When We the People decided to break from the Crown, one of the things that must have been in the mix of the conversation in Philadelphia was: How low do we have to bow? How many poor decisions do we have to swallow? How many rules that suppress us before we come to this table to ask for redress?
There was a class above us that we dared not question or move to change: the Crown, the agents of the Crown, the generals of the Crown. We had no standing. We saw it differently and said so in our plea to be self-governing.
Now things are shifting away from freedom of speech. Now the press secretary reminds us we should never question a four-star general. We should only take the word of the president. All press and all reporting, with perhaps two exceptions, are faithless and vile.
In the 1960s, I remember a button that said, “Question Authority.” And it is a good button to wear, at least in our hearts.
“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” said Voltaire. And in the United States, that is never a quote you want applied to our governance or the people within our systems. Questioning is a hallmark of our liberty.
Of late, we have seen misstatements from the president and even Gen. John Kelly. For the president, that is nothing particularly new. He turns on a dime. But for the general, it is new.
Let’s face it: We all misspeak from time to time. Memories falter, or our lips go faster than our brain. Yes, we even lie outright. But I will bet most of our mothers, ministers, priests, rabbis and mullahs taught us to simply admit the error and make it right. It is a simple gesture that does two things: It provides the correct information, and it resets our integrity and humility.
But the press secretary does not share this belief. She believes that we should never question a four-star general. And I suspect that she believes we should never question the president or any of his surrogates within the Cabinet. She is quite wrong — dangerously wrong.
The citizens of this country and our surrogates in the Congress have not only the right to question but also the duty to do so. That right should come with a healthy dollop of understanding and forgiveness — unless and until we see a pattern of deception, a lack of factual credibility, or an outright inability to recognize error.
There are now, and have been, a number of countries where the mere questioning of government or its agents can land you in jail or worse. This is not us. There are and have been countries where the leader of the nation and the agents of governance never admit failure, never admit misstatements or wrongdoing. This should not be us.
Patriotism is being narrowed down to gesture rather than content. People are beginning to talk about the First Amendment as if it has a failure of detail, not enough backbone to punish those who take a knee or prefer not to recite the Pledge.
I argue that patriotism comes in several key forms. One is to read and study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Both are simple in their writing and dense in their intent, which has been argued at the Supreme Court since We the People began. Taking out a copy and reading it is helpful because you must wrestle with what is not there. The ability to “speak” out in word and gesture is broad. Upholding that over cultural bias is hard.
Another key element is that patriotism does not come from, “My country right or wrong.” Rather, it comes from, “When my country does a wrong, it rights it.” When we make an error, we should admit it and right it — not lie, obfuscate or avoid that error, but find the humanity and integrity to admit it. Then and only then do we stand clean and renewed and able to move on. It is the same for a general as it is for the nation.
By telling us not to question authority and by putting us under the oppression of never criticizing, we have joined in the slow and steady pulling on the thread and fabric of our intended democracy.
We the People, as a nation, were never meant to be perfect. We were meant to try. To question and to try.
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials.