American Meditations I
March 11, 2002
alf a year has passed since the morning of September 11. As recently as a month ago, flags seemed still to wave on the cars and trucks everywhere you looked on the southern California freeways that I drive each day. They have now largely vanished. Most of the flags still flying are weathered and frayed by the commuting winds of many weeks. The God Bless America decals and United We Stand bumper stickers are bleached with the sunshine of some hundred and eighty southern California afternoons. In less clement parts of the country they have endured their first winter.
The star spangled banners fray and disappear, and the reds, whites, and blues fade with the passing of days. That is as it must be. They remind us how difficult it will be to sustain the civic resolution that burst forth spontaneously six months ago in the shock and outrage of the nation. They remind us that the passion that was the proper and necessary immediate response to the attack of September 11 must be transformed into cold, hard determination. We are moving on to another stage of this bloody business. Nonetheless, as we set our flags aside—to free our hands, as it were, for the grim work ahead—it will be necessary, many times over and in countless ways and countless places in the coming months and years, to remind ourselves what these flying flags meant and what they mean.
As an immediate response to September 11, they meant, of course, heartfelt sympathy for and unity with those who were savagely murdered on that day and their families and loved ones. They meant honor for those brave rescue workers who risked and gave their lives in the heroic effort to save the lives of others. As the days and weeks passed, they meant support for those heroes placing their lives on the line far from home in the war that had been so shockingly thrust upon us. They meant death and defiance to those who had chosen to be our enemies in the world, wherever they may be found.
Interwoven with all these meanings and binding them together is the recognition by Americans that what was attacked on that day were not just any individuals but fellow countrymen, not just buildings but our country. It was America and what it stands for that were attacked and it is America and what it stands for that we are defending in this war whose end is far from sight. Those whose lives have been taken and those who daily offer their lives in this war remind us that Americans of every generation mutually pledge to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The flags remind us that this is no vagrant commitment, that there is some enduring thing in our country for the sake of which Americans make such a pledge, generation after generation, each to all and all to each.
To recall what this is, there is no better place to begin than with the most distinctively American words ever written:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…..
These justly famous words, encapsulating the political principles and purposes to which American lives, and fortunes, and honor are mutually pledged, are, of course, found in the American Declaration of Independence.
No other document sets forth with such historic importance and memorable eloquence the central ideas of the American experiment in free government. It is because of these ideas—as a young Abraham Lincoln instructed a group of high school students over a hundred and sixty years ago—that “[w]e find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.” Like Lincoln, our generation of Americans inherited these blessings of liberty. There is no greater earthly bequest we can have received. It is our greatest duty and our highest honor as Americans to pass on this inheritance unimpaired—indeed, strengthened and improved in every way possible, to our children. Make no mistake: It is this that those barbarous fanatics meant to attack on September 11, and it is for this that we fight.
American Meditations II
June 1, 2002
“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…”
I observed in my last (and first) meditation that since 1776, Americans of every generation have mutually pledged to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” that we do this to secure for ourselves and our posterity the “blessings of liberty,” and that to understand the source and the cause of these blessings there is no better place to begin than with that most distinctively American document, the Declaration of Independence.
I have since been reminded that there are some “Americans” (the quotation marks would be theirs, not mine) who—though they share abundantly in the blessings of American liberty—profess no allegiance to the country from which these blessings flow. Ward Connerly, a patriot who has given and sacrificed much in the battle to end racial preferences in America, writes in the most recent Claremont Review of Books about a member of the Chicago City Council who refused a couple of years ago to join in the Pledge of Allegiance because “African-Americans owed no allegiance” to America. Connerly tells another story about a black professor at the University of Maryland who urged her black American students not to identify themselves as “African-Americans” but to consider themselves strictly as “Africans,” because they were not Americans in any sense of the word. In connection with America’s current war, Connerly recounts the sentiments of presidential candidate and race professional Al Sharpton, who informed his constituents following the attacks of September 11 that “This is not our fight.”
These attitudes raise interesting and delicate questions. To take a delicate one first: How are we to regard these “Americans,” and what is the relation between them and those Americans who, in this war we are in, offer and give “the last full measure of devotion” in defense of our country and its cause?
