This summer, I read Wilfred McClay’s uplifting Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. McClay’s subject is the birth and growth of the United States and the quickening pulse of its social arteries—politics, religion, literature, business, technology—as they nourish and form a distinctively American consciousness and identity. In every chapter of McClay’s story—our story—the American heart beats energetically and restlessly (if sometimes irregularly) with the longing for freedom, for a dignified and meaningful life of one’s own choice and making.
In some ways, McClay himself is the best argument for his thesis that the United States is a glorious experiment: one deeply stained by injustices like slavery but substantially redeemed by the decency and generosity of the American people. An American born and bred, formed by a deep and genuine civic education, he is someone of whom We The People can be proud. His book makes one grateful to live in a country that can produce such broad-minded, self-critical citizens.
But it is hard to rekindle the fire of hope when our governing class is so clearly intent on extinguishing it. Those who appreciate, in McClay’s words, the “doctrine of human dignity, of the infinite worth of the single and individual soul”—enshrined in the culture of democracy and embodied in works like Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” speech—must be profoundly dismayed by the widespread repudiation of that doctrine in thought and policy.
What better way to destroy the United States than by opening its borders to illegal immigrants; surveilling its citizens; inflating its currency; ignoring its laws; demoralizing its police; undercutting its energy independence; issuing arbitrary, contradictory, and unnecessarily restrictive policies regarding public health; and fomenting strife along the lines of party, class, and race? Our governing elites seem to believe that Americans deserve to be punished. But of all the things that the Biden administration has done to crush the American spirit, none is more damaging than the president’s cruel abandonment of the people—and especially the women and girls—of Afghanistan.
Many people, especially veterans, were filled with visceral disgust as they watched Afghanistan’s collapse and then listened to President Biden’s defiant August 16 speech. These events were morally nauseating because they made certain realities horribly clear. Yes, it was a grave mistake to turn our plan to eliminate al-Qaida into an exercise in nation-building, and we know one reason why: because the people charged with doing the building had already ceased to believe in our own nation. The private contractors and public servants who were supposed to train an army and construct a state in Afghanistan are the very ones whom President Dwight Eisenhower had in mind when he warned Americans in his 1961 Farewell Address to beware the “military-industrial complex.”
In his speech, Biden adopted the stance of a hard-nosed practitioner of realpolitik. He asserted that “our only important national interest in Afghanistan today is what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.” Set aside the likelihood that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorists: Biden has made it clear to any foreign nationals who might be inclined to support us that we are utterly faithless allies. Worse, in abandoning Afghanistan, he has degraded American ideals in the sight of the whole world.
The United States held out hope for a generation of Afghan women and their daughters, who enthusiastically entered professions and attended schools from which the Taliban had barred them. It’s true that we had no business making promises to them that we could not keep. But we did make those promises, and they trusted us. They believed in our ideals, and they bought into them. Now these women and girls, having tasted the sweetness of freedom, face a bitter and humiliating future. They will be sent back into seclusion at home—cut off from the world. They will be married off to men they do not love, who may beat them with impunity. They will live in fear of being raped, kidnapped, or murdered.
World War II was America’s moral and political high point. Our defeat of the Axis powers made us a beacon of freedom for the world. Since then, we have hyped our success, selling it to anyone who will buy it. Yet for decades we’ve also been teaching our students that the United States was built by slaveowners and capitalists—men who oppress women and minorities and worship the almighty dollar above all. The Afghan debacle will only reinforce these cynical lessons. It will convince a great many Americans that we are nothing but arrant hypocrites. And it may permanently close their ears to the message of national hope that American writers like Wilfred McClay have so eloquently articulated, and that we so desperately need.
Biden says that he feels sad, and I believe him. We all do, these days.
Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images