The Benedict Arnold Option

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy) Sorry about the title—I couldn’t resist it, although Forster is a lot closer than Arnold to what I’m really talking about here. Arnold acted, apparently, out of wounded pride, exasperated competence, and desire to look good in front of the woman he loved. I actually got the DAR award for excellence in American history in high school for writing an essay about him. Most of the major spies and traitors in our recent history were just greedheads, with the possible exception of Jonathan Pollard, who was acting out of what he considered a higher loyalty (although I think money was also involved?) The Brits seem to breed a slightly more elevated and idealistic type.

Anyway, in order to talk about treason and betrayal, one needs to first examine patriotism. Some of my Alexandrian colleagues seem to value tribal loyalty, at least in front of tribal outsiders, above such things as freedom of speech. I think patriotism is different from tribal loyalty. The point of patriotism is responsibility. I try to take good care of my house, my neighborhood, my family, my city, my country, and my planet, to the extent that I can. That’s how one pays rent on the land one occupies and the air one breathes. If I lived somewhere else, I would have the same obligations to that community/country/whatever. And there are certainly circumstances under which I would consider moving to somewhere else. (I once heard somebody point out that the reason most American Jews live on the East and West Coasts is the same reason nervous people choose aisle seats in the theater—for ease of quick exit. I live in the Midwest, but I do keep my passport current.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I used to just be mildly uncomfortable with it. That was before the 1992 election, in which God’s Own Party lambasted Michael Dukakis because, as governor of Massachusetts, he followed the applicable Supreme Court decisions by allowing teachers with principled objections not to recite the Pledge before class. The temper of that discourse convinced me that, however the Pledge had started out (and it was, after all, written by a socialist), it had now become an act of idolatry every bit as offensive as burning incense on Caesar’s altar. I don’t make a fuss about this. While everybody else is reciting the Pledge, I am saying Kaddish for all those who have been sacrificed to this idol. Nobody notices the difference. Fine with me. I believe that, in slighting the physical form of the flag, I am upholding the values “for which it stands.”

But I vote, even in off-year primaries. Unlike the average self-styled American patriot, I even report for jury duty when called, unless I have a really valid excuse for not doing it, like being in the middle of a trial myself. (In Illinois, lawyers do get called for jury duty. So do judges, in fact.)

And I really do believe there is something uniquely valuable about being an American. Back in my English teacher days, I had a number of foreign students in my classes. In the late 1960s, one of my classes was having a discussion about some recent incidents of long-haired hippies getting forcible haircuts. I asked, at one point, “Well, why should anybody stop a person from wearing his hair long if he likes it that way?” A Jordanian student found that question utterly baffling. “You mean people have the right to look any way they want to?” he asked. He had real trouble understanding, and in that moment I understood, in the proverbial blinding flash, what it means to be an American. We start from the presumption of freedom. We may move away from it for one reason or another, but that is always our starting point. Like it or not (and sometimes I really don’t) I’m an American, by that standard.

But loyalty, like obedience and unity, is a relative value. It is no better than whatever one is being loyal to. I spent the Vietnam War being a draft counselor and Selective Service maven. I felt that putting a conscript army (or any of its individual components) into the hands of the nutjobs running the Vietnam War was no better than putting a loaded gun into the hands of a blind drunk. By the time the war was over, Selective Service had to send out five induction notices to get one man into the Army. That was, obviously, one of the reasons the government finally got out of there. To the probably minuscule extent that my work had anything to do with that, I’m proud of it. As a practical matter, I was probably helping the Army, to some extent. A lot of the guys I enabled to avoid (not evade) the draft, the Army was probably better off without anyway. I didn’t encourage fakery of anything. All my counselees, so far as I know, made perfectly kosher claims for perfectly legal deferments. (Digression here: half of everybody, in every military draft for which the records exist, fails the physical. But during the Vietnam era, a lot of people who should have failed the physical didn’t, because many induction center physicals involved merely a cursory counting of extremities. The only way to make this system work properly was to provide medical documentation, from one’s own physician, explaining the medical problem in question and how it was disqualifying under the applicable Army reg. For the inner-city kid whose medical care, if any, came from an overworked ER doctor whose idea of medical documentation was to write “Sick—No Work” on a prescription slip, this wasn’t much help. My job, in a lot of instances, was to hook up the inner-city kid with a local doc who could provide real documentation. Bona fide documentation. Usually of conditions the Army really didn’t want to deal with.) I’m pretty sure that what I was doing was legal. I am quite sure that it was patriotic. But these days, I probably couldn’t run for dogcatcher without God’s Own Party calling me a terrorist. Needless to say, I am not running for anything.

Do I believe the United States is better than any other country? No. Do I think I could be a good citizen of any other country? Yes, though I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I think I’d be a lousy Frenchwoman, and a pretty poor Israeli. Maybe a reasonably good Brit. But if for whatever reason I lived in France or Israel or the UK, I would feel obliged to try, even if my efforts landed me in jail.

But, getting back to Forster’s Two Cheers (maybe I should have titled this “One-and-a-half cheers for the US”?), there are things that matter more to me than my country, whatever it might be. Justice (like not locking up people indefinitely without trial. Albert Camus said, while France was beating up on the Algerians, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. …”) Decency (like not torturing prisoners.) The draft board used to ask my conscientious objector clients, as predictably as night follows day, “Would you have fought against Hitler?” It was the wrong question. The right question would be “If you had lived in Italy during WWII, would you have fought for Mussolini?” And the right answer would be, “No. It would have been my duty to Italy not to.”

What all this comes down to is that voting does not exhaust the duty of a citizen to exercise independent thought and action on behalf of the polity. You don’t just vote and then blindly obey whoever wins, whatever he demands. If this be treason, as Patrick Henry says, make the most of it.

Red Emma


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