In the early 1970s, America was a deeply divided nation. The 1950s/1960s had seen a national debate about our racial divide, legalized segregation, poverty, and lack of equal opportunity. By 1970, those causes had been subsumed under the weight of the Viet Nam War. The civil rights movement had provoked violent actions from those who saw their social order and way of life being upended. In turn, the anti-war movement provoked violent actions from those who believed that the government had embarked on a morally, politically, and militarily futile endeavor that was destroying the ethical character of the nation.
The war between the greatest military power on earth and a tiny far-away country in southeast Asia fighting its own war for independence and reunification struck many as an unwarranted and disproportionally unequal conflict. The national protest against it had already driven Lyndon Johnson out of the presidency. President Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war never materialized; by 1970 it was clearly now Nixon’s war. One part of the country, fresh from the unifying memory of WWII, felt an obligation to support the government in this war as a patriotic duty. Others, seeing the war continue to widen into Laos and Cambodia, seeing the growing number of Americans called into service, and seeing the extreme carnage being inflicted on both sides, concluded that this war was unjustified and unwinnable. Getting out was rapidly becoming the new national priority for our military.
As the war increasingly ground to a stalemate, as the optimistic reports from the front became more and more unbelievable, the public gradually turned towards less and less support for the President and his war. As Nixon desperately looked for ways to shore up the increasingly negative public opinion, he came up with a new tactic: define the war as a patriotic duty, and thereby attack the patriotism of the protestors as being un-American. It is an old rhetorical trick: when your rationale and logic in the debate no longer works or stands on its own, then shift gears and attack the character and credibility of your opponent. Skip over the debate question itself, disengage from the discussion, and just convince people that your opponent is personally so badly flawed that his/her argument is thereby inherently wrong.
And so began the drumbeat of the anti-anti-war populous: “America – love it or leave it.” Dissenting against the war, dissenting against the government, failing to support the President, was cast as anti-American conduct. Objecting to point-in-time decisions and actions of the President was un-American and unpatriotic. The war was not wrong; protesting against it was wrong. Disliking what the government was doing somehow meant that one disliked America. If you did not like America – meaning you did not like what the President/government was doing – one should not fight or criticize to try to change it. Rather, just keep your opinions to yourself or go live somewhere else.
In this love-it-or-leave-it climate, America descended into even greater division. Instead of discussing whether continuing the war was justified, or how to properly conduct it, the discussion now became personal: who was the true American and who was the anti-American.
None of us likes to be criticized. No president likes to be criticized. In 1798, President John Adams tried to make it a federal crime (the Alien and Sedition Act) to make false or malicious statements that criticized the president or the government. His effort to stifle dissent ultimately contributed to his reelection defeat, and no president since has tried to silence criticism so overtly through the law. But that has still left the rhetorical devices available for a weak leader to try to use.
Our Freedom of Speech certainly caries the expectation for us to speak responsibly. But Freedom of Speech does not mandate us to speak intelligently, or to simply repeat the prevailing opinions of the day, or to not speak critically of those that serve us in government positions. Criticism of our President comes with the territory; it is not a job for the weak of heart or the insecure or the untested. Our current President has elected to try the same wrap-me-in-the-flag patriotism card with his political opponents. He speaks in variations of “America – love it or leave it.” Accuses his opponents (without substantiation) of “hating America” simply because they hate the policies and decisions he is making. “Send her back” is a contemptable chant from intolerant hearts. “Go back where you came from” is a short trip for someone who is a U.S. citizen.
In the end, Richard Nixon lost his effort to silence his critics over who was the true patriot. The White House tapes made it very clear who were the non-patriots. As the times from 50 years ago repeat themselves in continuing reverberation today, Donald Trump will likely similarly lose the battle over who are today’s true patriots. The litany of his crimes, me-first pursuits, and cronyism exposes his self-serving understanding of patriotism. Loving one’s country is not measured by loving one’s politician or what s/he says.
The ideals of America are perfect; the implementation of these ideals has always been less than perfect. Military and civilian personnel over our history have sacrificed themselves for the right to speak up, to put ideas – however crazy – into the marketplace of the American public debate. Such debate helps us find the best of ideas to accomplish our ideals. Nobody needs to “leave America.” Nobody needs to “go back where they came from.” Everyone needs to stay right here and let the debate over ideas happen. In the meantime, we can skip the non-debate about who is “the true American.” We can call out those who would subvert our right to self-govern through open debate. We should not allow ourselves to become entrapped within someone else’s empty and malicious rhetorical tricks.
© 2019 Randy Bell https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com