How Our Conservative Citizens are Failing America
And What Can Be Done About It
by Dr. Durtal
"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does
not mean to stand by the president or any other public official,
save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the
country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently
serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to
the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails
in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is
unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president
or anyone else." - Theodore Roosevelt
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans
across the country responded with anger, patriotism, and a
firm decision to act carefully, with an eye towards both principles
and consequences. Not so in our conservative ranks. Even as
many took the occasion to think more seriously about America's
place in the world, how we should understand the hatred directed
our way, and what we might do in the future to avoid the consequences
of such hatred, conservative religious leaders, right wing
talk show hosts, Republican politicians, and others rushed
to exploit the tragedy to attack liberal Americans, push through
a far right agenda, and, most damning of all, denigrate those
who would have us understand more thoroughly what has happened.
While thoughtful citizens of every stripe have felt themselves
awakened by this tragedy to the significance of world events
beyond America's borders, we have been smothered in a patriotic
fervor deeply opposed to any attempt at analyzing the events
in terms more illuminating than the clash of good and evil.
While those who love their country enough to insist that we
take an honest look at whatever role it may have played in
the origin of these horrors, those who profess to love it
more have insisted that it cannot withstand such critical
scrutiny, forgetting that the famous slogan "My country, right
or wrong," is an incomplete rendering of the Senator Carl
Schurz's much more reasonable declaration:
"My Country right or wrong: when right, to keep her
right; when wrong, to put her right."
Even while Americans adopted President Bush's declaration
that "freedom was attacked today," such an influential conservative
citizen as Attorney General Ashcroft insisted that exercising
this freedom was tantamount to treason, complaining that those
who raise questions about his decisions "aid terrorists",
for such questions "erode our national unity and diminish
our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and
pause to America's friends."
Many refused to approach evil in the only intelligent way,
by examining the motives of the evildoers; they instead have
been content with repeated declarations that the terrorists
are evildoers. While no one will deny that the actions were
evil, merely noting this does little to help us understand
what has happened. And in this time of national crisis, understanding
is of the utmost importance. We cannot afford to act without
The failings of our conservative citizens have gone beyond
knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. Some conservative leaders'
reactions ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnations
of America, blaming the attacks on, for instance, the presence
of homosexuals in America and God's subsequent wrath. Even
President Bush has reacted with what seems to be glee at the
attacks, as when he declared that he was "lucky" for
How different is he from Matt Hale, leader of the far-right
World Church of the Creator, who declared on the web that
"The time is at hand to preach ... We must NOT allow this
opportunity to be squandered"?
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal counseled Bush to take
advantage of this crisis, calling it a "windfall," saying
it gave him a chance to "assert his leadership, not just on
security and foreign policy but across the board." The Wall
Street Journal in effect advised Bush to take advantage of
the public's distraction to push through his agenda unnoticed.
This is patriotism?
These reactions by our conservative citizens are in pointed
contrast to America's reaction in 1941: "Everyone wanted to
cooperate and feel like they were helping the country," said
Elmer Cornwell, professor of political science at Brown University.
One would hope the same would be true today, that what Brown
physics professor Leon Cooper says describes our country in
its present state: "One thing outsiders don't always understand
about the United States is we're a fractious nation but we
come together during times like these."
But, after September 11, it was our conservative citizens
that did not understand. Although most conservatives presumably
shared America's horror and condemnation of the terrorist
attacks, some did not. And while those citizens should, of
course, be allowed to exercise their freedom of speech, that
freedom does not exempt them from scathing criticism. The
fact remains that conservative leaders stand apart from the
rest of America in wanting to milk this tragedy for their
own gain, instead of pulling together as a nation to reduce
the risk of violence worldwide, strengthen our society and
the welfare of those beyond our borders, and become a wiser,
more informed participant in world affairs.
Indeed, the duplicity of our conservative citizens has extended
even to accusing anyone hesitant to endorse their views of
something they like to call "pervasive moral relativism".
