Thursday, October 15, 2009

Democrats, Republicans and patriotism (and Andrew Jackson gets the final say)

I know I just did a post about Glenn Greenwald and the Democratic left. But he brings up an issue that's very much worth thinking about seriously in How to avoid the GOP's mistakes during the Bush years? Salon 10/13/09. He takes the Democratic Party to task for encouraging the notion that attacking Obama Nobel Peace Prize was unpatriotic. I think he paints with too broad a brush on this original press release from Brad Woodhouse for the Democratic National Committee last week:

The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists — the Taliban and Hamas this morning — in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize. Republicans cheered when America failed to land the Olympics and now they are criticizing the President of the United States for receiving the Nobel Peace prize — an award he did not seek but that is nonetheless an honor in which every American can take great pride — unless of course you are the Republican Party. The 2009 version of the Republican Party has no boundaries, has no shame and has proved that they will put politics above patriotism at every turn. It’s no wonder only 20 percent of Americans admit to being Republicans anymore – it’s an embarrassing label to claim.
I immediately had mixed feelings about this. Part of me said, I'm glad to see the Democrats fighting back on this for once! And part of me said, this crosses the line into lightly accusing critics of being unpatriotic, if not downright treasonous.

Glenn seem to be treating political speech in this case almost like the Constitutional barriers to treason trials on legal grounds. The Constitution includes a restrictive definition of treason, requiring the testimony of two witnesses to an overt act giving aid and comfort to enemies of the United States. The Founders deliberately wanted to make it difficult for the authorities to stage treason trials against critics. They knew that in the Britain experience and in that of other European countries, such accusations had been an instrument of tyranny. Even more concretely, many of the members of the Constitutional Convention had played leading roles in the massive act of treason to the British King that was the American Revolution.

But the fact that they wanted to minimize the possibility of abusing the charge didn't mean that weren't aware that real treason happened and would happen in the United States. During the Jefferson administration, Vice President Aaron Burr conspired to raise forces to fight against the United States on behalf of Britain, an act which Jefferson viewed as treasonous though Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall successful blocked prosecution of Burr.

A few years later, Andrew Jackson's Vice President John Calhoun was the behind-the-scenes leader of South Carolina's attempt to establish the state's right to unilaterally block enforcement of federal laws in South Carolina. It was during that Nullification Controversy that Jackson asserted the version of American patriotism that I would like to think still prevails today, a loyalty to a nationally unified country based on democracy. Jackson also viewed Calhoun's connivance at South Carolina's attempted act of rebellion - which was adopted three decades later by the Confederacy - as treason. Old Hickory said on his deathbed that he regretted that he hadn't hanged Calhoun for treason over the nullification incident. "My country would have sustained me in the act, and his fate would have been a warning to traitors in all time to come."

It may be hard for people today to imagine that a Vice President of the United States would set out to destroy the Constitution and deliberately take actions that he knew would damage the United States badly. But it really happened. I'm just sayin'.

And, of course, the Confederate revolt was far and away the biggest act of treason against the United States and the Constitution. It remains the only significant military effort to overthrow the government of the United States and the Constitution by force and violence. Even though for purposes of reconciliation and recovery, the federal government carried out only very limited legal reprisals and Confederate officers, soldiers or civilian officials.

And there have been other individual acts of treason, such as several Presidential assassinations and assassination attempts. From the days of Benedict Arnold on there have been cases of espionage and sabotage against the United States by American citizens. Franklin Roosevelt's administration tried two different wartime prosecutions against pro-Nazi rightwingers making propaganda for the enemy, both of which were thrown out by the Supreme Court.

My bottom line is that accusations of treason or lack of patriotism should be used sparingly. But there are times when it's very appropriate to use them. Neo-Confederate groups today are about as explicitly anti-American as it gets. The Westboro Baptist Church hate group made it a practice of demonstrating at the funerals of American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, claiming that they deserve to day because the United States doesn't outlaw and suppress homosexuality. It's perfectly legitimate to call their approach unpatriotic and anti-American. Because it is.

In the case of Scooter Libby and everyone else involved in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA officer for cheap political paypack, Libby wasn't tried for treason. And his co-conspirators haven't been tried at all. But I certainly consider that in the generic sense an act of treason, which is how many in the Democratic base viewed it. Old Man Bush himself said in 1999 on the subject of Americans who burn undercover CIA officers that way, "They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."

That case is a good illustration of why judgment is important. There was no legitimate reason to reveal Plame's undercover status. It's easy to think of hypothetical cases, such as an undercover CIA officer plotting to commit an act of terrorism or assassination against Americans, in which a source and a reporter would be fully justified morally in uncovering them. But the Plame case was clearly not one of them.

And we can't just ignore such cases as the Plame outing. Glenn Greenwald certainly did not. As Cenk Uygur wrote in The Most Insidious of Traitors Huffington Post 01/30/07 (emphasis in original):

Every news article that talks about the Scooter Libby trial mentions that no one has been "charged with the leak itself." Conservatives have been using this as an exculpatory defense. "See, no one did anything wrong. This is just a minor perjury offense."

Of course, I don't remember Republicans thinking perjury was such a minor offense when Bill Clinton was president. But putting that aside, it has to be pointed out that everyone involved admits that they did leak the identity of a covert CIA officer.

... Scooter Libby impeded the investigation by lying about what they did - and that is why he is now being tried. If he had not impeded the investigation, there very well might have been charges on the underlying crime.
And when Rush Limbaugh, the OxyContin-fried head of the Republican Party, says things like this ...

