J. Brady McCollough

“Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated,” stated Wendell Phillips, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison, on the issue of abolitionism and political dissension. The statement, though verging on extremism, holds an important message for America today.

At this time, Germany is reconstructing its economy and labor market. Poland is on the verge of a new era of international diplomacy. Iraq will soon frame its constitution. Israel and Palestine can – with pluck and resolution -frame a new regional order.

Yet in America, such political and social complexities are nonexistent. Bills on lowering taxes and restricting abortion pass with ease. Policies limiting civil liberties for immigrants and ethnic minorities continue unabated. These complex issues, displayed in the government and the media, are given the veneer of simplicity. Amid these dangerously simple times, liberals cringe and voice their dissension, only to be accused of anti-Americanism.

It seems the September attacks reinforced a classic, U.S. state-of-mind, a mentality that splits the world into “us” and “them,” “good” and “bad,” “moral” and “immoral.” This mentality simplifies issues in the name of national security, traditionalism and patriotism. It cultivates an illiberal worldview, a view fueled by war, corporate malfeasance, the prospect of terrorism and above all, fear. Through all this, the government acts as protector, supposedly proactive, but merely feeding off public sentiment.

In Georgia, several colleges have decided to grant illegal immigrants in-state tuition, cushioning their aid package by a few thousand dollars. In response, MSNBC television personality Joe Scarborough, in an incendiary, propagandizing report, railed against the inclusion of “these people” and “aliens” into our country. During his tirade, video footage of immigrants jumping the gate and a wide angle shot of the Mexican border appeared on the screen. Offensiveness notwithstanding, this media coverage represents the oversimplification of a complex issue. Scarborough failed to consider the negligible amount of illegal immigrants who actually attend college, or the small, monetary price taxpayers will pay to help a small number of individuals get an education.

In the name of national security, the administration has detained and continues to detain illegal and legal immigrants alike. Security and defense are important, yet though I demand protection, I cannot support the detention of immigrants not even linked to terrorism. To perform this, as Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested weeks ago, is to maintain a simple, parochial view of “the enemy” and overturn civil rights and liberties that are fundamentally American.

The actions of President Bush on the international stage are just as indictable. Recently, he visited Europe in hopes to repair damaged relationships and strengthen our trans-Atlantic alliance. Though progress was certainly made, several sources describe Bush’s attitude as distastefully unilateral. It seems this administration fails to see the merit in the European alliance, choosing to “allow” the continent to “participate” in various international endeavors, but tactlessly reminding them that Americans are the vanguard participant. Instead of pushing our own interests, the administration must consider all equally and openly.

In this traditional, insular view of America, patriotism morphs into a deranged nationalism. In a guarded attempt to maintain our values and national identity, we betray them by limiting our perspective on key issues. As of now, any opposition going against our constrained concept of Americanism, our simplified position on national security and our narrow adherence to traditionalism is seen as treasonous – when in fact, it is most truly American.

Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s infamous slip of the tongue embodies this sentiment perfectly: Americans, he said, “need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” At the same time, the administration continuously questions the patriotism of anyone who criticizes its policies. And so, this statement only shows that the voice of dissension, the voice that promotes discussion and complicates issues, the voice Wendell Phillips intoned, has been silenced. This, for reasons that should be obvious, is dangerous.

Jean can be reached at acjean@umich.edu.

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