Posted: September 9, 2002
[S]ince 1947 America has been the chief and pioneering perpetrator of 'preemptive' state terror. . . .
For several decades there has been an unrelenting demonization of the Muslim world in the American media. . . .Once we meditate upon the unremitting violence of the United States against the rest of the world . . . one begins to understand why Osama struck at [America] . . . in the name of 1 billion Muslims. . . .
elcome to the world of Gore Vidal. Looking down from his villa, La Rondinaia, nestled in 12 lovely acres perched high above Italy's Amalfi coast, Vidal thinks that he sees things unnoticed by lesser mortals—especially those very lesser mortals who have been proudly and defiantly flying the American flag this past year.
In il mondo Vidal, "most of today's actual terrorists can be found within [American] governments, federal, state, municipal" (a note for innocents: Vidal does not mean terrorists working against our governments). The unremitting terror that America inflicts upon the outer world is amply mirrored by the terror inflicted by the American "police state" upon its own citizens. America's terrorist police state is in the grips of a "Pentagon junta," goaded on by the "neofascist" Wall Street Journal and promoted by the "provincial war lovers" at The New York Times, whose "mindset" is essentially indistinguishable from the neofascists down the street. And the afflicted citizenry? Sheep. And not just your garden variety, easily bewildered, too easily led but lovable lambs. No, these are sheep worth loathing.
Vidal concedes that Americans today are endangered by an "absolutist religious order," but the danger emanates from the U.S. Justice Department and the Supreme Court, where a Christian conspiracy is afoot that traces its roots back to real fascists. The immediate occasion for Vidal's book is the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States for which Osama bin Laden takes credit, but the book consists mainly of old Vidal essays from Vanity Fair and The Nation on other subjects. Most of its pages are devoted to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. "With both bin Laden and McVeigh," writes Vidal, "I thought it useful to describe the various provocations on our side that drove them to such terrible acts" and make them "understandable."
Conspiracy theorists to this day continue to speculate (with Vidal) that McVeigh was connected with international Islamist terror networks—but that is tame stuff. Vidal wants his readers seriously to consider the possibility that the Oklahoma City bombing was a conspiracy by agents of the federal government analogous to the Nazis' burning the Reichstag in 1933—to justify further strengthening of the American terror-police state. And September 11? Well, it never hurts to keep an open mind.
Gore Vidal has always liked to be a naughty boy, but it is hard for him to keep it up at 77. His perverse passions are beyond the wane. He comes across as an aging scold, desperately applying the rouge. To give him his due, he can still pretend to be aroused by a remarkable variety of objects. To get a sense of his range, imagine him sporting with ironic pride a World War II uniform and wandering around his medieval town of Ravello, crying from the heart: "Remember Ruby Ridge and Waco—and stop persecuting the pedophiles!" But although his book manages to be eccentric, intemperate, and paranoid, it is primarily lazy.
He markets his book as a work of intellectual and political daring, too explosively heterodox for even the most left-wing American publication. In truth, although its eccentricities can be inadvertently amusing, the book is the bearer of tired old news. Its central message has been rehearsed and rehashed by and for the intellectual, cultural, and academic establishments of the Western world for decades. The message is—hold on to your hats—that in this troubled and complex world the essential thing to understand is that Americans are not "the good guys."
Vidal is about as shocking as Julia Child. As he himself boasts, his odd little collection of recycled essays was "an instant best-seller" when first published in Italian and was quickly "translated in a dozen other languages." The American edition has been for weeks on the (neofascist!) New York Times best-seller list. In his brief American tour to promote the book Vidal was greeted with gleeful applause by (sheepish?) audiences of college students and other well-fed fans who knew as well as Vidal and his publishers that anti-Americanism is as American as apple pie, and sells like hotcakes.