The generous answer is “We should regard them with charity and forbearance, so long as we can, and appeal to the better angels of their nature in the meantime.” We must immediately recognize, of course, that in human history it is a rare luxury for a people to be able to spill blood and treasure on behalf of those among them who profess neutrality or even hostility to the cause being defended. Luxuries must be dispensed with when the wolf of necessity is at the door.
In the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people.” The American body-politic is a social compact in which each is pledged to the defense of all and all to the defense of each for the sake of the ends proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence and elaborated in the United States Constitution. Those who do not join in this compact place themselves by definition outside the American political community. It is humor of a self-mocking kind when we elect such “Americans” to city councils or appoint them in our public universities. The joke reaches cosmic proportions when they seek office as America’s commander-in-chief.
A less delicate but nonetheless interesting question is: Where do such attitudes and ideas come from? It happens that the examples Mr. Connerly cites are all black “Americans.” But Mr. Connerly himself is a black American, and he does not share these ideas; and of course there are “Americans” of various colors and descriptions who do. Everybody knows, or should know, that such ideas do not come in some magical way from the skin color or the ancestry of those who profess them—any more than they might arise from “gender” or “sexual orientation,” though they are typically presented under such auspices. They come, in fact, from the orthodox doctrines of the liberalism that has dominated the American Academy and consequently the American media, American culture, and the Democratic Party since the 1960s. This is the liberalism that worships at the altar of “multiculturalism” and has for forty years waged ideological war against America as the most powerful representative of a supposedly racist, sexist, oppressive Western Civilization.
The American cause does indeed arise from three thousand years of Western Civilization, though it is essentially timeless and universal in character. It is, in Lincoln’s phrases, a “philosophical cause,” based on abstract principles applicable to all men of all times—notably the ideas of human equality, human rights, and human freedom, so memorably proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. It has seldom been more clear than it has been since September 11 that this American cause is the cause of Civilization itself.
American Meditations III
August 1, 2002
I referred in my last Meditation to the liberalism that has dominated American culture and politics since the 1960s and to the “multiculturalism” that is at the heart of that liberalism. What is this multiculturalism; how is it related to our liberalism and to the war in which we now find ourselves?
Multiculturalism is a doctrine, produced exclusively by Western culture, whose most recognizable teaching is the equality of all cultures: the “values” of each culture are of equal validity to the values of any other culture. There is no independent standard by which one can judge between cultures or values.
One intended civic or political effect of this doctrine is to teach American students and citizens to transcend the supposedly narrow prejudice that marches under the dangerous name of “patriotism.” Multicultural Americans try to transcend American patriotism and its dangers by—among other things—subjecting it to the “multi”-national control of international bodies like the United Nations or the new International Court of Justice at the Hague.
American patriotism is understood by multicultural Americans to be an expression of national “chauvinism” or “jingoism.” The multicultural American, if he is generously inclined, will regard American patriotism with condescending irony, the distinctive civic disposition of the intellectual. After all, he will know in his soul, in the popularly resurrected phrase, that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” The millions of parents, and siblings, and spouses, and children, and friends of the hundreds of thousands of Americans now in uniform will naturally hold some reservations about this view. And some American liberals, who had felt quite comfortable, even superior, with their easy-going multiculturalism, became understandably uneasy when the “freedom fighters” started blowing up their friends and relatives and their cities.
Tenured multiculturalists (who tend to be the most hard-core) are, generally speaking, not bothered in the least with this problem. Media multiculturalists (less fully indoctrinated on the whole) have a few more twinges of conscience and, in any case, must think of their ratings. But, among our multiculturalists, the elected liberal politicians find it most difficult to sneer publicly at American patriotism, however much they may wish to subject it to “multi”-national control. Most elected liberal politicians attempt to solve this problem by finding a place in their multicultural frame of mind for something they can sincerely call patriotism, however ersatz. What unites and dignifies America, they will say, is our diversity. America is special and can be defended because America respects all cultures and all values! “Stand up and fight for everything you can think of!”
