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Gersh Kuntzman: Un-American Activities  
Our columnist examines the quickly shifting role of patriotism in the weeks since the attacks  

     Oct. 6 — FOR ABOUT A WEEK, I was actually proud to be an American. Watching our nation respond with unity to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 filled me with the feeling that we are a decent, thoughtful, caring, intelligent people.  

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  Well, that didn’t last long, thanks to a sudden shift in the very notion of patriotism. Now, if you aren’t waving a flag, cheering every focus-group-tested word out of President Bush’s mouth or supporting the use of force, you’re a threat. You’re anti-American. You must be silenced.
        The examples are legion: a columnist in Texas is fired for questioning President Bush’s leadership skills; a columnist in Oregon is fired for questioning President Bush’s leadership skills (sense a pattern?); a professor in New Mexico is disciplined for criticizing American foreign policy; talk-show host Bill Maher—whose show’s very name, “Politically Incorrect,” warns advertisers that he aims for controversy—loses key sponsors because he suggested that the suicide bombers of Sept. 11 were not “cowards”; a rap group removes a song critical of New York City cops because it is deemed “inappropriate” at this time; conservative columnist Ann Coulter, who urged a violent form of revenge against nations that sponsor terrorism, was dropped by NationalReview.com; a friend of mine has been threatened because her car bears a bumper sticker, NO MORE BUSHIT—even though she affixed before Sept. 11, when such criticism was tolerated.

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        Instead of recoiling at these attacks on that most American ideal of free speech, our country has accepted them as part of the war effort. Indeed, only a few card-carrying ACLU members seemed to mind last week when the president’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer (who once said that gas-guzzling was part of the American “way of life”), warned all Americans that “they need to watch what they say, watch what they do” in this time of crisis. (As if evoking the specter of “thoughtcrime” from the book “1984” wasn’t enough, Fleischer fashioned himself as Big Brother, rewriting history by removing the words “watch what they say” from the official transcript of the press conference.)
        Maybe Fleischer should have warned today’s patriotic demagogues, rather than the writers who’ve lost their jobs questioning our nation’s patriotic psychosis.
        “I’m getting calls all day and night from people who scream at me that I’m un-American,” says Dan Guthrie, the columnist (make that former columnist) for the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore. “That doesn’t bother me. It’s the death threats that get scary.”
        Guthrie lost his job because he suggested in print that the president responded “lamely” because he “skedaddled” rather than immediately returning to Washington after the attack.
        Tom Gutting, a columnist with the Texas City Sun, also learned the cost of criticizing the president. Gutting’s column accused Bush of being “a puppet ... controlled by advisers” who is leading us into a war that will solve nothing. Gutting called for Americans to “be vigilant citizens, as our Constitution demands.”
        Gutting’s boss had a different definition of patriotism and fired his columnist, calling his writing “not appropriate during this time our country and our leaders find themselves in.” (Want to do the American thing and decide for yourself? Read Gutting’s column at: http://www.poynter.org/medianews/extra16.htm).
        Gutting is anything but un-American. In fact, he says he is moved to tears when he reads the Constitution. (Weird, perhaps, but certainly patriotic.)
        “People call me a communist or yell, ‘Go live in Afghanistan’,” he says. “A communist?! I love this country, but there is no asterisk on the First Amendment that says ‘Except in times of crisis when you must support the president’.”
        Two hundred and thirty years ago, such subversiveness would’ve made Guthrie and Gutting Founding Fathers. Today, it earns them pink slips.

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        But Dan Guthrie and Tom Gutting are just two small victims of our country’s orthodoxy. The bigger problem is a nation where all debate is stifled in the name of unity—sort of like those dictatorships that we’re always condemning.
        A recent poll shows that we trust our government more now than at any point since 1966. Doesn’t that concern anyone? In 1966, trust in government was the problem.
        Oddly, most of the forced orthodoxy is coming from the right, the supposed defenders of our freedoms. Apparently, if you live in the so-called Blue States, you’re supposed to remain silent about the president’s performance even though the people from the Red States spent the entirety of the last presidency making as much noise as possible. Back then, such divisiveness was considered patriotic. Now it’s un-American.
        While we’re at it, here’s my current list of thoughtcrimes:
        1. I agree with Bill Maher. The men who crashed planes into the World Trade Center were not cowards. Cowards are people who plan such attacks from the safety of their caves.
        2. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is right: Western civilization is “superior” to modern Islamic civilization, where oppression, not democracy, is the rule. Free speech? Even in supposedly moderate Egypt, the president picks the editors of the top papers. American allies? How come Friday-night prayers even in supposedly moderate mosques feature the obligatory venomous attack on the United States. (Look at me, agreeing with Jonah Goldberg of the National Review! Isn’t this a great country?)
        3. It bothers me that Muslim shopkeepers who’ve lived in my neighborhood for 25 years feel they must fly the American flag so they won’t get beaten up by their fellow Americans.
        4. “God Bless America” is a lousy, cloying song. Give me “America the Beautiful” any day.
        Exercising my free speech (hell, I don’t exercise much else) will probably generate plenty of anger from readers. What else is new? I mean, did you catch these recent attacks:
        Conservative columnist John Podhoretz criticized a New Yorker essay by Susan Sontag for “dripping with contempt for the nation’s politics, its leaders [and] its economic system.” (Podhoretz could recognize it because that was his role before Jan. 20, 2001.) Now Podhoretz is complaining that liberals want to restrict free speech. But it wasn’t liberals who axed Guthrie, Gutting and Coulter.
        Steve Dunleavy, another consumer of raw meat, complained in The New York Post about liberals, “whom I regard as traitors in this time of crisis ...” The liberals’ crime? Not supporting greater access to guns. (No, really.)
        Later, his Post colleague Andrea Peyser mocked pacifists as “fuzzy-headed academics [who] must have eaten a few too many magic mushrooms.” The pacifists’ crime? Pointing out that American mistakes—such as backing Osama bin Laden against the Russians (we called him a “freedom fighter” back then)—helped create the horrible world we now live in.
        Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin even complained that liberals view “the U.S. military as an outdated, hierarchical, racist, sexist, homophobic and imperialistic institution.”
        Is it un-American to point out that the U.S. military has been all of those things at various times?
        Americans should not be happy about where this “1984”-style orthodoxy will lead. In Florida, for example, it’s already being used as a cudgel against would-be opponents to a congressional run by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
        Republican spokesman Daryl Duwe previewed his party’s strategy when he warned Democrats, who are still angry about how Harris used her office to assist the Bush campaign last year, that bringing it up “would be a losing strategy ... Post-Sept. 11, they do not want to hear the Democrats talk [about it].”
        In other words, a terrorist who lives in a country where a man can be flogged if his beard is not sufficiently unkempt has neutralized our ability to criticize our political rivals. Wasn’t that his goal?
        But forced orthodoxy goes far beyond the public’s fear of criticizing government officials. No one wants to take chances anymore. Take a seemingly innocuous example from this season’s sitcoms. On both the supposedly daring “Sex and the City” and the dull “Friends,” sexy single characters found themselves pregnant—but the writers never even entertained an abortion plotline.
        Wouldn’t want to offend anyone, would we? Then again, why not? Sure, people went nuts when Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown—but aren’t we a better country because he was able to say what he felt?
        After all, he did turn out to be partially right. Hmm, maybe there’s something to staking out a controversial position.

       Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at

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