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We Have Been Here Before

It's a melancholy business this Fourth-of-July week to think hard about patriotism and love of country in the context of our war in Iraq. But somebody's got to do it. What do the real patriots say? Here's one:

"We were to relieve them from... tyranny... to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial... That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now --why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire, from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater... I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."

This was the Voice of America in his time, the universally beloved Mark Twain, opposing McKinley's war to annex the Philippines in 1900.

"We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem...

"We have debauched America's honor, and blackened her face before the world...

"I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle puts its talons on any other land."

-Mark Twain on Imperialism

Here's another durable voice of the anti-imperialist movement from a century ago, the Harvard historian Charles Eliot Norton:

So confused are men by false teaching in regard to national honor and the duty of the citizen that it is easy to fall into the error of holding a [war policy] as a sacred decision of the national will, and to fancy that a call to arms has the force of a call from the lips of the country...

Norton was speaking in 1898 of McKinley's war with Spain over Cuba:

"There never was a good war," said Franklin. There have indeed been many wars in which a good man must take part, and take part with grave gladness to defend the cause of justice, to die for it if need be, a willing sacrifice, thankful to give life for what is dearer than life, and happy that even by death in war he is serving the cause of peace. But if a war be undertaken for the most righteous end, before the resources of peace have been tried and proved vain to secure it, that war has no defense; it is a national crime.

-Charles Eliot Norton, True Patriotism, a speech delived on June 7, 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts

And from a Founding Father of American values, the American inventor of the cognitive sciences and of Pragmatism, the American philiosophy, William James. "God dam the U.S. for its vile conduct" in the Philippines, James said. American intervention would destroy "the one sacred thing in the world, the spontaneous budding of a national life" among the Filipinos. "We can destroy their ideals, but we can't give them ours."

William James's bitter "Address on the Philippine Question" in 1903 could have been filed on an inspection of Baghdad in 2006:

... all the anti-imperialistic prophecies were right. One by one we have seen them punctually fulfilled: -- The material ruin of the [nation]; the transformation of native friendliness to execration; the demoralization of our army... torture whitewashed, massacre condoned; the creation of a chronic anarchy... ; the deliberate reinflaming on our part of ancient tribal animosities...; these things, I say, or things like them, were things which everyone foretold; while the incapacity of our public for taking the slightest interest in anything so far away was from the outset a foregone conclusion.

Still more uncannily modern, or post-modern, and timely, is James's reflection in the same speech on what we call "American exceptionalism:"

We used to believe... that we were of a different clay from other nations, that there was something deep in the American heart that answered to our happy birth, free from that hereditary burden which the nations of Europe bear, and which obliges them to grow by preying on their neighbors. Idle dream! pure Fourth of July fancy, scattered in five minutes by the first temptation. In every national soul there lie potentialities of the most barefaced piracy, and our own American soul is no exception to the rule. Angelic impulses and predatory lusts divide our heart exactly as they divide the hearts of other countries. It is good to rid ourselves of cant and humbug, and to know the truth about ourselves. Political virtue does not follow geographical divisions. It follows the eternal division inside of each country between the tory and the liberal tendencies, the jingoism and animal instinct that would run things by main force and brute possession, and the critical conscience that believes in educational methods and in rational rules of right.

-William James, "Address on the Philippine Question" in William James: Writings 1902 - 1910, Library of America.

It could be time to revive the Anti-Imperialist League which a century ago brought together Samuel Gompers and Andrew Carnegie and stars of the writerly class from Twain and James to William Dean Howells and Finley Peter Dunne, whose Chicago barkeep Mr. Dooley reflected:

... an' ivry night, whin I'm counting up the cash, I'm askin' meself: will I annex Cubia, or lave it to the Cubians? ... An' what shud I do with the Ph'lippeens? ... I can't annex thim because I don't know where they ar're.

-Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, quoted in Warren Zimmerman's First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power, 2002

Surely there's a case to be made that the choice that matters in '06 and '08 is not between right and left, or between red states and blue, but between Empire and Republic.

My commonsense definition of a republic would be: a free society that is, and feels itself to be, "of the people, by the people, for the people." My definition of the modern imperial American condition is the enthronement "of the foreign oil, by the military, for the corporate class."

The Republicans in power are the party of enthusiastic imperialists, and probably ought to be renamed. The great majority of Democrats in office, on the John Kerry and Hillary Clinton models, have cast themselves as more cautious, more responsible, more reluctant stewards of the same universal, earth-and-space empire.

Yet most of the people I know would just like to get our country back -- "A republic," as Ben Franklin said, "if you can keep it."