>When I was a boy, it was common for teachers to give students assignments calling upon them to write essays on such subjects as "What America Means to Me". I sometimes find myself wondering what people like William Kristol and Liz Cheney might have said on such a subject.
It was not hard for most of us to come up with a pretty compelling story to tell. All one had to do was look around at the rest of the world and compare. We believed then, and I think most of us still do, that America is (sorry my liberal friends) "exceptional." Not perfect by any means, but different in a good way.
When I was a boy, we had just come through a terrible war. Germans had proved themselves capable of the worst imaginable forms of racial profiling, racial stereotyping, racial sorting, and, finally, racial murder. Some of this evil, which we were just learning about, involved profiling, sorting, and murder based on religion; some on ethnicity; some on personal characteristics and behavior. Jews, Gypsies, Gays, non-Aryans, were slaughtered by a state in which government authority was unquestioned and loyalty to the Fatherland took the form of disloyalty to human virtue. In my neighborhood, an incredible hodge-podge of ethnic confusion reigned. The little German-American girl next door captured my heart. In my school, my friends asked teachers why, if I got to stay home for Christmas, Easter...and Yom Kippur, why they couldn't miss school in honor of the Jewish holidays as well as the Christian ones; after all, I got to do both.
I am not blind in my idealism: we had not yet come to grips with the real racial issue in America, but when we did, we did it because visionary people, dating back to Frederick Douglass and echoed by Martin Luther King, Jr., held up as their banner the Constitution and issued as their demand that we live up to it. Where, after the marches and sit-ins and boycotts, did they turn? To the courts, because America was a nation built on the rule of law. Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, could, like Saddam Hussein years later, order men and women to be arrested, imprisoned (sometimes until they died), and executed on no more than caprice. Our courts, though, mattered; they were real. Not always, not always in the deep South, not always in times of fear, but for the most part, one was imprisoned, or worse, not on the say of government but on proof -- on proof discovered after charges had been pressed, evidence weighed, witnesses challenged. We were exceptional because we didn't take the government's word, or act at the government's whim, but questioned, questioned, questioned. Those who drove with "Question Authority" bumper stickers on their cars were the heirs to the men who fought at Valley Forge.
When I was a boy, we could look to the Soviet Union and condemn it -- except for the leftist fringe, we all condemned it -- government was in control there and the people mattered little. Government could arrest and hold and kill on nothing more than its own desire to do so. Laws, if they existed outside the dictates of the Leader, meant little; if they existed, he could ignore them. Government read people's mail, listened to their phone calls, denied their rights to a full and fair legal defense. In America, we questioned authority; we conservatives, more than any, held that government officials must not become too powerful; that the rights of citizens must be upheld.
Writing an essay on "What America Means to Me" was a piece of cake. It meant freedom. It meant government led but did not rule. It meant privacy. It meant the rule of law. It did not stereotype or profile; it did not torture; it did not read my parents' mail or listen in on my phone calls. It presumed innocence until guilt was proven -- not alleged but proven.
John Adams, patriot and president, defended the British soldiers charged with a Boston Massacre. Andrew Hamilton, one of the great lawyers of colonial America defended a small-town publisher who dared to offend the colony's number one government authority. Freedom mattered. Rule of Law mattered.
What might Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol say in such an essay? They who attack lawyers because they represented men accused -- not convicted, not even charged -- of being enemies of the American people. Cheney and Kristol and too many like them would convict, lock up, and who knows what else, merely on the word of the government. They insult generations of American conservatives by having the gall to call themselves conservatives; they are statists, pure and simple, dismissive of law, dismissive of the Constitution, dismissive of freedoms. What would they say when asked what America means to them? They do not love America; they do not love its values or the very fundamental principles that set it apart. They love power, not freedom (even the neocons, in whose ranks they profess to serve, would be shocked by their disdain for democracy and liberty).
When we are in a particularly puckish mood, some of us who are conservatives say that liberals really want to turn America into France. I will say this for Cheney and Kristol: they do not want to turn America into France. They want to turn it into China.
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spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism.