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Winter 2001
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America the Beautiful
Norman Podhoretz
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According to one of the few truly great American poets of the past century, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." But Robert Frost could well have applied the same image to America itself. America is so special a country that a whole theory was invented to account for its many differences from other nations: the theory of "American exceptionalism." And this very exceptionalism, I think, is what renders Frost's image relevant to the attitude so many people have taken toward the United States. No doubt about it: Something there is that doesn't love America.

In fact, even in this very hostility to the country, we have an instance of American exceptionalism. Consider: Englishmen have never been lacking who dislike, or even hate, Germany or France or any and all foreigners: "The wogs begin at Calais," as the old saying has it. Indians hate Pakistanis; Turks hate Greeks; Arabs hate Israelis—and so on through the long and miserable catalog of interstate animosities and bigotries.

Yet easy as it is to find people who hate other countries, it is hard to find Englishmen or Indians or Arabs who hate their own countries. My favorite illustration is the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist political radical though he was, Russell could nevertheless say that love of England was "very nearly the strongest emotion I possess." Therefore, whenever he objected to anything England had done, Russell never condemned the country as a whole, but only the particular policy in question or the government then in power. This was the case even when, as a vehement opponent of the First World War, he campaigned against conscription and landed himself in jail. Sitting there, this radical pacifist later wrote, "I was . . . tortured by patriotism. The successes of the Germans at the Marne were horrible to me. I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel."

But if Russell was in love with his own country, he grew to hate America with an obversely equivalent passion. In this, he was no different from other famous European intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, who joined him in staging a show trial convicting America for committing war crimes in Vietnam (crimes, incidentally, that were never committed—but that is another story for another day).

Nothing unusual here. But what was unusual about this trial, and other phenomena like it, is that Americans were among the prosecutors posing as judges. These Americans were by no means alone in their wholesale condemnation of America, whose name they and others like them began to spell with a "k" to suggest that it was no different from Nazi Germany. And if we were no different from Nazi Germany, we were certainly no better—and probably worse—than the communists, whether in Hanoi or Havana, in Moscow or Beijing. This idea became famous as the doctrine of "moral equivalence."

Not all the people who compared us invidiously with the Soviet Union or other communist countries were communists. Far from it. Many were just plain old vanilla liberals. Nor was this kind of anti-Americanism a passing phase peculiar to the 1960s or a spillover of the rage against our presence in Vietnam. On the contrary: although Vietnam certainly acted like gasoline poured on a smoldering campfire, the native anti-Americanism that fueled the resulting ideological forest fire had a long history and deep roots in our culture.

In the particular and highly virulent outbreak of anti-Americanism in the sixties, the main carriers of course, were the radical left and its sympathizers within the broader liberal community. As for its intellectual source, that could be traced to an indiscriminately ecumenical combination of socialist, anarchist, and progressivist thought.

And yet a long history of anti-Americanism also exists on the American right. It goes back to the decades immediately after the Civil War that have become known as the Gilded Age, and it is still alive in certain quarters today. So here, too, we have another sign of American "exceptionalism." For everywhere else on the earth, it is taken for granted that conservatives will be nationalistic, even to a fault. Everywhere else on the earth, duty, honor, country, and the qualities that make for military excellence are associated with the right, which often venerates the flag flying over the nation almost to the point of idolatry.

What makes the phenomenon of anti-Americanism, whether foreign or native, so curious and puzzling is that it is directed against a civilization with a very strong claim to be listed among the greatest known to recorded human history. I believe—with all my heart as well as with all my mind—that the United States of America is comparable in stature to fifth-century Athens, to Renaissance Italy, to Elizabethan England.

All these civilizations were imperfect, and, from some points of view, worse than imperfect. After all, fifth-century Athens countenanced slavery. And as for the social and political conditions in Italy during the Renaissance and in England during the Elizabethan age, they make the condition of the poor in America against which so much moral rage is directed seem comparable to the privileges and luxuries of the rich of those earlier times.