This seems to be the term of choice used by conservatives
when they want to attack those who insist on the reality of
moral complexities -- in particular, anyone who insists on
acknowledging that very few parties in conflict have completely
clean hands. In the jargon of conservatives, the label insinuates
that the person holds the plainly idiotic view that nothing
is really right or wrong, that everything is actually morally
okay. To taint those who insist on moral integrity with the
brush of that absurd doctrine is dishonesty of a very
Leading conservatives have gone so far as to suggest that
America's university system is complicit in any future terrorist
attacks. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has issued
a report, "Defending Civilization: How American Universities
are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It," in which
our academic institutions are described as being "unwilling
to sustain [our] civilization" (p. 7) and suggests that in
doing so they encourage our enemies.
ACTA's report complains about "narrow and trendy classes and
incoherent requirements" in today's universities and suggests
that what is most needed is more courses in American history.
The complaints about the current curriculum may be well-founded
(indeed, as a resident of academe, I would agree that there
is much to lament), but to suggest that Americans are not
getting enough of American history is preposterous: history
classes throughout high school are focused almost exclusively
on American history. There are genuine problems in our educational
system, but the problem is not that American history is neglected.
It may be, rather, that American history - along with other
history - is not taught very well.
What is needed, plainly, is not just the repeated and simplistic
glorification of our own history; what is needed is the skill
to think critically about matters of world history, global
politics, and - last but certainly not least - ethical issues.
Can anyone doubt that Americans need to develop a better conscience
in light of the absolutely rancid attacks on Arab-Americans
- and those people merely mistaken for Arab-Americans
- in the wake of September 11? Can anyone doubt that we need
a good dose of respect for the process of intellectual debate
given the present state of our civic discourse?
Unfortunately, conservatives have seemed determined to make
Americans even worse off in this category than before. By
promulgating a McCarthy-like list of statements made at various
universities, the right-wing organization ACTA suggests -
even while disavowing any claim to want to suppress dissent
- that dissent is unpatriotic, or worse, that those in the
academy who have devoted their lives to understand global
affairs are actually worse off, as voices to be heard in helping
us through this difficult time, than, say, a Yale graduate
with a C average whose highest academic achievement is an
Worst of all, ACTA's own document is an example of careless
thinking, even to the point that one could reasonably suspect
it of deliberate dishonesty. Consider Lynne Cheney's words
from an October 5th speech she gave:
To say that it is more important now implies
that the events of Sept. 11 were our fault, that it was our
failure that led to so many deaths and so much destruction.
To say that it is more important to study Islam now is hardly
to imply that the attacks were our fault. Indeed, someone
who holds the (benighted) view that Islam is entirely responsible
for the attacks and should be counted simply as an enemy would
presumably agree that it's more important than ever
to study the enemy. Cheney's words belie her dishonest attempt
to attribute to academics the preposterous view that we deserved
If we are to go about accepting such "implications" as these
- if we're to require so little direct connection to attribute
an implication - then we are well within our rights to say,
as well, that ACTA's report implies that many faculty are
traitors to their country, that the only history worth studying
is American history, that any acknowledgement that U.S. actions
in the past may have had some effect on present circumstances
is unacceptable, and so on. Would Cheney like to be attributed
such views? Presumably not.
Indeed, what are we to say of the closing comments of ACTA's
We call upon all colleges and universities to adopt strong
core curricula that include rigorous, broad-based courses
on the great works of Western civilization as well as courses
on American history, America's Founding documents, and America's
continuing struggle to extend and defend the principles on
which it was founded. If institutions fail to do so, alumni
should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees
should demand action.
Perhaps we should say that ACTA is implying - without saying
directly, of course - that powerful corporate interests should
withhold funds from schools where faculty are known to have
said things ACTA finds insufficiently patriotic? Are they
implying that dissent of any sort should be beaten down by
the sheer power of corporate interests?
Setting aside matters of insinuation, let me focus on what
is most damning about ACTA's report - what most blatantly
displays its utter incompetence when held up to the standards
of academic work: it simply compiles a large list of quotations,
taken from university settings, and describes them variously
as carrying the message "blame America first," as "moral equivocation",
as showing a lack of patriotism, and as not sharing "America's
horror and condemnation of the terrorist attacks," when the
vast majority of these quotations cannot be understood this
way at all.
