A grievance culture has taken hold in the West, both in England and Americaand at exactly the wrong time. Where not long after 9/11 we were angry, we now have become sad, or depressed and confused; and too many have replaced our concept of evil with all manner of diagnoses of syndromes and root causes. We are at war, and yet we are indulging a culture of grievance. My friend Debra Burlingamewhose brother, Chick, was the pilot of flight 77 that was hijacked and smashed into the Pentagonwas recently asked if she missed the post-9/11 commonsense. She answered: "Truthfully, what I miss the most is the anger." I do too.
It is not just the terrorist threat that we have to deal with now, but the grievance culture under it, that has taken such a strong hold in the West. It may, in fact, prove the greater threat because it takes away our greatest protection against terrorism: moral clarity. Where once our law and culture were based on assigning blame on a perpetrator of wrong, and personal responsibility was a commonplace (as well as commonsense), a new psychology has taken hold in Western culture. Where once we punished and fought, we now psychologize and debate the causes of anger and terror. We, to borrow from Shakespeare, have made the wrong medicines of our great revenge.
Let me begin a few years back. It was eyebrow-raising to many of us in 1992 when a candidate for President could have as one of his most memorable quotes "I feel your pain"; but, in truth, that sentiment spoke beyond an electoral victory. It spoke to the state of our culture-or at least a new manifestation in Western societies that emotional empathy was the best a leader could offer an ailing body politic. It was what Philip Rieff called "the triumph of the therapeutic." But to receive empathy, a grievance must be proffered. Today, too many grievances are being proffered, too many taken too seriously, and too many legitimized. Some years ago, a novel legal defense was proposed known as "black rage"a strategy to nullify legal culpability for black defendants of violent crimes because, it was argued, such defendants were so angry at society they could not be held legally liable for their criminal responses. Norman Mailer outlined, and justified, such a concept almost fifty years ago in his essay, The White Negro.
Interestingly, the last time this black rage defense came up was in a killing spree on a commuter train in New York, and it was offered by left-wing, white elites. Today, the idea that one's nationalistic or religious rageor paincould be so great as to nullify responsibility has taken hold in the Islamist community. And some of the non-Islamist elites are buying into it as well.
Last month, in the wake of the worst attack in London since the Blitz, the otherwise forceful Prime Minister Tony Blair took a meeting with two dozen leaders of Britain's Muslim community to "address the root causes of the suicide bombings" that killed over 50 innocent civilians and wounded over 700 more. In an earlier time, perhaps, we would have known who and what was responsible for the death of those Londonersthe evil and barbaric actions of thugs, of terrorists believing in Islamist fascism. But, the so-called "moderate" Muslims who met with Tony Blair had been paying attention to the cultural shifts we have brought upon ourselves, and they played into them.
After all, they too saw responsibility as other than in the evil terrorists. As the Washington Post reported: "the most prominent of Britain's Muslim moderatesacknowledged strong disagreements among themselves, with the government and with radicals in their community over who or what is ultimately to blame for the attacks." And, a Muslim member of the House of Lords stated, "many people are confused as to how to deal with [the bombings]."
Can one imagine Winston Churchill entertaining Germans with a list of grievances that led to the Blitz at 10 Downing? Or, Franklin Roosevelt listening to a group of Japanese at 1600 Pennsylvania who wanted to air their reasons for Pearl Harbor? Tony Blair should have thrown these "moderate" leaders who feed this theology and philosophy out on their ears. Unfortunately, however, those leaders are not alone and, to be honest, we too have mollycoddled supposedly "moderate" leaders as well-both at Crawford and in DC, both with members of the Saudi royal family as with members of Muslim so-called civil rights organizations.
Churchill and Roosevelt took the war to the enemy, they didn't ask their leaders about their grievancetheir countries had heard them loudly and clearly enough, through their actions. But, what our countries today do not hear loudly and clearly enough, is the call of the rightness (if not righteousness) of their own cause. We have replaced what Lincoln called our "political religion"our dedication to knowing the causes of equality and liberty upon which we were foundedwith a politics of religion, and race, and nationality, and culture. We have elevated individual grievances, ethnic thumb sucking and hundreds-year-old resentments and envy above our mutual protection and our commonweal, a word you do not hear much anymore.