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Still, the old news does take on a fresh significance in the world made new by the events of September 11. And it is in opposition to both the old and the new anti-Americanism that William Bennett writes his book. Bennett writes at the end of 2001, not about the military battle but about the "battle of public opinion" that accompanies it, that can decisively affect it, and that promises to continue for a long time to come. Bennett is, of course, engaged in this battle. He writes to defend and sustain what he regards as the encouraging response of America to the attacks of September 11—the unity, patriotism, and, in particular, the right-eous anger, that are necessary conditions for a successful prosecution of the war. This patriotic response needs to be defended because of the barrage of arguments that descended upon it immediately from what he calls America's "peace party": America brought the attacks upon itself; the President's rhetoric of "good" and "evil" is more dangerous than the terrorist threat; this is a "mad rush to war"; we must above all beware of "Islamophobia" and overreaction; conflict and confrontation never solve anything; we must seek a multilateral solution, etc. But the arguments of the "peace party" are merely the latest expression of a deep-rooted intellectual and civic disposition, which Bennett (borrowing the term) calls the "debellicization" of America. His book is intended, so to speak, to rebellicize America. He wants to help restore the political conviction in the American mind that seemed to have been lost but came forcefully to life on September 11—namely, that "some things are worth fighting and dying for," and that America and Western Civilization are certainly among them.
Bennett's strategic intellectual concern must therefore be the "adversary culture"—the moral relativists, postmodernists, multiculturalists, and assorted Leftists entrenched in American educational and cultural institutions—who have successfully taught a generation of Americans that on the one hand nothing is right or wrong and on the other America and Western Civilization are great evils.
Bennett is determined, but he is not optimistic. So deeply rooted are the Left's disabling ideas that it will be a "work of generations" to uproot them and replace them with healthier growths. A "deep revolution in consciousness," a "vast relearning," must take place before America can fully regain the "moral clarity" that is needed. While our armed forces are doing their work—and long after they are done—our politicians and public officials, clergymen, mothers and fathers, and above all "educators, at every level," must undertake this larger work. They must restore to public authority the reasoned ground for distinguishing right from wrong and for defending America and the civilization it represents.
If there is any cause for optimism in this endeavor, it lies in something like the following reflections. Reason—and even, surprisingly, history—is on the side of "the good guys." The case that there is a rational ground for distinguishing good from evil, for example, is just intrinsically stronger than the alternatives that have been fashionable for so many years. And the intellectual exhaustion of these nihilist alternatives produces, with each new terrorist attack, a stronger odor of overripe fruit. The strained attempts by Stanley Fish in recent months to demonstrate the moral seriousness of postmodernism are a case in point: "Stand up and fight for …whatever!"
Great ratiocination, to be sure, is still required—will always be required—on behalf of common sense and common decency. But the efforts are interesting, and each small victory adds relish to the work. And as reason regains the ground that has been ceded for so long to the various lunacies of the Left (and Right), a more fair and balanced—a more reasonable—view of history cannot help but follow.
In this reasoned view, Western Civilization has nothing to fear from comparisons. Quite the contrary, the rediscovery of its glories (and the increasingly vivid contrasts with the alternatives) has every chance of inspiring a global renaissance. As for America, its detractors and debunkers have made their case for many, many years. The title of Gore Vidal's book, for example, is taken from that pioneering debunker, progressive historian Charles Beard, whose work was exciting 80 years ago, around the time Mr. Vidal was born. The lasting influence of Beard's work does indeed demonstrate that bad (and fully refuted) ideas can last a long time and do a lot of damage. And certainly there are able successors to Beard who continue quite energetically to spread false rumors about America. But as for the future, when the old panjandrums of political correctness have assumed eternal emeritus standing, will American students continue to be taught ad nauseam that America is evil to the core? There is a good fighting chance that they will not. If truth is intrinsically stronger than slander—and it is—there is reason to hope that things will change, so long as the champions of truth stick to their guns.
In the (optimist's) future, the ravings of Gore Vidal and the anti-American diatribes of his high-salaried comrades in the "adversary culture" will be gathering dust in the museum of twentieth century intellectual malice. A fair and informed history will teach a coming generation of students, in Bennett's words, that whatever may be America's many faults,
we have provided more freedom to more people than any nation in the history of mankind; that we have provided a greater degree of equality to more people than any nation in the history of mankind; that we have created more prosperity, and spread it more widely, than any nation in the history of mankind; that we have brought more justice to more people than any nation in the history of mankind; that our open, tolerant, prosperous, peaceable society is the marvel and envy of the ages.
* * *
If our "vast relearning" is ultimately to succeed, Bennett argues that it must especially recover "the American idea," the American "vision." But what is that vision? Dinesh D'Souza has some ideas about this, and they are, as usual, engaging and provocative.