To be sure, just about everyone admits that these old civilizations are high points of human history and therefore deserve forgiveness for their sins. By contrast, hardly anyone—especially among intellectuals and academics—accords the same exculpatory status to the United States. Why? What accounts for this refusal both on the left and (admittedly to a much lesser extent) on the right to acknowledge what I think ought to be an obvious truth, a platitude?

The answer begins with the difference between the grounds for placing the United States on the list of the greatest civilizations and the reasons that have earned the others their place on that list. All the others are there mainly because of the great works of art and intellect they produced, from Sophocles and Plato to Michelangelo and Leonardo to Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

The United States has produced no works of art or philosophy on that level of sublimity—no "monuments of unaging intellect," as Yeats called them.

The Founding Fathers of this country—who, as practical political geniuses surely rank with the greatest of all political philosophers—were not thinking of how to design a country that would be especially conducive to the creation of "monuments of unaging intellect." They stated their intention forthrightly, early in the Declaration of Independence: "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."

There it is, spelled out for all to see—except for one detail. In Thomas Jefferson's original draft, the phrase was "the pursuit of property," which made perfect sense to a student of John Locke, who had taught that the foundation of personal liberty was private property. But Congress edited out the word "property" and substituted the much vaguer term "happiness." No matter. It was universally understood that the new country placed a very high value on material things and material advancement.

Worse yet—or, in my judgment, better yet—Jefferson and his colleagues made no invidious distinctions between these material things and the things of the spirit. There was a direct line connecting the pursuit of material happiness (or property) in this earthly life with the spiritual state of liberty (not to mention the moral disciplines of religion). Furthermore, each of the three components, or "blessings," as the Declaration later describes them, depended on the other two. But even worse—or, yet again in my judgment, better—these blessings were to be made available to "all men."

Yes, yes, I know: "all men" did not mean all men. Slaves were excluded, and so—in a far less drastic sense—were women. But the principle was established, and in due course the principle prevailed and successfully demanded to be realized in action, as the Founding Fathers understood very well that it would.

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," said Jefferson, a slaveholder, in speaking of slavery. But while he knew enough to tremble, I doubt that even Jefferson could have anticipated that it would take the bloodiest of any war Americans would ever fight to rectify this monstrous injustice. Like the other Founding Fathers, however, he was also wise enough to recognize that any attempt to abolish slavery at that time would have made it impossible to form the new nation. I hope it will not seem offensive if I say that giving way to this noxious necessity was yet another mark of the great practical political genius of the Founders.

From the very first, hostility was attracted both from home and abroad by the new nation to which the Declaration of Independence and the travails of the Revolutionary War gave birth. But once the Constitution had been written and ratified, the formerly loyal colonial subjects of King George lost their tongues, and there was no longer any hostility of any importance from within. That came later, when yet another new nation, genetically related to the first but bearing radically new features of its own, was born out of the travails of the Civil War.

At this point, I cannot resist quoting a passage from Henry Adams I have often quoted before, because it so marvelously captures both the nature of foreign hostility and the early American response to it.

Describing the general European attitude toward the America of 1800, Adams wrote: "No foreigner of that day—neither poet, painter, nor philosopher—could detect in American life anything higher than vulgarity." Adams was especially irked by the fact that even Wordsworth, the leading English poet of the day, "could do no better, when he stood in the face of American democracy, than 'keep the secret of a poignant scorn.'"

Yet, Adams went on, "Wordsworth might have convinced himself by a moment's thought that no country could act on the imagination as America acted upon the instincts of the ignorant and poor, without some quality that deserved better treatment than poignant scorn." And what was this quality to which Wordsworth had blinded himself, but that, Adams said, "the poorest peasant in Europe" could discern? Here is how Adams, in his baroque prose style, described the quality in question: "The hard, practical money-getting American democrat, . . . who inhabited cold shades where fancy sickened and where genius died, was in truth living in a world of dream, and acting a drama more instinct with poetry than all the avatars of the east, walking in gardens of emeralds and rubies, in ambition already ruling the world and guiding Nature with a kinder and wiser hand than had ever yet been felt in human history." To these poor peasants, Adams declared, the Americans of 1800 beckoned, inviting them to "Come and share our limitless riches! Come and help us bring to light these unimaginable stores of wealth and power!"

Yet this same Henry Adams—the direct descendant of two American presidents, and a conservative if ever there was one—turned with savage ferocity against the same invitation when it was extended to a later generation of the same poor peasants by the Americans of the 1870s and the 1880s. As he saw it, now adopting the scorn he had once scorned in Wordsworth, the country had been ruined by an alliance of bankers like J. P. Morgan, industrialists like Jay Gould, and the urban political machines that collectively acquired the name of the one in New York, Tammany. In his eyes and in those of many other American patricians, Tammany existed only to cater to the immigrant hordes being imported as cheap labor by what Adams's counterparts on the left scornfully called "the robber barons."

As to these putative "robber barons," the marvelous British historian Paul Johnson recently posed a powerful question. "This collection of entrepreneurial individualists," wrote Johnson, "transformed a predominantly agricultural society into an industrial and financial superstate," bringing to the American people "an affluence never dreamed of before. So whom did the barons rob?"

Johnson's incisive question can be matched with many similar ones. For anti-Americanism has not merely fed on politically tendentious, bigoted, and often ignorant assessments of our economic history; it has also drawn nourishment from the idea that the prelapsarian Henry Adams so gorgeously refuted: the idea that Americans cared about nothing but money, or as a once famous literary critic put it, the country had no purpose "beyond the aggregation of force in the form of wealth." In the so-called Gilded Age that followed the Civil War, Adams, having forgotten the defense he had written against that very charge, turned into an American version of Thersites, the character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida who does nothing but snarl and rail and curse at the leaders of his fellow Greeks in the Trojan War. Adams similarly now joined in the raucous chorus hurling imprecations against the vulgarity, the philistinism, and the puritanism of what on the anti-American left would soon be described as "bourgeois" society, and what on the anti-American right, both here and in Europe, was and still is known as middle-class values.

Well, what about this particular congeries of curses? To begin with the arts, as I have already indicated, there is no point in denying that America has rarely reached the level of the greatest periods of European culture. Yet I would maintain—though it, too, is another story for another day—that we have done far better in that department than I was taught to believe when I was a student half a century ago. Indeed, we have even done better than we might have been expected to do in a system deliberately designed to achieve other objectives.

As for the charge of philistinism, I can only say that this indictment never took the slightest account of the poignantly humble American veneration for the arts and scholarship that manifested itself even in the Gilded Age. How else do we explain the proliferation of universities, research institutes, libraries, museums, and art galleries that the "robber barons" themselves endowed—even though America had, as Henry James complained, "no Epsom, no Ascot"? And remember, they did it all without the incentive of tax relief, since no taxes to speak of existed in that far-off age that was in this respect more golden than gilded.

Finally, as to puritanism, some of us think that, whatever might have been the case in the past, we could use a little more of it today. But that is yet a third story for another time.

Thus far, I have been trying to show that the hostility toward this country has based itself on two main ideas. On the left, both at home and abroad, the primary charge is that the American economic system is unjust. On the right, also both at home and abroad, the primary charge is that American culture is degraded. And at times, the two sides merge, each fusing the other's major preoccupation to its own.

Some of the critics who hurl these charges are driven by false ideologies or utopian greed; others are consumed by envy; and still others are sickened by the feeling that they have been robbed by the vulgar hordes of the positions of leadership to which their self-evident superiority entitles them. But the greater and higher truth than any they have propounded about the United States is that the American economic system and the American culture in which it is rooted have created a society in which there is more liberty and more prosperity than human beings have ever enjoyed in any other place or any other time. I am here to maintain that these blessings are more widely shared than even the most visionary utopians ever imagined possible. And I am here to submit that this is an immense achievement, and that it is what entitles the United States of America to an honored place on the roster of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.