The problem is not just with the Muslim leadership. In a clear accounting by one British Muslim who works as a computer technician in England, there is no confusion of loyalty: "It's human nature for people to fight back when they're attacked….You've slaughtered us for years, and no one hit back, but now that someone has, you cry foul," Another young British Muslim (in jeans and a baseball cap, according to the New York Times) put the new philosophy of the day this way: "I don't approve of what he [one of the terrorists] did, but I understand it. You get driven to something like this, it doesn't just happen."
Some will dismiss Western Muslim grief or "drive" as a lunatic, unrepresentative fringe. Not so fast. A recent poll out of the London Telegraph speaks to the enormity of the problem: "[S]ix per cent [of the British Muslim population] insist that the bombings were…fully justified. Six per cent may seem a small proportion but in absolute numbers it amounts to about 100,000 individuals who, if not prepared to carry out terrorist acts, are ready to support those who do." And, "the proportion of…respondents who, while not condoning the London attacks, have some sympathy with the feelings and motives of those who carried them out is considerably larger24 per cent." Finally, "A substantial majority, 56 per cent, say that, whether or not they sympathise with the bombers, they can at least understand why some people might want to behave in this way."
Some days, we hear, the terrorism is caused because we're "occupying" Iraq; some days it's because we support Israel (which, until the liberation of Iraq, was the only country in the Middle East where Arab Muslims could vote freely and serve in government). But, there's a perhaps not-so-obvious problem with this "understanding," this "sympathy," and blame-game. We were not "occupying" Iraq on September 11, 2001 (we weren't even occupying Afghanistan). And Britain has pushed more than any other Western nation for Israeli withdrawal from the lands the Arabs say belong to them. No, it's not Iraq and it's not Israel. It's a corrupt philosophy attached to an evil arm that causes the massive slaughters.
There's a second problem as well. The so-called grievances of the Muslims are contrasted to nothingthere is no other side of the scale, there is no teaching of what we do right, there is no recogniztion of the wisdom and virtue of our own cause, from our Founding up until today. There is no reality check. One would think Muslims would be at least a little grateful to the countries that have liberated over 50 million of them in the last four years. Or to those same countries (the U.S. and Britain) who, the last seven times they mobilized their militaries, did so on behalf of Muslims. Not so. They are not.
But what of our own children? What do they think? What do they know? Having denied our children an understanding, knowledge, and appreciation for our Western and American ethics and history (which includes the teachings of equality and liberty), we have ended up where we are today. In Britainas in the U.S.this failure, more than anything else, could prove our undoing. In America, you can graduate from any one of America's top colleges, and not take a single course in American history. Meanwhile, our political scientists and historians teach that our Founding was racist or classist or elitist, at best. Mark Steyn has written, "[Y]ou can't assimilate with a nullitywhich is what multiculturalism is. So, if Islamist extremism is the genie you're trying to put back in the bottle, it doesn't help to have smashed the bottle."
Indeed, we have smashed the bottle of national identity and proper and purposeful assimilationnot only in Britain but in the U.S. as well. The Telegraph of London suggests as the first step to make Britain safe, the following: "The Government, schools, the BBC and other cultural outlets should launch a campaign to celebrate the virtues and values of Britishness, and to inculcate these values in the children who grow up, and the migrants who settle, in our country." That is an astounding statement. It is true enough. But what is that if not a statement that the task is to make of the U.K. a regime, a whole country once again that is something; that stands for something and is dedicated to certain propositions that are worth defending.
This defines the great relearning that must take place if we are to endure, and be safe. And it applies in the U.S. as much as in the U.K.. In America, last month, historian David McCullough testified to Congress that U.S. history is our nations' classrooms' "worst subject." U.S. Senator (and former Secretary of Education) Lamar Alexander in that hearing stated: "According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as 'the nation's report card,' fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we testincluding math, science and reading."
We have made aliens in our countries by alienating ourselves and our children from our history and our cause. Not only do many of our children not study our history anymore at all, some who do, often study it as an oppressive story of misery, exploitation, and injustice. Looking for sustenance, they are served thin gruel in our nation's classrooms. Is it any wonder then, that some poor souls, when offered a strong helping of identity in something else, of righteousness in some cause, are drawn to it? Say what you will of them, but nationalist supremacy, racial superiority, and Wahabbi fundamentalism are all strong brews. They can fill a hungry and lost soul. C.S. Lewis says, "We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
To more than a few, American and British history, the Founding, the cause of the West, unpresented, or weakly portrayed, can have little chance against the power and appeal of noxious ideology. To some souls, combine all of this with the "rage" that naturally follows from the catalogue of the evil actions of the West, and we begin to "understand root causes."
