United We Stand:

Doth America Protest Too Much?

Billboard Patriotism

Ever since the attacks of September 11, we've all become familiar with the declarations of patriotism made by businesses on their outside signs. By far the two most common of these declarations are "God Bless America" and "United We Stand". I find the choice of both these two slogans to be rather odd and telling about the current political climate in the United States, but for right now, I'm going to focus on the latter.

Everytime I've seen a roadside billboard with plastic letters hastily arranged to form this slogan, I've felt a little bit on edge, but I wasn't sure why until I read one particular sign outside a Perkins restaurant just to the east of Spokane, Washington. It read, "United we stand now featuring fresh baked pumpkin pie".

united we stand with pumpkin pieWell, that sign pretty much summed up the substance of the slogan "United We Stand". The United States may seem to be standing united, but as it turns out, no one's very clear what we're all supposed to be united for. Some would say that we're united in sympathy for all the people who died on September 11, although sympathy alone does not explain a pattern of violent retaliation. Others would say that we're united in our love of freedom and democracy, although a fair number have argued that we need to sacrifice our civil liberties in order to defend freedom. Still others would say that we're united in a war against a terrorist enemy, although no one's really sure who that enemy really is and what the specifc objectives of the war are supposed to be (we're actually pretty divided when it comes to that question). The Perkins Family Restaurant outside of Spokane, well, apparently they believe that we all ought to stand united for fresh baked pumpkin pie.

When you consider it, it's kind of odd that businesses are responding to the September 11 attacks with declarations that we all stand united. After all, even as the airliners were crashing and the Twin Towers were falling down, no one ever suggested that the attackers were trying to divide us. Even Osama Bin Laden, the purported wicked mastermind of the whole attack, has never accused Americans of not standing united. So why all the "United We Stand" signs?

For our answer, we'll have to go back a few thousand years to the writing of the most famous play of all time: William Shakespeare's Hamlet. There's one scene in which the Danish royal family watches a play about a queen who betrays her husband yet vigorously denies her wrongdoing. As she watches this play-within-a-play, the real queen tells her son the playwright, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The point, of course, is that the very vigor of the play-acted queen's denials served as evidence of her guilt.

I believe that something similar is afoot in the parade of tens of thousands of roadside signs reading "United We Stand" across the United States. Given such a vigorous assertion of unity when no enemy ever has claimed that the United States suffers from a lack of unity, it seems that America's billboard patriots doth protest too much. The over-the-top campaign to insist that Americans are united reflects more than anything else a deep underlying insecurity that Americans are not united at all, the fear that we'd rather not go to war, the anxiety that we're doing the wrong thing.

What's the problem with Americans not being united, and why does the idea that Americans disagree about anything make so many people anxious? Our nation was founded upon the idea that principled disagreements add to our strength, and our founding fathers went to great trouble to ensure that rights such as free speech, free assembly and the petition of the government would be established in the Bill of Rights. It ought to be a point of national pride for Americans to vigorously voice their dissent, yet most Americans seem ashamed of the very idea of disagreeing with the President and other national leaders these days. People are acting as if having independent ideas and disagreeing with the government is unpatriotic, downright unAmerican, even treacherous.

United In Fear

The unstated half of the "United We Stand" war slogan is "Divided We Fall". Is it true that the United States of America will fall if Americans speak up and disagree with their government during war-time? Such ideas about the dangers of disunity are ridiculously over-stated. The United States is not anywhere near falling apart.

However, America is undoubtably in a slump. Ever since September 11, the already struggling economy has taken a nosedive. Why?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt nailed it on the head when he said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' His eventual successor, George W. Bush, also was right when he said that Americans are in a war between freedom and fear. Unfortunately, Bush missed the point when he tried to cast this struggle as an external war to be fought on a battlefield. The real war between freedom and fear is being fought within the mind of every American, and it's the Bush administration that is fostering Americans' fears at the expense of freedom. Bush's sabre-rattling, inflation of threats to national security and war-mongering are quite naturally making people nervous, causing them to stay at home and hoard their money just in case things get even worse. The actual attacks of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks have almost nothing to do with this autumn's economic disaster. Financial ruin has resulted almost exclusively from the paralyzing influence of Americans' fears.

These fears, it must be pointed out, are wildly out of proportion to the fears we hold about other dangers in our lives. Of course, we think it's awful that some 3,000-4,000 people were killed on September 11, but that amount is less than two-thousandths of one percent of the U.S. population! This means that the attacks of September 11 would have to be repeated every day for fifty thousand days in a row (killing just as many people each day, which is unlikely given how dispersed our population is) in order to kill us all. That's 137 years, by which time every American now alive would already be long dead from natural causes anyway.