ACTA presents a list of no fewer than 115 quotations purported
to show that many in academia "blame America first" or are
guilty of "moral equivocation." Let's just take a look at
some of these.
The very first quotation is surely the prize possession of
the authors of ACTA's report, for it is the only one listed
in which I can find anything explicitly denouncing America.
"I was cheering when the Pentagon got hit because I
know about the brutality of the military. The American flag
is nothing but a symbol of hate and should be used for toilet
paper for all I care." (Freelance writer at Brown University
This statement is, I am sure, as upsetting to most faculty
as it is the members of ACTA. For someone to be happy that
innocent people have died is deplorable indeed. So much for
the leading quote - that which ACTA tellingly chooses to advertise
first. What of the rest?
Here is the second allegedly damning quote:
"We offer this teach-in as an alternative to the cries
of war and as an end to the cycle of continued global violence."
(Professor of art at University of North Carolina teach-in.)
In what way does this blame America or engage in "moral equivocation"?
The statement clearly indicates that the person wants violence
to end - which hardly means endorsing the terrorist attacks
as a good thing. The professor apparently believes that the
best way to end the violence is not to wage war, but when
did advocating a different approach to avoiding violence amount
to blaming America or finding the attacks on innocent civilians
somehow morally tolerable?
The third cited statement is this:
"We will tumble from chauvinism into the abyss of recession
and tribalism." (Panelist at University of North Carolina
Far from being a clear case of "blame America first" or condoning
terrorism, this statement isn't a clear case of anything other
than a prediction of some sort. (And it's not even obvious
what it predicts.) Yet ACTA puts it forward without commentary,
context, or analysis as evidence of "how our universities
are failing America" The remaining statements mostly follow
the same pattern; I invite anyone to examine them for him
Let me be blunt. ACTA's report is extraordinarily similar
to a paper submitted by a lazy undergraduate hoping merely
to impress his instructor with a huge mass of citation devoid
of real significance. Is this the caliber of those who think
themselves qualified to judge our universities? Can anyone
take this seriously?
They might, if they don't bother reading the "evidence" for
themselves - if they merely note that there are a documented
115 cases of allegedly anti-American sentiment included and
consider that number enough to complain loudly that "colleges
and university faculty have been the weak link in America's
response to the attack."
Perhaps ACTA defends academic freedom but cares not one whit
for academic rigor?
Another sign of absurdly sophomoric argument on embarrassing
display in ACTA's report is its repeated tacit appeal to popularity
- a well-known fallacy. Note the structure of the appendix
to their report. It contrasts "public" with "campus" responses,
and prefaces the "campus responses" with poll numbers:
The American Public: Americans Should Take Military Action
Even If Casualties Occur - 92%
Harvard Students: America Should Take Military Action - 69%
America Should Take Military Action Even If Casualties Occur
Note as well the language in the first paragraph:
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans
across the country responded with anger, patriotism, and support
of military intervention. The polls have been nearly unanimous
- 92% in favor of military force even if casualties occur
- and citizens have rallied behind the President wholeheartedly.
Not so in academe.
Lots and lots of Americans favor a certain course of action,
but these folks on campus aren't as enthusiastic. Tsk, tsk!
How could they ever be so out of step? The undeniable suggestion
here is that academe is to be excoriated for not going along
with the greater consensus. This is rather amazing, coming
from an organization allegedly concerned with academic integrity.
Anyone associated with ACTA should simply be ashamed.
In any case, it is not just ACTA that is to be blamed for
divisiveness and dishonesty in a time of national crisis.
The Washington Times has endorsed their duplicitous
propaganda, in addition to having propagated an absurdly misleading
account of Bill Clinton's speech at Georgetown University.
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter went so far as to suggest
that we should have "Military tribunals for liberal lawyers."
