Shortly after the United States invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, I attended a panel discussion (very much like this one) at Binghamton University where I was finishing my doctoral dissertation. The panel was comprised of four or five professors from different disciplines, all there to discuss the invasion and its possible implications. I remember clearly that about twenty minutes into the discussion those of us in the room began to hear shouts of USA, USA, USA!! From outside the room. A group of students got wind of the panel discussion and decided to protest what they thought was clearly a liberal-minded attack on the freedoms guaranteed by the United States and its providential mission to spread democracy throughout the planet. The protestors were mostly made up of white males who obviously felt the need to express their patriotism and put a definitive stop to those liberal professors and their adoring students who wished for nothing less than the destruction of American freedom and values.
I recount this story not to deny those young men their right to protest, but to illustrate a point: directly after September 11, 2001 the concept of patriotism mutated into an ideology grounded in a binary logic: “you are either with us or against us in this war on terror,” as George W. Bush so arrogantly stated. Unfortunately, those words spoken by our president set a tone that has carried over to this day. This attempt to domesticate the feelings of anxiety in the face of U. S. foreign policy was nothing new; what was new (at least to me) was the degree to which both sides were willing to defend their positions. The right thought of the left as liberal betrayers of American democracy and its way of life, while the left thought of the right as jingoistic Rambos itching to pull triggers and, to quote Toby Keith, “put a boot up the ass” of any one who messes with America. Even voices as pedestrian as the Dixie Chicks were politicized when they “insulted” the President of the United States in front of a foreign audience. (I never much liked the Dixie Chicks until that moment).
What gets lost in all of the anger, fear, and resentment is the very spirit behind the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically. The First Amendment reads thus:
Freedom of Religion, Press, and Expression: Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
I would argue that the First Amendment is the cornerstone of not only American democracy, but any concept of democracy. The ability to be critical of leaders or policies without fear of political or judicial repercussions is, and should be, what defines a democracy—government by and for the people. Patriotism can come in many forms, and one of those forms is protest and criticism of one’s government. To defend a government or a series of policies just because we find ourselves in a time of war is the very opposite of a democratic practice. Those who feel that objectors to certain foreign and domestic policies, especially during a time of war, are betraying their country are dead wrong. The Constitution suggests that our right to peacefully protest (as those young men did, but important to point out, they did not want us to hold our panel discussion) is part and parcel with the ideas behind the American democratic experiment.
As we reflect today on the United States Constitution, perhaps we can take a closer look at what democracy gives us: the right not to fall in line.