Our president is a worldwide joke. Folks, do you realize something has happened here that we all agree with the Taliban and Iran about and that is he doesn't deserve the award. Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something with the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban.
... how can Democrats just ignore that? To pretend that the far right mainstream Republicans aren't talking this way when they are about as in-your-face explicit about it as they can be just doesn't make any sense at all to me.

Having said all that, I do think the DNC statement cast its net too wide. Lots of people, including many Democrats, had reservations or criticisms of Obama's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Missouri Sen. Clair McCaskell put it much better when she highlighted the screaming hypocrisy of the Republican trash-talkers when she commented on in a brief statement see called The Twilight Zone:

I feel that I’m in an alternative universe. For eight years some people called anyone who disagreed with the President’s foreign policy or war in Iraq unpatriotic. Then in the course of two weeks, those same people cheer when the United States does not get selected for the Olympics and boo when our President is the unanimous choice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Go figure.

Congratulations Mr. President for standing up to the scorn and derision of your opponents in the election when you firmly stood for the proposition that strength meant being willing to talk to your enemies, not just your allies. Thank you for the confidence and wisdom to say that a hand will be extended when their fist is unclenched. And thank you for understanding that our national security rests on our principles, the example we set for the world, and our alliances along with the excellence and strength of our military, rather than exclusively the latter. God Bless America.
What we've seen over the last nearly nine years now is that all too many Republicans have reduced "patriotism" to meaning "supporting the Republican Party". Or, as the DNC press release puts it, the Republicans now "put politics above patriotism at every turn"; given the record of the Republicans in Congress and the Executive Branch on war, torture and the Valerie Plame case, that's sadly a pretty accurate description for the Party at the national level.

I'll stick with the idea of American patriotism Andrew Jackson used in his Presidential Proclamation to The People of South Carolina of December 10, 1832:

This right to secede is deduced from the nature of the Constitution, which they say is a compact between sovereign States who have preserved their whole sovereignty, and therefore are subject to no superior; that because they made the compact, they can break it when in their opinion it has been departed from by the other States. Fallacious as this course of reasoning is, it enlists State pride, and finds advocates in the honest prejudices of those who have not studied the nature of our government sufficiently to see the radical error on which it rests.

The people of the United States formed the Constitution, acting through the State legislatures, in making the compact, to meet and discuss its provisions, and acting in separate conventions when they ratified those provisions; but the terms used in its construction show it to be a government in which the people of all the States collectively are represented. We are ONE PEOPLE in the choice of the President and Vice President. Here the States have no other agency than to direct the mode in which the vote shall be given. The candidates having the majority of all the votes are chosen. The electors of a majority of States may have given their votes for one candidate, and yet another may be chosen. The people, then, and not the States, are represented in the executive branch. ...

The States severally have not retained their entire sovereignty. It has been shown that in becoming parts of a nation, not members of a league, they surrendered many of their essential parts of sovereignty. The right to make treaties, declare war, levy taxes, exercise exclusive judicial and legislative powers, were all functions of sovereign power. The States, then, for all these important purposes, were no longer sovereign. The allegiance of their citizens was transferred in the first instance to the government of the United States; they became American citizens, and owed obedience to the Constitution of the United States, and to laws made in conformity with the powers vested in Congress. This last position has not been, and cannot be, denied. How then, can that State be said to be sovereign and independent whose citizens owe obedience to laws not made by it, and whose magistrates are sworn to disregard those laws, when they come in conflict with those passed by another? What shows conclusively that the States cannot be said to have reserved an undivided sovereignty, is that they expressly ceded the right to punish treason - not treason against their separate power, but treason against the United States. Treason is an offense against sovereignty, and sovereignty must reside with the power to punish it. But the reserved rights of the States are not less sacred because they have for their common interest made the general government the depository of these powers. The unity of our political character (as has been shown for another purpose) commenced with its very existence. Under the royal government we had no separate character; our opposition to its oppression began as UNITED COLONIES. We were the UNITED STATES under the Confederation, and the name was perpetuated and the Union rendered more perfect by the federal Constitution. In none of these stages did we consider ourselves in any other light than as forming one nation. Treaties and alliances were made in the name of all. Troops were raised for the joint defense. How, then, with all these proofs, that under all changes of our position we had, for designated purposes and with defined powers, created national governments-how is it that the most perfect of these several modes of union should now be considered as a mere league that may be dissolved at pleasure ? It is from an abuse of terms. Compact is used as synonymous with league, although the true term is not employed, because it would at once show the fallacy of the reasoning. It would not do to say that our Constitution was only a league, but it is labored to prove it a compact (which, in one sense, it is), and then to argue that as a league is a compact, every compact between nations must, of course, be a league, and that from such an engagement every sovereign power has a right to recede. But it has been shown that in this sense the States are not sovereign, and that even if they were, and the national Constitution had been formed by compact, there would be no right in any one State to exonerate itself from the obligation. ...

The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject - my duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution, deceived you - they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion, hut be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON. Are you really ready to incur its guilt? If you are, on the head of the instigators of the act be the dreadful consequences-on their heads be the dishonor, but on yours may fall the punishment-on your unhappy State will inevitably fall all the evils of the conflict you force upon the government of your country. [my emphasis]
Jackson as a young man had himself fought in the Revolutionary War. He should rightly be seen as one of the Founders himself, the last of them to serve as President.

Democrats shouldn't carelessly accuse critics of treason or of being unpatriotic. But Democrats also shouldn't restrain from criticizing blatantly unpatriotic or treasonous acts as what they are. And we certainly shouldn't let the Republicans get away with trying to define patriotism in a purely partisan, narrow ideological sense.

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