Homeland: Behind the Buzzword

by James A. Bartlett _jbartlett@excite.com

Most of us have an attachment to the place we call home. It can be the house, the town, or the family we grew up in, a college we attended, or the place we live today. The word "home" speaks of comfort and security and belonging. A home is what we work so hard to achieve and to preserve. Home is where we raise our children and where we invest them with our hopes for the future. Our homes are close to our hearts, and we don't take them lightly.

But what of the word "homeland"? Surely it should have many of the same connotations as "home," shouldn't it? Yet on the night of September 20, sitting in the living room of my home watching George W. Bush speak to a joint session of Congress, I had an instant, visceral, negative reaction to his announcement that he had created an Office of Homeland Security. Not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I thought it was a bad name. The word "homeland" had a strange ring, like a false note in a piece of music. It didn't sound right.

It still doesn't. In the last several weeks, millions of words have been written about the Office, but practically none--at least none that I have seen--have been written about the name of the Office. Permit me to offer up a few hundred here.

Before September 20, the word "homeland" doesn't appear to have been much a part of the American lexicon. Not in political rhetoric, anyway. The word does not appear in inaugurals, State of the Union messages, or declaration-of-war speeches by either Woodrow Wilson or Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom could easily have claimed to be defending the homeland. (FDR mentioned "homeland" only in passing in three Fireside Chats, and always in reference to other countries--the Dutch, the Russians, and the Japanese.) The word isn't found in the major addresses of Cold Warriors Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. "Homeland" does not appear in Ronald Reagan's major speeches either--not even the one in which he called the Soviet Union the "evil empire."

In fact, the greatest prose stylist ever to occupy the White House never used it. If ever there were a man whose speeches and writings positively sung thanks to their evocative use of language, it was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a writer and speaker who knew the value of using precisely the right word in precisely the right place. "Homeland" doesn't appear one solitary time in his Collected Works.

And it's not just the politicians. I have been trying to recall a previous instance in which I've heard an American--any American--use the term "homeland" to refer to the United States of America. And I can't.

Why not?

Let's start with the dictionary.

The American Heritage Dictionary: "Homeland. 1. One's native land. 2. A state, region, or territory that is closely identified with a particular people or ethnic group"
Merriam Webster: "Homeland. 1. native land: FATHERLAND. 2. a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin"

Based on these definitions, it seems reasonable to say that the concept of a homeland has very much to do with the concept of being a native. Both The American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster define the word "native" at some length, but in a usage note, Merriam-Webster makes a critical point: "'Native' implies birth or origin in a place or region and may suggest compatibility with it."

By merging the two definitions, "homeland" and "native," we can broaden the definition of "homeland" to say that a homeland is a place, specifically a state, inhabited by people who were born there and are compatible with it, perhaps in terms of sharing the same race, ethnicity, or cultural background.

Birth, race, ethnicity, cultural background. Is that the glue that holds the United States together?

There's the heart of the issue--the reason why "homeland" doesn't feel right. America's doors have always been open to the whole world. No better phrase defines the United States than "a nation of immigrants." The only native Americans are Native Americans. Were it not for this country's historic openness, most of us wouldn't be here today. And because almost all of us came from somewhere else, concepts of race or ethnicity have never been broad enough to define us as a people. Instead, we've depended on a set of ideals to do it--the rule of law, freedom of thought, action, and belief, democratic government, hard work, sacrifice. Historically, anybody willing to share a belief in those ideals has been able to find a home here, no matter where they were born.

It's striking to read Abraham Lincoln's works and notice how as the Civil War continued, he made a conscious effort to speak less of the Union and more of the nation. It's as if he wanted to do rhetorically what the war was doing culturally and politically--transforming a league of individual states into one people bound by a common heritage. He never did this more eloquently than at Gettysburg, where he defined what our forefathers had created as "a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The point is that from Lincoln's time forward, it's been impossible to separate America's ideals from America's identity as a nation.

The American Heritage Dictionary lists one meaning of "nation" as "A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality." Although nations can have common origins, those origins aren't confined to place of birth. Those origins can just as easily be ideals. It's my guess that Americans understand this instinctively. And that may be why the word "homeland" is not a word we have historically used to talk about ourselves. What it describes is not big enough to hold our idea of ourselves--a vast, polyglot group with roots in every country of the world--and the ideals that make us a nation.