Today, our first imperative, in my view, should be to re-educate ourselves about the nature of this country. Without recognizing that we live in a society in which more liberty and more prosperity are more widely shared than by any other society in human history, we will be unable to relearn what so many of us have forgotten, or perhaps never even knew: the nature of the principles that shaped the establishment of the United States, and why and how those principles, embodied in institutions and put into action, have produced the magnificent result they have.

Conversely, we need to recognize when, how, and why we have lost faith in those principles and institutions, and therefore departed from them. We need to understand what has driven us to go whoring after strange political gods and to forsake a legacy of traditions on which the American achievement rested. I will restrict myself to two examples, one domestic and one involving foreign affairs.

The domestic example is the policy of preferential treatment for minority groups. Even many opponents of this policy often fail to realize that it violates the single most revolutionary idea of the American Revolution and the one that more than any other enabled it to achieve its objectives to an extent that neither the French nor Russian revolutions ever could. The idea to which I refer is that individuals are to be treated as individuals, in accordance with their own merits, without regard—in the old formula so many of us were reared on—to race, creed, color, or country of national origin.

This idea had worked brilliantly in Americanizing millions of immigrants in the past and in keeping the peace among them when other ethnically and religiously heterogeneous societies were more often than not tearing themselves apart and drowning in blood. Yet because it seemed not to be working for the blacks—though Thomas Sowell, among others, has argued persuasively that it was beginning to take hold—it has been abandoned in favor of treating individuals as members of a group. In other words, we have discarded an American tradition that has resulted mainly in wonders and imported an alien practice that has resulted mainly in murder.

Here we have a striking case of the damage that is done by departing from our tested traditional way of conducting our affairs. And the irony is that many of us do not even perceive that the new policy is a departure at all.

This same species of ignorance—or, to use a more charitable term, this same bout of amnesia—was responsible for the widespread failure to understand (and therefore to articulate precisely) what we were defending in the cold war, and why it was worth defending. I believe that failure is still in evidence among us. Many deride the slogan associated with Woodrow Wilson: that our job is to make the world safe for democracy. But I for one see nothing wrong with it as a brief summation of our proper role in world affairs.

True, there was a time when, protected by oceans at either end of the continent, and sheltering under the guns of the British navy, we could safely avoid the foreign entanglements against which George Washington warned. Yet I daresay even Washington, if he were living today, would acknowledge that the speed of communications on the one hand and of missiles on the other make foreign entanglements and involvement in wars fought in distant places unavoidable.

Nevertheless, the voices calling for protectionism are still loud among us. The voices either opposing missile defense, or paying only politically expedient lip service to it, are still loud among us. The voices denying that American military power has declined dangerously, thereby inviting aggression, are still loud among us. And the voices are still loud among us denouncing the idea that American power and influence be used to help create a world in which the political and economic blessings we enjoy are more and more widely spread beyond our own borders.

Of course, this must be done prudently, and, of course, it cannot be done at all where certain prior conditions do not yet exist. But to help create a world safe for democracy is to follow a policy that seamlessly fuses our bedrock principles with our self-interest.

Our Founding Fathers declared that they were creating a system that would not only enshrine the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but that would also "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." It is we who are their posterity, and therefore it is now our sacred duty to secure those same rights and those same blessings to our own posterity. But I say again that before we can do so, we have to educate ourselves properly. Only then can we educate our posterity as to the true nature of the blessings of liberty. And only then will our own children and grandchildren fully understand why they should be joining us in giving daily thanks to our Founding Fathers and to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" that our Founders set us so incandescent an example in following with such beautiful fidelity.

 

 


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