Redneck Renegade

Forget Iraq. Merle Haggard says it's America that needs freeing.

Why don't we liberate these United States

We're the ones who need it the worst

Let the rest of the world help us for a change

And let's rebuild America first.

Our highways and bridges are falling apart

Who's blessed and who has been cursed

There's things to be done all over the world

But let's rebuild America first.

—Merle Haggard

Johnny Cash is walking the line in movie theaters, but still-living country music legend Merle Haggard is walking the tightrope between patriotism and treason in the real world.

Haggard has released a new album that features the single "America First," quoted above. The singer is known for his contrarian views. Baby boomers will remember his redneck, love-it-or-leave-it anthems, which included "Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From Muskogee," songs that defended the troops in Vietnam, bashed the hippies at home, and lamented the cultural changes of the 1960s.

Those songs, extolling patriotic values, were unfashionable at the time. I remember hearing the rock band the Youngbloods sing their reply from a stage at Sick's Stadium when they opened for Janis Joplin in 1970. However, if you look up the lyrics to "I'm Proud to Be a Hippie From Olema," you'll quickly realize that Haggard's cussedness wears a whole lot better than the utopianism of Marin County longhairs of that era—and I say that as an ex-hippie myself.

That cussedness is something we need more of today, and we saw it on display last week when a hawkish, pro-defense Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, the onetime Marine John Murtha, demanded that the U.S. military withdraw from Iraq, setting off a political firestorm that included, glory be, fist shaking, gavel pounding, and actual passion on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. It wasn't what he said; it was the fact that he, of all people, said it—a man with experience in war and military affairs, a man who once admired Dick Cheney.

That Haggard sees the war in Iraq as a giant suck hole draining America of life and liberty might be a kind of tipping point for how our country realigns its post-9/11 priorities. Perhaps old cowboy singers are the canaries in the coal mine of freedom. I would think George W. Bush and the Republicans would be concerned if they've lost Merle and Murtha, people with impeccable patriotic credentials of the old school. These are not the backbone-challenged cowards the GOP likes to paint the opposition as being. A Newsweek poll this month shows that 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. That number includes a lot of folks who aren't your usual-suspect liberals.

Not only is the Bush crowd losing the bedrock, they're even losing the Iraqis, including the country's leaders, who, in Cairo this week, called for setting a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. They also dubbed armed resistance against military targets in Iraq—read U.S. coalition forces—as "legitimate." These are the guys we're supposedly liberating.

However bad things are going in Iraq, Haggard's song also points to the issue of the war's cost at home. One is the liberty we're losing. The fact is there is very little that's patriotic about the extremes of the Patriot Act or the overreaching of the FBI. Nor for a political culture, driven from the top down, that equates disagreement with evil.

Second is what we're paying: The dollars to fight the war and rebuild another country aren't abstractions, they're the lifeblood of American families. The "America first" line strongly echoes the isolationist sentiments of those who opposed America's entry into World War II. It's the school of conservatism today carried on by commentators like Pat Buchanan, who object as much to the imperialistic idealism of the Bush-era neoconservatives as Haggard once loathed the preening selfish righteousness of the '60s. Both Haggard and Buchanan today worry about our values, our liberty, and deterioration, moral and physical, here at home. There are plenty on the left who agree with them.

The idea that America must be "rebuilt" morally and physically is more than a comment about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but a critique of priorities. The cost of liberating and rebuilding Iraq is not worth the cost of allowing our national infrastructure to go to hell—including the homeland security infrastructure like FEMA. It's not worth an untenable mountain of debt. It's not worth the poor getting poorer or the middle class being gutted. It's not worth a politics of political corruption. It calls for a new pragmatism—a focus on fixing our own problems before trying to solve other people's. The cost of hubris is decline.

This need not be a call to selfishness. In fact, it requires great sacrifice to make things right at home, and the call for renewal is as American as apple pie. But the moral lesson is also simple and powerful: America does best for itself and everyone else by being an example to the world, rather than trying to be its master.

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