Critical Thinking Is Unpatriotic

Politics & Current Events

Do you question whether America ought to be engaged in an open-ended and expensive War on Drugs? Do you question it even a little bit, by (for instance) doubting that the federal government ought to be spending billions to interdict marijuana and meddle with medical issues?

If so, then I hate to break it to you, but you aren't much of a patriot. Patriots support, uncritically, the Great War on Drugs.

I know this because our government tells me so.

Our government made this point in the course of justifying its termination of Border Patrol agent Bryan Gonzalez. Gonzalez was stationed in New Mexico. He made a comment critical of the War on Drugs, suggesting that legalizing marijuana might reduce cross-border violence, and mentioned LEAP, an organization of current and former law enforcement agents who question our nation's drug policy. This got him shit-canned.

Now, as an employer myself, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the notion that you can't let an employee run out and trumpet ideas completely in conflict with your organization's policies. I wouldn't tolerate an employee going on TV to say that criminal defense lawyers are all lying cheats trying to trick juries, for instance, because that would degrade my ability to represent clients.

So, did Bryan Gonzalez go on TV? Did he write a letter to the editor? Did he join a public movement contradicting the Border Patrol's policy?

No. He had a conversation with another agent.

Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.

That was impermissible. It was, in the view of our government, unpatriotic.

Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”

See, Bryan Gonzalez did what Good Americans aren't supposed to do: he subjected a core government policy to critical thinking. He questioned whether the War on Drugs makes social, economic, and moral sense. But patriotism, as defined by modern law enforcement — as defined by the sort of people who seek power in government — isn't about exercising faculties like critical thinking or independent moral judgment. It's about saluting, in the way we salute flags and fallen soldiers and parades, core ideas that have been transformed from policy arguments into quasi-religious dogma. The War on Drugs is merely one of many — along with "War on Terror" and "Government Regulators Know What They Are Doing" and "The Political Process In America Works." Few of us salute them all, but most of us salute at least a few.

The government — people who have guns and badges, and people who derive power from controlling those with guns and badges — depends on our uncritical acceptance of these propositions. That's why they had to fire Bryan Gonzalez and impugn not just his obedience but his devotion to America — because devotion to America, in the minds of politicians, means devotion to them. The government could have offered a point-by-point refutation of Bryan Gonzalez' spur-of-the-moment comments, but that would be missing the point. The War on Drugs is not a Socratic dialogue; the War on Drugs is a harried dialogue with your five-year-old: because I said so, that's why. The War on Drugs is an enterprise based largely on emotion, which is exactly why the government responded to Bryan Gonzalez with an emotional attack — you're no patriot if you talk that way. Sound familiar? It ought to — elements of the Right use it to quell discussions of the War on Terror, and elements of the Left use it to quell discussions of taxes and regulation.

The government must resort to emotion because of the probable consequences of a fact-based dialogue about many of the issues facing America. We live in a country where, for a decade, government agents have been unable to distinguish ideas about things from the things themselves: where security agents get ridiculed for confusing a picture of an imaginary killer robot on a t-shirt with a real weapon, shrug, and five years later still blithely detain people for pictures of guns as if pictures of things were the things themselves. At least the TSA is consistent, and hews to a constant theme: a picture of a thing might not be the thing itself — just as a tattoo saying "atom bomb" may not be a bomb – but words and pictures of things can generate emotions, and the government would like us to be motivated by our emotions. Just as we could question the War on Drugs, we could ask questions like "has the TSA really stopped any terrorism? At what cost? Would other measures be more effective? Why can't agents be taught to tell the difference between a thing and a picture of a thing?"

But that would be unpatriotic to ask.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

20 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Charles  •  Dec 5, 2011 @12:05 pm

    Give it up, Ken. You're never getting Magritte's name taken off the no-fly list.

  2. Ken  •  Dec 5, 2011 @12:06 pm

    I was going to make the Magritte reference more specific, but I was afraid David would embarrass me by pointing out that I may have misinterpreted Ceci n'est pas une pipe again.