Nonetheless, even the elected liberals’ response to September 11 revealed their multicultural soul. The old-fashioned, unsophisticated, just, common-sensical, and American response—when someone slaughters thousands of one’s innocent fellow citizens—is to hunt the murderers down and kill them. The immediate, deeply instinctive response of America’s liberal intellectuals and media was to wring their hands in distress about possible American “Islamophobia.” As the weeks passed, this multicultural attitude manifested itself clearly among elected and appointed liberal officials (Democrat and Republican) in the now familiar policy: In looking for terrorists (or freedom fighters!) we must be careful not to look for young Arab-looking men with Middle East passports who have publicly expressed their wish to kill Americans.
But this is far from the end of the multicultural problem for today’s American liberal, and therefore for America, because multiculturalism cannot help going much further. It not only asks Americans to tolerate other cultures; it does not stop even at “respect” for other cultures. It insists that we “affirm” other cultures and values, indeed, that we “celebrate” them. This is why we are all required in American schools, and businesses, and government offices these days to “celebrate diversity.” “Three cheers for everything you can think of!”
Well, not quite everything. The honest multiculturalist not only admits but insists that the full-throated celebration of “other” cultures and values is made possible and necessary only by the wholehearted rejection and indeed condemnation of what is not “other.” And here in America, the leading power of the West, that means, of course, America and Western Civilization. The core passion of multiculturalism, from which all its teachings and prescriptions flow, was well-expressed some years ago at Stanford University in the chant led by Jesse Jackson, among others: “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Western Civ has got to go!”
American Meditations IV
October 1, 2002
Aristotle thought of the human “intellect” as that faculty of mind that directly apprehends or grasps the indemonstrable first principles of all thought or action. At the root of all theoretical or practical reasoning, in Aristotle’s view, is an irreducibly simple or direct perception by the mind’s eye of the necessary beginning point for further reasoning or judgment.
Although irreducible simplicity may be at the very heart of intellectual activity, everybody knows that there is nothing simple about those today who style themselves “intellectuals.” Complexity—indeed, paradox, which is a kind of irreducible complexity—is the mother’s milk of the intellectual.
I am led to this reflection by the comments of a respected intellectual—Louis Menand—in the September 16 New Yorker, a magazine that is famous for luxuriating in complexity and banning simplicity in any form from its very pretty pages. It puzzles Mr. Menand, and almost pains him, that his simple-minded fellow citizens have spent so much time and effort since September 11, 2001, talking and thinking about what it means to be an American. He is at a loss to explain how such simpletons as Bill Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza, for example (whose recent books support the American cause and celebrate American principles), can fail to see as he does that “the whole meaning of American life is that there is no such thing as ‘the meaning of American life.'”
When American intellectuals want to display the complexity of the world with august authority to their simple-minded countrymen, they often cite European intellectuals, who have a kind of birthright to thought that is so complex as to seem merely confused to ordinary working Americans. Following this custom, Mr. Menand quotes British historian John Gray to clarify and give weight to his own complex insight: “For every attitude that is supposed to be distinctively American,” writes the Briton Mr. Gray, “one can find an opposite stance that is no less so.”
Mr. Menand finds in these remarks a truth so “remarkably obvious” as to make it a mystery how anyone could be so simple as not to see it. How benighted must the rest of Americans be that they cannot see the “remarkably obvious” truth that for every allegedly American attitude there is an opposite attitude that is just as “distinctively American.”
A few simple recollections may be forgiven here.
In 1776, many Americans continued to have the “attitude” of monarchists and wished to continue under the British crown. The Americans who created America in the American Revolution, on the other hand, had a different attitude. They shared the attitude of Thomas Jefferson, “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” And so America became well America.
A few generations later—call it about four score and seven years—a large segment of American opinion had been taught to reject the attitude of Jefferson and the revolutionaries of 1776. The vice president of the southern Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, memorably expressed the new attitude: “The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
Other Americans joined Abraham Lincoln in defending the attitude of Jefferson and the American Revolution, that America is a country “dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.'” And a war came. To get elected president, Lincoln had to expose the bankruptcy of yet another attitude—the attitude of Senator Stephen Douglas, which tried to split the difference between these other attitudes. Douglas proposed that American democracy really stood for the attitude that it makes no difference whether slavery is voted up or down. This was an early version of the Louis Menand attitude. It is the attitude that Americans have an innumerable variety of attitudes and that they are all equally American. This is an attitude that is as bankrupt now as it was when Lincoln exposed its bankruptcy a hundred and fifty years ago.