In the wake of the attack on the U. S. last September, most commentators were of the opinion that a fundamental chord was struck in the collective American psyche, that our value systems were threatened in a way that would force a new sense of solidarity and community. Some even hinted that the attack and our response to it might even break the gridlock in partisan politics in Washington. Dream on!
In my October 2001 essay, “And The War Came”, I suggested that our definition of “normal” had probably changed forever and expressed the hope that we will be engaged in some long overdue examining of the American idea and soul-searching about the degree to which we are truly committed to it.
What has really changed? Of course, there has been a huge outpouring of patriotism linked to unprecedented support for the President’s war policy. There has been an enormously compassionate response to the victims of the 9-11 attack. And there has been the predictable response to the security lapses that enabled the success of the attack. Fundamentally, however, I wonder if we have fully grasped the enormity of the realities exposed to us on 9-11. Have we truly mobilized for the lengthy commitment to the war on terrorism that President Bush has so eloquently defined? Have we come to grips with the low threshold of war casualties that are acceptable to us? Has our collective anger at the attack on us produced the much-needed re-assessment of our values and priorities? Historically, wars have had major cultural transformational impact, on the winners as much as the losers. Think of the enormous American cultural transformations produced by the two world wars of the past century—in the role of government in our lives, in civil rights, in the role of women in society, in economic policy, and in our sense of destiny as a people.
In a recent op/ed piece entitled “Stalemate”, William Schneider writes that nothing has happened since the November 2000 election to heal the divisions of that bitter experience, not even 9-11, because the gridlock is a division over values. He describes the 2000 election as a showdown between Reaganism and Clintonism that has been brewing for almost forty years. The result: a tie. If he is correct, and I believe he is, the unity of patriotism we have witnessed over the past eight months is but a veneer that will be vulnerable to the foundational cracks underneath. In my October 2001 essay, I quoted Lincoln’s phrase in the Gettysburg Address wherein he questioned “whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure”, and I suggested that, since 9-11, we are again confronted by that question. Interestingly, I just caught up with a February 1999 speech by Charlton Heston in which he used exactly the same question from Lincoln in the context of the cultural war to which Schneider alludes. I submit that we won’t completely know the outcome of the war on terrorism in all its manifestations until we break the stalemate in the cultural war.
My disappointment with Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration in domestic policy and appropriations has reached epic proportions with the complete election year sell-out on agriculture subsidies. This bloated embarrassment is enough to make the most cynical Washington political hack blush and makes the French look like agricultural free trade champions by comparison. Gone is any semblance of the revolutionary spirit of 1994, which produced the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996. We’ve now come full circle back to the dependency of the post-Depression years. Taken together with the steel import tariff increases in March, we have further damaged our free trade credibility and moral leadership. As David Sanger of the New York Times has noted, all the wrong messages are being sent and we’re abdicating our world trade leadership with a protectionist, “America first” mentality that convinces many that we are rigging the benefits of globalization to our benefit alone.
Daniel Yergin has written that one of the powerful lessons he learned in making the recent TV series “Commanding Heights” is about the power of world trade to reduce poverty, and that at the top of the policy agenda should be improving the access of developing countries to the markets of industrial countries. How can we now go to our allies in the industrial West with a straight face and talk of free trade, open markets, and breaking down the barriers of government subsidy and protectionism? More importantly, how can we admonish our own citizens to practice deferred gratification, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and wartime fiscal discipline when the corporate welfare machine is out of control? This is a huge price to pay for a couple of Senate seats, with repercussions far beyond the next election.
My political philosophy group has been discussing A New Birth of Freedom, by Harry V. Jaffa, and I am now in my second reading. This is a masterful analysis of American political philosophy as defined by the Founders from its roots in the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions and as refined (or “re-defined” as some would say) by Lincoln in the re-founding years leading up to the Civil War. Jaffa is a natural right enthusiast out of the Leo Strauss school and his debates with strict constitutional constructionists like Robert Bork and William Rehnquist are legendary. The issues he confronts and the ideological conflicts he illuminates are critical to our understanding of the exceptional nature of the American idea and are as current as today’s conflicts, both domestic and foreign. It is not a light read, but a rewarding one.
“Since the 1960’s, anti-Americanism has flourished on college campuses, in Hollywood and among the chattering class. Anti-Americanism is the conviction that our history is one long chronicle of crimes against humanity—slavery, segregation, dispossession of the Indians, exploitation of labor and suppression of dissent. It is blind to America’s greatness—to our unparalleled contributions to the advancement of human liberty, the development of representative government and the march of progress…………All of this is a far cry from legitimate disagreement over policy.”—Don Feder
To those of us who are serious about cultural renewal, the front lines are our leading institutions of higher education, which are the breeding grounds and laboratories of anti-American and cultural relativist nonsense. In addressing the problem, however, often the most difficult thing to do is develop an awareness among opinion leaders from the private sector. Most of these leaders are highly visible corporate types with their own public relations concerns who do not want conflict and would rather be sycophants to the university administrators and trustees and their sphere of influence. To them, peace and harmony come with appeasement.
Recently, it was gratifying to witness the response of President Larry Faulkner of The University of Texas in rebuttal to UT Professor Robert Jensen’s anti-war on terrorism editorial after the September 11 attack. Unfortunately, this type of response is an exception on our campuses. However, thankfully, there are some very capable people at work to reverse the long trend of irresponsibility. David Horowitz’s FrontPageMagazine.com and his Think Twice campaign are busy exposing the anti-American rot in many of our universities. Recently, I read a great piece in FrontPage by Robert Locke in which he outlines the very systematic means by which the left in American academia works it indoctrinating mischief and suggests some steps that can be taken to restore balance and true diversity to our college classrooms. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has just released the revised and expanded version of its report, “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It”. In its words, there is “a striking divide between our intellectual elites and the mainstream American public”. The report makes clear that our colleges and universities are failing in the task of equipping our civilization’s ability to defend its core beliefs because they have abandoned these beliefs as a required staple of the curriculum. And don’t think it isn’t happening or can’t happen at your alma mater. The ACTA is busy marshalling support from trustees, donors, and opinion leaders to reverse this condition. These efforts are worthy of our encouragement and involvement.
In the April 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks wonders which grand themes will dominate the 21st century. He opines that 19th century America was about national union and the dominant 20th century theme here and elsewhere was about the size of government. He also suggests a few nominees for the 21st century, such as remaking human nature, globalization, inequality, and one he calls “the American Century redux”.
What are your thoughts on the sweeping issues that will dominate this century? Send them to me and I will highlight the responses along with my own views in a future issue.