Last month, in her confirmation hearing, the then nominee for Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes (whom I like) said the following: "If I had the opportunity to say just one thing to people throughout the world, it would be, I am eager to listen. I want to learn more about you and your lives, what you fear, what you dream, what you believe and what you value most. Should I be confirmed, I plan to travel and reach out to citizens and leaders of other countries and mobilize our government to do more listening." And, if some Salafist is candid with her, she will learn, as she listens, that his pain and rage has to do with either the defeat of the Ottomans some eighty years ago at Constantinople, or perhaps even further back, the defeat of the Muslim Moors at Andalusia some five hundred years ago in that interesting year named 1492. Is listening to that really going to help solve any problem or win any war? Again, I think we've listened, we've heard enough, and we should abjure this kind of diplomacy.
For the past several years, we have been in the midst of what President Bush had called the Global War on Terror. Good enough. In August, however, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "the use of the word 'war' may be out of place, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution." What, one must ask, do the men in uniform think when they hear that from their own Generals? Do we not want our menand womenin uniform to think that they are in a war? Worse, do we not want our enemies to think we are in a war against them? Thus, the administration has been referring to "a global struggle against violent extremism."
This is not a war against extremism or even violent extremism. In some cases, indeed, we even once believed extremism in certain things a good thing. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, wrote in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail that there were forms of extremism worth lauding: whether describing Jesus' commitment to love, Lincoln's commitment to end slavery, or Jefferson's commitment to prove self-evident truths as a basis for our Founding. No, this is not a struggle against just any kind of extremism. It is a fight, it is a war-and we know who the enemy is. We should say it. It is Radical Islam. We called the Nazis the German Nazis; and we called the Communists the Soviet Communists. We should call our enemy today by what they are and who they are. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "the corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language." It is no accident we are seeing less and less support for the war in the most recent polling. We are corrupting not only our war, but our will to fight by corrupting our language about this war.
And this corruption of language and thought has led to the taking too seriously of the "Muslim grievance." We need to get up off the couch and tell Muslims that whatever pain they feel, it is not from British or U.S. wrongdoing; indeed, ours has been more their liberation and their medicine than their enslavement and affliction.
We need to direct them-as we need to direct our own citizens-to the source of that medicine, our Founding creed. There are self-evident truths, and rights, among which are the equality and freedom all humanswomen, Jews, infidels among themare entitled to, nay, endowed with. And yet, we no longer speak or teach the language of such moral absolutism (such extremism), such moral conviction that children and young adults crave. Radical Muslim leaders slake that thirst with their absolutism. That's why there is a strong Islamist appeal to the John Walker Lindhs, Ryan Andersons, Adam Ghadans, and Shehzad Tanweers, and God knows how many other lost souls among us. They follow a strong and stern teaching to a perverted end. And they have teachers that believe in that end and lead them to itthey give them a cause to live for…..and to die for. But whogiven the sorry America the revisionists have madewould sign up for, or live and die for it?
We have it in our power to breed heroes and statesmen just as we have it in our power to breed terrorists and traitors. We breed by both example and instruction; and just now we need a great re-learning about what we are teaching and tolerating through our national example and instruction, both in how we treat the enemy as well as in how we treat our own philosophies of statecraft and soulcraft. Our only repatriation can come once we take seriously again our self-evident truths, our political religion. In understanding our Constitution and Founding as the basis of our laws Abraham Lincoln put it this way:
As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her laplet it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
We've lost that teaching, that instilling of public faith in our own country and our own cause. We've replaced, and indeed denigrated, that extremism, if you will. Now, what Lincoln had in mind is a good deal different from today's teachings of the feckless thing we've replaced history and government with: social studies. Perhaps W.B. Yeats had it right, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Is it too late to recapture the forces of composition over the forces of decomposition? We will know soon enough, when the next act of terrorism takes place. Will it be at the hands of a John Walker Lindh or Shehzad Tanweer we may be instructing here or in London? After all, these murderers take their instruction seriously. We may soon find out whether we will take seriously our great moral and intellectual inheritance and so determine whether we indeed have the willand abilityto not only call this a war but to win it as well. Or, in the long run, will we prove to be the authors of our own undoing? Again, Lincoln put it best: "If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
Let us avoid that suicide, we've done it beforewe can do it again.