If you have a ring in your nose, a tongue stud, loads of tattoos, spiked hair, an overblown estimation of your own authenticity, no particular interest in America, and absolutely no ability to aid in her defense, D'Souza wants to talk with you. Bill Bennett writes deliberately in anger; D'Souza writes in love. As Pericles appealed to ancient Athenians to fall in love with Athens, D'Souza would show contemporary Americans, and especially America's pierced and tattooed youth, the good in America that should make them love their country. It is urgently necessary to articulate this good in the immediate circumstances, not only because American and Western intellectuals have done so much to obscure it, but because our Islamist enemies are themselves animated by "an intelligent and even profound assault on the very basis of America and the West."
D'Souza, like Bennett, writes to defend American patriotism. He defends it not only against American detractors, but against European, Asian, and in particular Islamic critics of America and the West. An adequate defense, he rightly argues, requires "an examination of first principles." A "genuine patriot loves his country not only because it is his, but . . . because it is good." But D'Souza differs explicitly with Bennett and other "cultural conservatives" because they identify America's goodness with outdated ideas like the principles of the American Founders. They do not take sufficiently into account the "moral revolution" that took place in America in the 1960s and 70s, as a consequence of which "America became a different country." As a result of this revolution, "a new morality is now entrenched and pervasive" in America, and it is not only imprudent but wrong not to try to accommodate it.
* * *
At the root of this new morality is a new vision of "freedom." The founders understood human freedom to be intelligible only within a moral order that exists and can be understood independently of individual passions and interests and that must be nurtured within an authoritative tradition. The new freedom, inherited mainly from Rousseau, is the freedom of the individual to "determine what is good" unencumbered by any external "moral order" or principles or traditions. It is an "inner freedom," an "authenticity" that can be found only through the genuine expression of the "self." This "ethic of authenticity" has even been endorsed, and perfectly encapsulated, by the Supreme Court, "when it declared [in 1992] that all Americans have a 'right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.'" This is now the idea that "America stands for"; this is the vision to which we owe "moral allegiance."
To personify the new American, D'Souza conjures from his experience "the Starbucks guy"—with "the Mohawk hair, the earrings, the nose ring, the studs on his forehead and tongue, the tattoos." The Starbucks guy would dismiss people like Bennett or Robert Bork as "fascists," "enemies of freedom," "un-American," "self-righteous mullah[s]," trying to take away his "inalienable right to determine his own destiny, to make his own choices." And D'Souza thinks the Starbucks guy is largely right. First, because in a democratic society it is impossible to "enforce norms based on a moral order that is no longer shared by the community." The new freedom has become "America's core value." It is fruitless and even un-American to oppose this new American vision. But, in addition, Rousseau's idea of freedom is at least partly true. Conservatives should "embrace it," if somewhat gingerly. They should "acknowledge the legitimacy of the ideal of authenticity." They could then engage the Starbucks guy in conversation, leading him from his mantra "I can choose for myself" to the question "What are you going to choose?" and from his insistence on "the autonomy of choice" to "some substantive understanding of the good life."
"[T]he question of the content of the good life," says D'Souza, is the central question both for Western Civilization and for the American founders. The new morality of the 1960s and 1970s abandoned that question. Celebrating their "radical freedom," the new Americans ceased to ask "what that freedom is for." It is the conservatives' challenge to resurrect that question. "Their mission . . . is to steer the American ethic of authenticity to its highest manifestation and to ennoble freedom by showing it the path to virtue."
D'Souza's rhetorical (and logical) problem is that he has presented the "path to virtue" as the path to a dead past, the path to nowhere. Having buried the old America (alongside Western Civilization), he wants to invite the Starbucks guy to join it and, even more difficult, he then wants to summon the corpse to the defense of the new America and the Starbucks guy for which it stands. Praising the heroes of September 11 and the armed forces on which American liberties and civilization itself depend, D'Souza sensibly writes: "Authenticity, thank God, is not the operating principle of the U.S. military. America's enemies should not expect to do battle against the Starbucks guy." Suddenly the America that had died a few pages earlier is revived and sent into battle. It becomes the "older, sturdier culture of courage, nobility, and sacrifice . . . that will protect the liberties of all Americans, including that of the Starbucks guy."
