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Journalism Should Never Yield to ‘Patriotism’
29 May 2002
'Are you an American first, or are you a journalist?'
Unfortunately that question - posed to a journalists' meeting in Salt Lake City in April by distinguished newsman Bill Kovach - is necessary after Sept. 11, as the few who dared critique the rush to war were attacked for being insufficiently patriotic. Too many journalists responded to the post-9/11 hyper-nationalism by waving the flag, literally and figuratively.
Even Dan Rather, perhaps the most vocal journalistic patriot after the tragedy, has had second thoughts, confiding in a BBC interview May 16 that "patriotism run amok" has led to self-censorship by journalists, himself included.
Kovach's challenge and Rather's confession are compelling, but unfortunately formulated in a way that diverts journalists and citizens from a more crucial question: Are you an American first, or are you a human being? That's the question for everyone after Sept. 11.
The answer depends on the meaning of patriotism. Two definitions competed after the terrorist attacks. One was the patriotism of President George W. Bush: "You are with us, or you are with the terrorists," meaning "get on board with plans for war, or ..." Or what? The implication was that real Americans rally around their government and traitors raise critical questions.
This poses an obvious problem for journalists, who get paid to raise questions. But for anyone - journalist or not - such a crude patriotism abandons moral responsibility. What if a war violates international law or is prosecuted using immoral tactics? Nations - including ours - are not benevolent institutions, and U.S. history is replete with inhumane acts. If patriotism requires we support such acts, then patriotism becomes inhumane.
An alternative, kinder-and-gentler patriotism is offered by others, especially war opponents: patriotism not as reflexive support for a policy or leader, but allegiance to American ideals of freedom and democracy.
Freedom and democracy certainly deserve our allegiance. But what makes them uniquely American? Is there something about the United States that make us better able to achieve freedom and democracy than, say, Canadians or Indians or Brazilians? Are not people around the world - including those who live in countries that do not guarantee freedom - capable of understanding and acting on those ideals?
If the justification of this notion of patriotism is that these values are realized to their fullest extent in the United States, then there will be questions from the people of Guatemala and Iran, Nicaragua and Vietnam, East Timor and Panama. Victims of U.S. aggression - direct and indirect - might wonder why our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy, overthrows democratically elected governments, supports brutal dictators, funds and trains proxy terrorist armies, and unleashes brutal attacks on civilians in war.
Before claiming America is the fulfillment of history, the ultimate expression of liberty and justice, we might think a bit about our history - the near extermination of Indians, for instance.
At its worst, patriotism can lead people to support brutal policies. At its best, it is self-indulgently arrogant in its assumptions about our uniqueness. But rejecting patriotism isn't moral relativism. We should not be afraid to judge systems and societies, using principles we can articulate and defend - so long as they truly are principles, applied honestly and uniformly, including to ourselves.
And we should maintain a bit of humility. Instead of claiming, "America is the greatest nation on Earth," we might say, "I live in the United States and have deep emotional ties to its people, land and ideals, and I want to highlight the many positive things while working to change what is wrong."
We can say that without suggesting other people are less capable of understanding democracy or defending freedom. We can believe that and encourage spirited debate about policy.
In such a world, the question by Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, would be irrelevant; there would be no conflict between being an American and a journalist. Journalists would simply pursue professionally - with the extra time, training and resources they have - what everyone would pursue privately: questioning those in power and challenging ourselves.
Everyone, including journalists, needs to ask: Can we move beyond being American?
Given the destructive capacity of the United States - and our history of using it in the interests of power, not people - never before has our answer been more important.