And, of course, Jerry Falwell said the day of September 11th
on Pat Robertson's 700 Club:
"The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this...throwing
God out successfully with the help of the federal court system,
throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools....I
really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the
feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying
to make that an alternative lifestyle...all of them who have
tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face
and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
While Falwell has backpedaled from his statement, other conservatives
remain unrepentant. Indeed, Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro
Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, now has a website named
"God Hates America," wherein he makes his "blame America first"
attitude far clearer than anything ACTA could hope to discern
in its list of 115 statements:
"The largest terrorist attack in United States history
occurred on September 11, 2001, killing thousands. God uses
these kinds of tragedies to punish evil nations for their
monstrous sins against Him."
Phelps is not alone. August Kreis, webmaster of the Sheriff's
Posse Comitatus group based in Pennsylvania, wrote:
"DEATH to His [God's] enemies, may the World Trade Center
BURN TO THE GROUND! ... We can blame no others than ourselves
for our problems due to the fact that we allow ... Satan's
children, called jews today, to have dominion over our lives."
Where is the outcry against our conservative citizens' appalling
reaction to these horrific events?
We must, of course, protect the right of these citizens to
speak their minds. But we must not let them pass without criticism.
We must respond to their vitriol and ignorance with vigorous
debate, reaffirm the importance of critical reflection, and,
especially, refuse the pressure to classify anything even
mildly critical of the present administration as part of "moral
relativism" or a "blame America first" attitude. We must,
if we are patriots, not let their deceptive and self-interested
attempts at exploiting our tragedy pass. We must speak up
for the real spirit of America, of free inquiry, and - of
course - for civilization itself.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, November 6, 2001, during a
hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Believe it or not, Bush actually said this. Office of Management
and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels reported this comment
at a conference board meeting on October 16. Daniels was discussing
Bush's campaign pledge not to use Social Security funds except
in the case of war, recession, or national emergency:
had always listed, throughout his campaign and since, the
reasons why the nation might depart from this policy, reasons
he had given as acceptable for running fiscal deficits: for
war, recession, or emergency. As he said to me in mid-September,
"Lucky me. I hit the trifecta."
report can be found at the White House's own website: www.whitehouse.gov/omb/pubpress/daniels_conference_board_speech10-16-01.html
As described by Jim Nesbitt of Newhouse News Service. See
his article "Extremists Applaud Attacks." Biloxi Sun Herald/September
26, 2001. www.rickross.com/reference/hate_groups/hategroups321.html
Wall Street Journal editorial on September 22. "A New Presidency:
How Bush Should Spend His Windfall of Political Capital."
Cited in the report "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities
Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," issued
by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), written
by Jerry I. Martin and Anne D. Neal. The report can be found
at ACTA's website: http://www.goacta.org/.
Cited by ACTA's report "Defending Civilization," p. 4.
ACTA's "Defending Civilization," p. 5. The Washington Times
editorial, December 15, "How Universities Can Help the War
See the citation in note 5.
I can think of no more apt description of our public life
than that provided by Mark Crispin Miller: "the endless shitstorm
that is now our civic culture." For an absolutely dead-on
description of the lack of critical thinking skills that conservatives
seem to be encouraging, see his essay "Brain Drain," published
online at www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no9/miller.html
Cited by ACTA's report "Defending Civilization," p. 6.
See The Washington Times editorial, December 15, "How Universities
Can Help the War Effort."
The Washington Times editorial, December 15, "How Universities
Can Help the War Effort." For an account of the utterly reprehensible
misleading account of Clinton's speech propagated by The Washington
Times, see Bryan Keefer's November 19th article at Spinsanity
"Clinton speaks, pundits spin. The Washington Times and the
spread of a media myth," which can be found at http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20011119.html.
For a more detailed and outraged account, see Bob Somerby's
November 9th account of the same deception "Why Andrew [Sullivan]
Lies," at http://www.dailyhowler.com/h110901_1.shtml.
Ann Coulter on CNN's Crossfire, broadcast November 23.
For more context, see www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/falwell-robertson-wtc.htm.
This declaration can be found on his http://www.godhatesamerica.com.
For more of his absurd filth, see his older site http://www.godhatesfags.com.
As described by Jim Nesbitt of Newhouse News Service. See
his article "Extremists Applaud Attacks." Biloxi Sun Herald/September
26, 2001. http://www.rickross.com/reference/hate_groups/hategroups321.html.