Patriot Games

by Ruth Coniff

The Progressive magazine, January 2002


Since September 11, I've been asked a couple of times about my patriotism and that of my fellow lefties and journalists. At a recent TV-produced town meeting I wrestled with my answer. Despite the sign at the end of my block urging me and my neighbors to fly our flags, I knew my family wouldn't put out the stars and stripes. It's not something I'd had to explain to myself. But thinking about explaining it to a larger audience took me aback.

Some lefties I know-especially Democratic politicians-instantly know their answer to the patriotism question. It is, after all, a question about loyalty, and you can't be a successful politician if you can't pass the loyalty test. So they say yes, absolutely. And then they go on to define patriotism in their own way-defending the Bill of Rights, democracy, and the American tradition of dissent. It's a sensible public stance. But I think a lot of us, if we admit the truth, are put off by the word "patriotism." It brings to mind the people in my hometown who pulled up lawn chairs to watch the military parade at the .end of the Gulf War, applauding and eating hot dogs as helicopters zoomed overhead. Patriotism has got to be, as my dad says, more than hanging out a flag and then sitting on your ass watching jets bomb Afghanistan.

But that is, sadly, the position we're in. Instead of tapping Americans' desire to do something civic-minded in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, our leaders insisted that we go back to our regular business, even as they warned us of imminent further attacks. It's especially sad that a lot of journalists have little to do but wear flag lapel pins and read Pentagon press releases about the war and the progress of military tribunals.

Just as the Bush Administration is announcing that "defending our way of life" means supporting these star chamber court proceedings, curtailing civil liberties, and letting law enforcement listen in on conversations between lawyers and their clients, journalists seem to have given up their critical stance and decided that being a P.R. wing of government is their proper war-time function.

Walter Isaacson issued an edict to his staff at CNN, telling them not to overemphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan and to "balance" the reports with reminders of the World Trade Center death toll. All the major networks agreed not to run Osama bin Laden's videotaped messages, not just because they might include coded communications with terrorist cells but because the Administration deemed them "inflammatory." Dan Rather announced that he was ready to go wherever the President wanted to send him in this war (whatever that meant). The Washington Post and The New York Times both agreed to withhold information the CIA deemed dangerous.

At a Yale forum on journalism, I was part of a panel backing up headliner James Fallows, veteran reporter, editor, and media critic. I was surprised to hear Fallows declare that the terrorist threat has had a salutary effect on the media, creating a stronger sense of "us" (as in "we're all in this together"), and a greater connection between the media and the public. Fallows is a proponent of public journalism: the idea that journalists should consider their civic responsibilities and not just sales when they make decisions about the news. A good example of public journalism, he said, was the series of tiny obituaries The New York Times has been running on victims of the World Trade Center attack. These served no real news purpose, and they were not really obituaries, he said, but they filled a need for public mourning and remembrance.

But for all the moving press accounts of individual loss and tragedy in the wake of September 11, there have been just as many examples of a kind of phony and even dangerous home-team boosterism. The stylized flag logos, the glib titles ("America's New War"), and the drum-and-horn theme songs constitute an effort to create a false feeling of "us" between news companies and consumers who are more like a passive audience waiting to be entertained than concerned citizens thinking hard about issues like patriotism and the proper response to terrorism.

Much of the media flag-waving is, in fact, motivated by cynicism and fear. There is the fear, specifically, of being deemed unpatriotic by self-appointed conservative watchdogs including Rush Limbaugh, the New York Post, the Drudge Report, and the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, all of whom are armed with lists of the unpatriotic compiled by the rightwing Media Research Center. With this pack nipping at their heels, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and ABC News president David Westin have all had to publicly defend themselves against charges of un-American reporting and commentary.

Then there is the cynicism of these same media types, who must market themselves to the ass-sitting, flag-buying American public. TV, in particular, seems to have lost all contact with journalism's noble ideals-as Fallows pointed out in his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (Pantheon 1996)-and generally treats the public as a big bunch of drooling boobs. Witness the early celebrity-journalist reporting from the World Trade Center. ABC sent George Stephanopolous to the scene, where he was joined by Chris Cuomo, who did a phony man-on-the-street interview with one of the actors from The Sopranos.

While the public watched this circus, the Defense Department was buying all of the rights to high-resolution pictures of Afghanistan taken by commercial satellite. That means that news media will never be able to get satellite pictures of the bombing in Afghanistan, except as they are released by the military. As The New York Times reported, the Bush Administration could have blocked the news media's access to the satellite pictures on national security grounds, which might have provoked a legal battle. Instead, by paying $1.9 million a month to Space Imaging, Inc., they have disposed of the problem and any inconvenient debate using our tax dollars.

Now more than ever we need a critical press and an alert citizenry. The kind of patriotism that's advertised by the Bush Administration and on television-don't worry, just keep shopping-carries us in the opposite direction.

If you're uncomfortable with the word "patriotism," maybe it's a sign of unease with this prescription for conformity. Or maybe you feel, like I do, alarmed by the specter of this country's massive military machine gearing up, in our name, for missions we know next to nothing about. In any case, more nationalism seems like a bad remedy for the problems facing our world. At the Yale panel, a student posed a question about civilian casualties in Afghanistan: Why is it impossible that The New York Times would write moving obituaries for dead Afghanis? There was a lot of eye-rolling and groaning from the panel and the audience. But leaving aside the obvious practical obstacles to the student's idea, she raised a worthwhile philosophical question. While there seems to be a unanimous, almost cellular feeling among journalists and other Americans that we need to pull together and take care of our own, there are dangers in this wagon-circling.

Patriotism almost requires that we regard deaths and disasters that happen in other countries as less unfortunate than our own. In this way, patriotism seems to militate against seeing the other guy's point of view- a particularly dangerous approach for Americans blindsided by the hatred and resentment our country now confronts overseas.

Still, I'd like to believe the national crisis could pull us out of our torpor and spark in us some sense of citizenship. I may not hang out a flag with my neighbors, but I am glad to get together and talk with them about what they mean by patriotism. As the Vietnam vet sitting next to me at the town meeting said, "I had to come to some understanding of patriotism the hard way. It's not about symbols and flags and the anthem-those things are the death of critical thinking. It's about our responsibility to do something to make our country better."


Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.

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