Why Americans Embrace the Patriot Act Essay

Patriot Act

Why Americans Embrace the Patriot Act

Many Americans were convinced to embrace the Patriot Act in spite of its violations of the Constitution because at their core Americans had already embraced the philosophy of Rousseau and Adam Smith, which go hand in American society. The Constitution had been written in order to protect individuals from the tyranny of a central power, a tyranny which might inhibit their desire to pursue “life, liberty and happiness.” But in the 21st century, “life, liberty and happiness” are virtually guaranteed by an automated, consumerist, self-centered, “self-fulfilling” culture in which opiates, entertainment and education are “freely” administered to an increasingly dependent welfare, or “nanny,” state. In this respect, the Constitution is a relic that means nothing and the Patriot Act is seen as protection against the loss of “life, liberty, and happiness.” What many Americans value above all else is self-preservation, at least in economic, political and social terms. Enlightenment ideals have lost their gloss, but Rousseau’s doctrine and Smith’s emphasis on capital still have their allure. This paper will show how Americans were persuaded to abdicate some of their Constitutional rights in favor of Patriot Act protection, and what the unique features of American national identity and the conception of democracy in America had to do with the passing of the Patriot Act.

Hamilton’s Federalist No. 23 puts forward the principles that underlie the passing of the Patriot Act. When he promotes a strong federal government, it is, as he states, for the purpose of establishing “the common defense of the members — the preservation of the public peace” (Hamilton). The emphasis on “preservation” is important because it highlights the ultimate priority of many, then as now: selfhood. Liberty, equality and fraternity may have been revolutionary ideals, but in the end each still demands a certain degree of restraint, of self-renunciation.

Rousseau’s principle of philosophical self-idolatry is at odds with any doctrine of restraint (“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”) (Rousseau 14), even a revolutionary one in which the restraint appears to be minimal. In the Age of Enlightenment, society still held enough of the old world values, which advocated self-preservation through self-restraint in spite of new ideologies that espoused economic, social and political stability through the pursuit of wealth (Smith) and pleasure (Rousseau). The old world values, expressed through cultural codes, held the “passions,” so to speak, in check: capitalism, as promoted by Adam Smith, would not end badly so long as people still exercised a modicum of virtue, compassion, respect, etc. The Romantic pursuit of pleasure and self-fulfillment (ala Jean-Jacques) would not end badly so long as society kept a degree of decency.

The old world values have since emaciated, and the degree has degenerated. In their place insouciance, supported by the relativistic dogmas of modern science/philosophy, has become embedded in a culture of consumerism. “America is a business,” Jackie Coogan states (Dominik), and fascistic society will protect its business interests at the expense of individual “rights” which matter to few people, so long as they can remain insouciantly unaware of themselves and the world around them. The Constitution and the Fathers of the Nation who penned it served their purpose. The conclusion of the Civil War saw the termination of the purpose. The philosophy behind the abandonment of the Constitution can be summed up succinctly in the words of Rousseau: “Children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved” (14). Americans’ need of Constitutional “rights” vanished when the States became Hamiltonian — which may be described as the moment when the federal government granted “due process” to all (with the Fourteenth Amendment), thus stripping States of any “right” to conduct their own affairs, and thus applying the principles of relativity to the black-and-white logic of the Constitution. The “law” had served its purpose (self-preservation); now in the new world order quickly getting under way with the rise of Industrialization, self-preservation needed a new “law,” and that would be supplied by the Supreme Court, the businessmen, and the bureaucrats. Fascism wasn’t just a belief that blossomed in Italy. It was one that manifested itself all over the industrialized world.

Part of the insistence upon insouciance, however, was there from the beginning, as Alexander de Tocqueville observed in the mid-19th century. It was apparent in the States’ insistence upon religious liberty, an oxymoron if ever one existed (religion does not free, it binds; if one is free to unbind what binds, the constraints of religion are bound to come off, thus eliminating religion; in short, either religion will prevail (as in a theocracy) or “liberty,” which usually ends in tyranny). Tocqueville marveled at the American’s ability to practice religious liberty. Still in the early stages of this oxymoronic practice, the States appeared to be exercising it rather pacifically:

Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country. (289)

A century and a half later and that same pacific calm is utterly gone. One encounters two extremes in the American moral-religious life: the compassionless, neo-conservative, liberal-Puritan Fundamentalist and the compassionless, liberal-Socialist/Fascist/Marxist Romantic. Sometimes the sides are indistinguishable. Even the Catholic Church, of which Tocqueville was an adherent, began promoting the proud principle of religious liberty following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The entire orientation of the Church changed, embracing the philosophy of selfhood. Selfhood in America, then nation-turned-business, meant making money. Making money was Adam Smith’s department: “Money has become in all civilized nations the universal instrument of commerce, by the intervention of which goods of all kinds are bought and sold, or exchanged for one another” (Smith 44). The ability to make money was synonymous with the ability to make nations. Nationhood was dependent upon wealth — material wealth, not moral, mental, spiritual or social wealth. And to be wealthy, one had to be mighty — and sometimes ruthless.

Thus, many Americans could applaud Bush’s speech in which nationhood and patriotism were promoted against the demoralizing face of terrorists who hated “liberty,” a term still capable of evoking a sentimental feeling in Americans (like “God,” or “democracy,” even though in reality these terms signified little). The American identity is illustrated in two ways: every time “God Bless America” is sung before a major sporting event, and every time a Super Bowl commercial is aired. A conception of “democracy” doesn’t enter into the American mind-frame, save every four years when it becomes a “sporting event” style contest between “our team” and “their team” (or Republicans v. Democrats). The party system that Washington warned against came to roost along with a Hamiltonian government. Even when voters do attempt to exercise their democratic right, there is no guarantee that their votes will be heard, as both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 2012 showed.

Thus, many Americans will “love Big Brother” and His Patriot Act if only because they have nothing else to replace him with. Big Brother protects them from the past by rewriting history for them and censoring them every time one of them attempts to act like Winston Smith (see Fred Leuchter, for instance). In turn, they will happily hand over to Big Brother whatever he asks for. He will keep out the “evil-doers,” those who want to tear down the wall of comfort and security; they will keep out of the way when He attempts to start another war in the Middle East by proxy (see Syria). It is, in one sense, a give and take relationship, but underlying it are the philosophies of Rousseau and Smith, in spite of the fact that both are full of contradictions. Rousseau, for example, states that man’s “first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master” (14-15). Yet within the same breath he can assert that man is not his own master when he has Big Brother: “As a shepherd is of a nature superior to that of his flock, the shepherds of men, i.e., their rulers, are of a nature superior to that of the peoples under them. Thus, Philo tells us, the Emperor Caligula reasoned, concluding equally well either that kings were gods, or that men were beasts” (p. 15). Rousseau and many Americans, in spite of themselves, appear to conclude the same; the only difference being that money is their god, and Smith his prophet. And thus the Patriot Act is supported and renewed year after year.

Works Cited

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America (ed. By R.D. Heffner). New York,

NY: Penguin Mentor, 1984. Print.

Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist No. 23.” Constitution.org. Web. 8 Mar. 2013.

Rousseau, Jean Jacque. The Social Contract. (G. DH Cole, Trans.). New York, NY:

Cosimo. (Original work published 1762).

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations.

Penn State University Electronic Publication. 2005. Web. 8 Mar 2013.

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