As the dictionaries have shown us, a "homeland" belongs to the people who come from there, and not to anyone else. For us to start using the word "homeland" instead of "nation" at this time of threat makes us sound as if we'd like to douse Lady Liberty's torch and huddle in our bunker, hoping the walls hold up against the onslaught from the outsiders.

It's an understandable impulse. We're frightened. We are not used to being attacked so directly. Even though we've lived for 50 years in a world in which ballistic missiles can reach us in minutes, we've never really believed an enemy could strike us here. (Lincoln said it beautifully in one of his first public speeches: "All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.") So the desire to cluster with our own and view others suspiciously is natural.

But it's not as though the impulse first surfaced in our national life on September 11. Here's a thought experiment. Is it plausible that the Bush Administration's choice of "homeland" says something about their political philosophy beyond their desire to defend our country? Even before September 11, this administration was on the most isolationist course seen since the 1920s. The refusal to consider the Kyoto climate-change treaty and the unilateral withdrawal from arms control agreements with the Russians, long since pushed off the front page (if not out of the papers entirely), showed a desire to disengage from the world and chart a separate course. Many in Bush's conservative base have long argued for American withdrawal from the United Nations, for stricter controls on immigration, for English as an official language. Could all the talk of "homeland" be a subtle signal that it's time this country belonged exclusively to those who are already here? That it's time America was for Americans only?

It may be giving too much credit to the Bush people to suggest that they deliberately chose "homeland" to send such a signal. It's more likely just a clumsy attempt to tug at our heartstrings. In fact, Jeff Greenspan, writing on the libertarian news and commentary site lewrockwell.com, has traced the phrase "homeland security" to a pair of Clinton Administration documents, "Presidential Decision Directive 62: Protection Against Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas" and "Presidential Decision Directive 63: Critical Infrastructure Protection," both dated May 22, 1998. Greenspan also reports that the revised U.S. Army field manual, released in January 2001, states that "Homeland Defense is the military's role in the United States (US) government's principal task of protecting its territory and citizens." And on March 21, 2001, a bill called the National Homeland Security Agency Act (HR 1158) was introduced in the House of Representatives. It would have essentially renamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) the National Homeland Security Agency. So it turns out that not just the idea but the word has been in the air for quite a while--albeit never so much in the air as it has been since September.

In the end, could it be that talk about defense of the "homeland" makes our current quasi-war into something less than advertised? After all, President Bush himself has frequently suggested that what we are fighting for are those familiar ideals--the rule of law, freedom of thought, action, and belief, democratic government, and so on. To eliminate the threat of terrorism is to make the world safer so that those ideals can spread and so people who believe in them can prosper. But are we mixing the message when we also talk about "homeland defense" and "homeland security"? Are we defending our ideals for people everywhere--or are we defending a physical space within fixed borders that belongs only to those of us who are already here? If I have to, I would rather die defending an ideal than to die simply holding a patch of real estate. If our real estate were lost, there would still be hope for the planet if our ideals endured. If our ideals were lost, all the real estate in the world wouldn't make up for it.

Then again, we haven't fought a foreign invader on our own soil for nearly 200 years. (Unreconstructed Confederates will disagree, but let's call a cease-fire in that war while we fight this one.) Perhaps the reason we have talked so easily about defending ideals throughout our history is because we have never had to talk about defending, say, California. And maybe to the Bush Administration, "homeland" simply means "the land that is home." Maybe things are exactly what they appear to be, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, the words we use to talk about ourselves bear watching. Wars have a way of remaking societies, often in ways societies wouldn't recognize before the war. And we seem to be in the very early stages of a war that is likely to go on for a very long time. So it's possible that we may be witnessing a historic change in the way we Americans view ourselves. But at the moment, we are still a people whose nationhood is rooted in the familiar ideals we learned in civics class. And I am one citizen who's not ready to call my nation a simple homeland just yet. I hope my nation is still much more than that.

copyright 2001, James A. Bartlett (who thinks, writes, rethinks, and rewrites ad infinitum right up until deadline near Madison, Wisconsin)

Sources (all accessed on November 13, 2001)