), I’m much more concerned about the facelift the all-American brand is getting these days.
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If you feel it’s important to speak your mind and state your opinion, no matter what it is, feel free to place either of these Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up graphics on your Web site. The 30/70 refers to the polls which state that 30% of the public is against America’s involvement in the war in Iraq and 70% support it—numbers that are controversial in their own right.