The retreat from our core values

May 24, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA — "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president ... right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

ATLANTA - We've become a bit confused.

As Americans, we're supposed to have a deep respect for dissent, to value honest and open government, to believe in truth and justice. Those are among the core values that distinguish us from much of the rest of the world, where tyranny has free rein.

But the precariousness of the U.S. occupation of Iraq - indeed, a clear record of failures brought on by the Bush administration's wrong-headed assumptions - has prompted some prominent Americans to trample the very values we claim to export. Among the more disappointing examples is U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, a nominal Democrat from Georgia who has spent the last several months ranting hysterically against any American who dares question any aspect of U.S. policy in Iraq.

He, like others of his ilk, is busy rewriting the definition of patriot, limiting it to those who would march in lockstep to the dictates of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Even John McCain, a former POW, would not qualify as a patriot by that narrow and perverse standard. The Arizona senator, after all, has criticized the administration for its poor postwar planning.

I have given up on Mr. Miller. He spends the winter of his life ruining a legacy of progressive leadership that he built in earlier years. As a former Marine and, more tellingly, a former professor of Western civilization at tiny Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains, he knows better than most the enormous gift of the Bill of Rights, which has produced a strong nation - the only remaining superpower - that thrives on protest, dissent, openness, diversity. If he wishes to deny that now, well, so much for his role as elder statesman.

But Mr. Miller is not the only American in full retreat from the nation's core values. So are any number of others, officials and average citizens alike, who have denounced the press, war critics and any other institution or individual who dares present a view that does not reflect the fairy tale version of events that Mr. Bush and his minions, until quite recently, peddled to the public.

Last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an essay from a journalism instructor who, incredibly, complained that the news media should have refrained from using photos of torture in Iraq. Does she prefer a country where wrongdoing is hidden, covered up and allowed to fester?

How can we expect Iraqis to adopt a democracy like ours and live by its principles when so many of us seem unwilling to live by those same values?

It may be that democracy, U.S.-style, is a tough creed to live by. Unlike authoritarian rule, where dictators tell you what to do and how to think, Jeffersonian democracy, with its emphasis on individual liberty, requires each citizen to think for himself.

And Jeffersonian democracy endorses a free press, which frequently portrays a nation not quite as perfect as its founding myths suggest. That means that thinking citizens will often be confronted with the premise that their beloved country is sometimes unjust, sometimes greedy, sometimes brutal.

The virtue of this creed ought to be clear by now: The United States has not only survived, but it has also thrived. The clash of opposing ideas, the open criticism of government, and, yes, a free press that exposes official wrongdoing - all those things have produced a nation that is a military, economic and cultural superpower.

It's unlikely that the United States can impose a Western-style democracy in Iraq. But we ought to be able to keep faith with those democratic values ourselves.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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