In the U.S. in a typical year there are 16,000 deaths by murder, 29,000 suicides, 41,000 deaths in car accidents, 114,000 deaths due to lung failure, 539,000 cancer deaths, and 940,000 deaths due to cardiovascular disease. More people die of hernias and bowel obstructions every year than died in the attacks of this September, yet no one is calling for trusses and metamucil on every block. 5,300 people died in 1998 from asthma alone, but the government has not called out the national guard for a war for clean air, with the soldiers patrolling smokestacks nationwide. Unless there are new attacks that dwarf those of September, the U.S. deaths due to attacks from rogue organizations will turn out to represent only two tenths of one percent of all deaths in the year 2001. It is not proportional response that drives us. It is irrational, panicky fear.

Most Americans are standing united behind the ill-conceived crusade of George W. Bush, and yet the country is still falling apart. Why? The war against Afghanistan is a war based on fear, with Bush claiming that if we don't do what he tells us to do, they will get us.. Uniting the American people around fear has never led to positive results (For more on the positive influence of fear on freedom, try searching your history books for "Alien and Sedition Acts" "revocation of habeus corpus," "witch trials," "McCarthyist blacklisting," and "internment camps"). The best of America has always resulted from free competition, honest conversation, and the open consideration of ideas. The worst of America has always resulted come from the equation of dissent with treason. Case in point: according to a recent Newsweek poll, about one in four Americans believes that anti-war protests should be made illegal in order to prevent interference with the military campaign. In the war between freedom and fear, the pro-war forces seem to threaten freedom more than they protect it.

The Appearance of Unity

Many commentators celebrate our nation's supposed new unity, calling it the return to the spirit of the "greatest generation." These people don't really care how or why a unity has been brought about; they're just glad it's here. The problem is that our nation's unity runs shallow. Americans agree that the flag is great and that patriotic slogans are swell, but when one gets into details, an astounding lack of unity is quite evident. According to most polls, a full 10 percent of Americans believe that using the military to respond to the September 11 attacks is a mistake. A Newsweek poll conducted this week indicates that just under 20 percent of Americans believe that the Bush Administration does not have a well thought out plan for using military force, and that nearly half of Americans believe that the Bush Administration lacks a coherent plan for dealing with the threat of biological attacks within the United States. When it comes to specific military tactics, such as assasination or expansion of the military campaign beyond Afghanistan, the American public is similarly divided.

Pretending to be united for the sake of security is like pretending to agree with someone just to avoid getting into an argument -- it won't work for long. As individuals, Americans hold just about every conceivable political point-of-view, and a wartime gloss of red, white and blue cannot conceal that diversity for long. Our differences of opinion are not mere accessories to our lives, but reflective of fundamental values that affect the ways in which we live. The business of our nation is the business of debate, and as long as that debate is restrained, our nation will languish in its current state of perplexed and futile anger.

United We Stand, Now On Sale

It's no accident that "United We Stand" slogans are found almost exclusively on the billboards of businesses. Those billboards are designed for one thing only: to bring in customers in order to make a sale. As patriotic as it appears, the sloganeering on these billboards is nothing more than a crass financial exploitation of the tragedy of September 11. The implicit suggestion is that stopping into a gas station decorated with flags to buy a package of Twinkies and a can of Mountain Dew is an act of courageous defiance of Osama Bin Laden. The businesses turn a profit, the customers get their junk food sugar rush and feel good about themselves, and nobody's hurt, right? Tell it to the Afghan woman whose husband and seven children were killed by an American "smart bomb" this morning as they ate breakfast. Tell it to the refugees killed later in the day when American fighter jets bombed the bus they were using to flee from shell-shocked Kabul.

The "United We Stand" slogan, whether it is used by business or by government, is nothing more than an attempt to sell us a bill of goods. These days, being patriotic is about more than just loving baseball, apple pie and the flag. President Bush, in his effort to sell the sequel to his father's war to the American people, makes support of his violent policies an essential ingredient of patriotism. As he's said more than once, those who do not cooperate with his plans will be considered enemies.

The assumption is that it's our duty to stand United, to support the President and his policies even if we disagree with them. In this context, the war slogan "United We Stand" is just a polite method of telling Americans to shut up and do what they're told. Withholding support, much less protesting the war, is characterized as sitting down on the job just when America needs everyone to pitch in for the common good.

Well, bull. The common good is not served by a war without clearly-defined objectives or even clearly-defined enemies. The common good is not served by the reckless slaughter of civilian bystanders. The common good is not served by extravagant war budgets that convert the surpluses of the 90s into out-of-control deficits. The common good is not served by security legislation that allows the minions of the Homeland Security Chief to spy on Americans without restraint. The common good is not served by sycophantic citizens who don't have the guts to think for themselves and are too cowardly to speak up when they disagree with their elected leaders.

Now is not the time for Americans citizens to surrender their rightful role in their own government. A democracy whose citizens are asked to give up their right to participate in government during times of crisis is no democracy at all. If we truly care about our freedoms, and if we truly care about our country, it is our duty to stand up to President Bush and his twisted program to undermine American democracy in the name of patriotism. America will be strong only when we stand proudly divided.

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