  3. David  •  Dec 5, 2011 @12:15 pm

    Hey, TSA!:

  4. Scott Jacobs  •  Dec 5, 2011 @12:22 pm

    I suppose that it is possible – possible, mind you – that when they listed off "patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps", they weren't referring to the "patriotism" part. One could argue – if one were a fuckwitted governmental drone – that holding a view so very counter to one of the actual jobs of the boarder patrol (actually, the only job, since apparently they don't spend any time stopping the fucking illegals from coming over) is in direct opposition to "dedication".

  5. MeanDean  •  Dec 5, 2011 @1:03 pm

    Isn't patriotism the last refuge of a scoundrel, or something like that?

  6. SPQR  •  Dec 5, 2011 @4:00 pm

    Just to be contrary, I'll point out that a Border Patrol agent ought to be far more concerned today that his own government is intentionally arming cartels with firearms to come back over the border and shoot him with.

  7. John David Galt  •  Dec 5, 2011 @4:54 pm

    If there isn't a law protecting employees, or at least employees of the federal government, from being fired for political dissent, we need one.

  8. miltonf  •  Dec 5, 2011 @6:18 pm

    Couldn't agree more. Scary times indeed.

  9. Tom  •  Dec 6, 2011 @12:14 am

    I see something a bit more ominous in his firing.

    Some on the far left, the ones who don't think there should be borders, like La Raza, I would think would love the idea of the US Border Patrol ripping itself to shreds internally. When you get down to it, internal agency gossip is the reason he was fired. What does that say about the organization?

    So, it could follow this was done as another way to demoralize and neutralize the US officials who are supposed to vigilantly guard the boarder.

    Another thing I noticed, his name makes it very likely he is of mexican decent, god forbid a mexican-american do anything to hurt mexicans and not stand in unity with La Raza and the administration. Of course that reason is a bit on the edge of extremely unlikely.

  10. RobertM  •  Dec 6, 2011 @9:10 am

    MeanDean, I believe it's 'religion is the last refuge of a scoundrel.'

    I recently mentioned on my blog that I can remember getting a grade for 'Good Citizenship' in elementary school. 'Good Citizenship,' according to my teachers, was not questioning authority. The less you asked, "Why?" the higher your grade.

  11. staghounds  •  Dec 6, 2011 @9:48 am

    If the letter had read "Border Patrol Policy", it would have been fine. More bad drafting.

    I agree with your point that our current government leans heavily on, and promotes, unquestioning acceptance of policy by its citizens. It was ever thus.

    And as to its employees, Government is no worse than industry in the unquestioning acceptance by low ranking staff department.

  12. El Bombardero  •  Dec 6, 2011 @9:58 am

    brilliant post.

    "The War on Drugs is merely one of many — along with “War on Terror” and “Government Regulators Know What They Are Doing” and “The Political Process In America Works.” Few of us salute them all, but most of us salute at least a few. "

    You really nailed it right there. We all want to seem like we are above getting wrapped up in BS causes, but then we all have our own pet BS cause that we won't allow other people to challenge.

  13. Hasdrubal  •  Dec 6, 2011 @10:33 am

    Staghounds: Of course, the difference being that you have a reasonable expectation that you can change employers without completely having to rebuild your life.

  14. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Dec 6, 2011 @12:11 pm

    The quote is "Patriotism in the last refuge of a scoundrel." attributed by Boswell to Samuel Johnson.

    I prefer "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, because the good of his country is the last think he thinks of."

    I am not Patriotic … by the standards of the Government.

  15. martin gugino  •  Dec 15, 2011 @10:47 pm

    There is a drug problem in the tombs NYC prison. Everyone there is in a cell, with limited freedom, and no expectation of privacy. Yet that environment is still not tight enough to beat the drug problem.
    I say recognize that this war may not be winnable, with the tactics presently being used.

  16. JTheClivaz  •  Jan 21, 2012 @6:45 pm

    It's times like this I can stand the British Weather.

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