D'Souza is right to want to make America, and virtue, and conservatives more appealing to American youth (though the Starbucks guy is not very promising material). But he underestimates what the principles of the American founders have to contribute to this. The founders' idea of freedom is more robust than he realizes. As for Rousseau, D'Souza underestimates his potency as well. Rousseau's teaching of unfettered freedom contributes mightily to doctrines of unfettered will. The "noble savage" does not have to travel far to meet the "blond beast." The "ethic of authenticity" is not the ground on which to build if we are to ennoble American freedom.
* * *
Roger Rosenblatt joins Bennett and D'Souza in defending the American "way of life." He, too, has written a book about "love of country." But Rosenblatt accurately presents himself as "the conventional liberal." On the one hand, he departs decisively from the anti-American Left in having affectionate respect for ordinary Americans, in wanting "to make a case for preserving the core values of the country," and in his belief that "the country has... done more to benefit the rest of the world than any in history." On the other hand, he despises "purveyors of simple-minded virtue, like William Bennett." It is, therefore, no simple-minded book that he writes.
Rosenblatt has barely finished professing his "love of country" before his liberal conscience compels him to assure the reader that this is no "unalloyed love." It is "complicated." He will, indeed, try to make a case for preserving America's "core values," but at the same time he will be arguing on behalf of "all the oddities and nonsense that make us us." Alas, the core is immediately and hopelessly lost in the complications. The book—and America—fragments into oddities, and especially into nonsense. The 30 "love songs" deliberately meander from one jejune paradox or self-celebratory self-contradiction to the next. What Rosenblatt proudly thinks he finds at America's core is a "clear inner confession of mixed feelings." But this is really a work more of introspection than of observation. What he has discovered is the confusion of his own conventional liberal soul.
Although his age would seem to make this impossible, Rosenblatt writes as if he were a graduate of the self-esteem curriculum that has prevailed in America in recent years. He is "sure that [his] book contains some lulus of errors and porous arguments," but so what! He writes it anyway, because "I felt like writing it, felt like saying anything I chose to say, and knew that I had the freedom to say it." Give him at least a gold star for honesty—he is right about the lulus and the pores. To mention a few: When trying to talk reverently about the founders, he mistakes Hamilton for Madison; he discovers that "the Constitution . . . states that government has no right to prevent free expression"; and he has the odd recollection that "Clinton was not impeached."
As if to complete the liberal stereotype, Rosenblatt gives us a weepy book, in which the author goes misty on us and wants us to share his weepiness, and in which America is lovable in part because it is inclined to be weepy, too. But he is not done.
Rosenblatt is celebrated on his dust jacket as a writer and a teacher of writing at Harvard University. But his explanation of the title of his book shows that he is no prose model for undergraduates and, as a bonus, offers a memorable image of the hapless divagations of American liberalism:
These are the pillars of the Republic: to protect the weaker, to rescue the endangered, to dignify every individual, but centrally, to continue the search for a more noble expression of existence. However we have blundered in the history of this search, it is where we stand [italics added].
Leave aside that these pillars do not seem exactly to be cut from Washingtonian marble. Are they not moving around a bit too much for good pillar work? Especially that central pillar that seems to be on an endless search? And it is on this endlessly searching pillar that "we stand" as Americans. Here the muse of liberalism took hold of Roger Rosenblatt's quill pen and, unbeknownst to him, revealed for all to see the conventional liberal's plight. The ground keeps shifting beneath him. His pillars keep moving. And as a consequence, though he does genuinely want to love his country, he cannot come up with a cogent reason for doing so.
All of which tells us that, in an America that is asking serious questions with an urgency not felt in years, conventional liberalism has nothing serious to say. The battle of public opinion is between the anti-American Left that commands the strategic cultural heights of the Ivory Tower and the Hollywood Hills and the pro-American Right that occupies the American plains. The conventional liberal wants to be pro-American, but he takes his bearings from the Tower and the Hills. And so he wanders weepily on his weary pillars, back and forth across the land. What are the prospects in the battle? If you are a betting American and any kind of an optimist, put your money on the good guys, and hope they can work out that vision thing.