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Am I “Anti-American”?

February 26, 2002

Liberals used to accuse me of being an extremist radical right-wing superpatriotic cold warrior. I didn’t exactly enjoy having these labels slapped on me, particularly by Mom, but at least I could understand why some people used them. They were a caricature, which is an exaggeration of real features.

Lately, though, I’ve been called some unflattering names by people I used to think of as my fellow conservatives. One, a radio talk-show host, has gone so far as to call me “anti-American.”

How did I go from being superpatriotic to being anti-American, or even, as some have called me, “treasonous”? I haven’t joined the Taliban, endorsed terrorism, waged war against the United States, taken bribes from foreign governments, or sold sensitive military secrets to Chinese or Russian spies. Wherein, then, have I offended?

That’s easy. I haven’t joined in the spirit of primitive patriotism that is expected of us in wartime. In fact I deny that such patriotism deserves to be honored as patriotism.

Discerning anthropologists have enumerated traits by which certain social types may be recognized. You’ve seen the lists: “You may be a redneck if ...”

In the same way, I think there are traits by which we can identify an anti-American.

If, for example, you think the U.S. Government should abide by the Constitution even during wartime, you are anti-American. If you think the government should at least declare war before waging it, you are anti-American. If you deprecate a war that hurts and kills innocent people without achieving its stated goals, you are anti-American.

That’s not all. If you judge your own country’s government by the same standards that you apply to other countries’ governments, you are anti-American. If you think America is not immune to the sins that have often afflicted other countries, you are anti-American. If you think our government has made us enemies we don’t need, you are anti-American.

[Breaker quote: The 
proper standards]If you think that even America’s “good wars” — the Civil War and World War II — had terribly tragic results for this country and the world, you are anti-American.

America is an extension of Western civilization, one of whose deepest principles is rationality. The Founders of the American Republic established standards, embodied in the Constitution and explained in The Federalist Papers, by which that Republic and its rulers should be judged. They didn’t expect automatic submission to the government; on the contrary, they set down the grounds on which citizens should criticize the government and, if necessary, remove its officers. A true patriot would be a critic, not a serf, of the government.

This whole approach was in deliberate contrast to the principles of absolute monarchism. A loyal American could judge his government wanting, because the people, not their rulers, were sovereign. They would have no sacred ruler set over them in the name of God and claiming divine authority.

But this original sense of measure has been lost. To judge your government by its own supposed criteria — the specific and limited powers named in the Constitution which our officials are sworn to uphold — is disloyalty and treason. Obey, or be damned!

This reversion to primitive authoritarianism would have shocked the authors of the Constitution. But they are more alien to today’s “patriotism” than the Taliban. Today they would be considered anti-American.

Those men assumed that the Constitution would be a constant rein on the Federal Government. It would be used to rebuke any attempted usurpation of power; and for a while, it was. But in times of war especially, the Constitution has proved a frail instrument. During the Civil War, as Paul Craig Roberts recently put it, Abraham Lincoln “exalted the Union above the Constitution.” Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt went much further than Lincoln. All three are now honored as “great presidents.” Those who respected constitutional limitations are said to have been “weak presidents.” And George W. Bush is already being praised, in some “conservative” quarters, as a “great president.”

The question of constitutionality rarely comes up, except in the feeble and marginal whimpers of pseudo-constitutionalists such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which actually favors socialist-style government in most respects. No president has ever been removed for exceeding his powers. President Bush doesn’t even have to worry about that.

So if you consider the ruin of a noble experiment in limited government “Americanism,” just set me down as anti-American.

Joseph Sobran

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