It’s Our Country

The way in which Lieberman was tarred, the response of some on the left to the London arrests – exactly what world do these people lived in? And Israel! Like the UN is going to take away the Hez armories. This is kind of “what Lex said” while rambling & personal.

What we don’t face is that we are repeating history but the history is not of what was done but what wasn’t. We are often reminded of 1938; we might be reminded of 1820. The “peace” people aren’t wrong – most wars could have been headed off. But as so many responses to an earlier post observed, the Civil War couldn’t have been averted in 1861. But these wars didn’t often happen merely because some group wasn’t willing to appease another the moment hostilities broke out but rather because earlier group was unwilling to face the potential for such a moment, unwilling to make some compromises or too willing to make others. Exactly how Israel (or we for that matter) can appease those who want to turn the world into one large caliphate is beyond my understanding. That we need not have reached this point is, I am sure, true.

Our society, with its rule of law, its two-year election cycles, its system of checks and balances is primarily designed, as we discuss endlessly, to limit our natural desire to expand our power. We understand the insight that powered these institutions – that power corrupts. And we are right to honor the useful common sense of our forefathers.

But I’m not sure how often we think of another virtue of this system. It means we are responsible. What happens with our permission, with our lack of resistance, with our own culpability. It means that those moments when war might have been averted are our responsibility as well as that of our leaders. Did we expect Reagan to do more after the bombing of the Beirut barracks? Well, maybe, but I don’t see that affecting much assessment of his virtues & vices in office. Did we think Clinton was wrong in pulling out of Somalia? Well, maybe, but I don’t see that affecting our assessment of him in a major way.

This is human nature. I long realized at my business that “borrowing trouble” was not always wise: sometimes it attacked a problem that was on the way to being solved by technology or human nature or just circumstances. So, I have no reason to cast stones – that technique also put off some quite important decisions that would have been better made earlier. And what do we know? Our forefathers had no sense the cotton gin would be invented. We can hardly blame them for seeing a different future than it turned out to be. But, much didn’t change, many ignored that large elephant in the room. American literature suddenly grew up & produced masterpieces shortly after the Fugitive Slave law was enacted. To those writers, slavery was no longer a Southern evil they could passively condemn but a northern one as well. This led to self-consciousness, to maturity.

As someone who has spent most of her life on the periphery of academic communities, I have been struck by how distant these communities feel from responsibility. Discussions seldom see the “university” as made up of faculty like those sitting around the table or the living room. It is always the “other.” I’m not sure that has always been true, even in my lifetime. My teachers who left class in the sixties to march in Selma were engaged. I suspect they were right to do so. In the sixties, my teachers in Nebraska talked about the department and their chair, Dudley Bailey, with great affection & loyalty. However, they assumed “the department” was made up of all the faculty as well. Times have changed – and I’m not sure they’ve changed for the better.

Those who do not acknowledge their responsibility, who do not want to acknowledge the threat Lex describes, who only want not to be disturbed – these are children. They may claim Bush (or Blair or Cheney) are “frightening” them—but that is frightening only if you want to live in a nursery. Understanding life has seldom been nor will often be as easy as it is for us today. Understanding that is understanding the world. It is moving through it, not retreating from it. The world is many things – it is – beautiful & various & often tragic. Instead, some frighten themselves with ghost stories in the darkened rooms in which they huddle. Militantly (and often offensively) secular, they also have little sense of national pride, of American exceptionalism, of the argument Winthrop made that the concept of the city on the hill was more responsibility than privilege, more a call to work than to reign.

So they are left with the old & the barbaric: the devils of their imagination. This is an archetypal but not very attractive tendency of human nature–they find a Goldstein. This false solution has been bubbling just beneath the surface; all of us long for simple solutions. For some, in the nineties, Clinton embodied modernism; he was hated less for what he was than what he represented. He was hated for the modernity of globalization and restructuring welfare – these made our lives richer & more risky. He was hated for being poll-driven, for hypocrisy, for his exercise of public power in the personal – in short, he was hated for his flaws of hubris and human nature. These are more to be pitied, since all of us have these in some measure.

But that pales in relation to the way some reacted to the election of George Bush. He reminds them of all those concepts with which they are uneasy – religion, patriotism, the values of home and hearth, sense of place. Some don’t understand those values – but I suspect most have complicated feelings about them. He makes them aware of their ambivalence, their sadness, their retreat. So dinner parties consist of braggadocio: We will go to “The Story of Brian” to counter those consumer advocates of “The Passion.” We’ll celebrate the Christmas solstice, which is the real “reason for the season.” We’ll wear shirts with Che and even Chavez – not willing to admit even to themselves that they want to distance themselves from government by the people, from a society of the people. We’ll listen to Michael Moore, they say, to get back at Bush. (Believing somehow that he knows, that he cares.) We’ll stand with Murtha, indeed, some will stand with Galloway – rejecting the modern, the down-scale, the American.

Some believe the only thing that had happened was that George Bush had been elected. He spoke in a dialect that some understood & trusted; others were repelled. Even before 9/11 he was seen as a dramatic break with tradition (look at the New York Review of Books issues right after the inauguration for that kind of argument). It seems to me best personified by one of my students who wanted to do her research paper on Clinton: “I used to love this country. I just hate what Bush has done to it. Bush has ruined this country,” she told me. “We didn’t use to be afraid.” I looked into her eyes and realized that history, life was simple – what was wrong was Bush. Well, yes, I guess if you want to think symbolically, he can personify what happened. She was quite young when he came into office and she associated him with all that has followed that has often been tragic; not only that, he could represent “why they hate us” in terms from which she could distance herself – she wasn’t like him. This didn’t make a lot more sense than Vardaman thinking his mother’s death was associated with his fish’s death and therefore, his mother was a fish. Of course, the fact she hadn’t read As I Lay Dying was not the only reason I couldn’t point this out.

Bush is religious in a way we haven’t seen for some time in the presidency (although it would have been closer to the norm at one time); this has led him to positions on cloning & on faith-based charities that oppose the more secular positions of his opponents. Of course, both of these can be argued in other, even libertarian, ways. Asking people to pay taxes for actions they find immoral, for instance, can certainly fit into a libertarian ethic. Faith-based charities are generally more successful; their efficacy can be argued on pragmatic grounds. Of course, the two arguments do seem somewhat opposed.

But Bush is going to be out of office in two years; any sense that that means our previous more passive stance will be useful is doubtful. And, when he leaves, so, too, will be any doubt about the reality of what he has faced (been forced to face) about the Middle East, about corruption & weakness within the international community, about the future of entitlements. If Jonathan puts up flags for every nation the terrorists are trying to terrorize, in a few months I suspect he’ll have little room for our posts. And if everyone thinks wars should be over on some kind of time-plan, they might contemplate what they will feel like if their great-grandchildren are blown up eating pizza, if their great-granddaughters are ruled by Sha’ria law. Living in reality, we are forced to realize that bad ideas don’t die fast; that unfortunately some don’t learn from others’ experience nor even their own. Otherwise, why would the people of Venezuela elect Chavez or Americans march for ANSWER.

I’m not sure Bush is better than another leader might have been: maybe anyone in that position would have ignored these until they were hit over the head by a 2×4 – and 9/11 was that 2×4. But I suspect it affected Bush more strongly because he was the kind of guy who hadn’t built up a whole belief system that distanced him from America, from his own spiritual needs, from his own flaws as a drinker. Their family believes in duty. That isn’t a big deal – most American families do to some degree. But, I suspect that the emphasis varies; for those who have not been encouraged or forced to take responsibility, a sense of duty has never transcended the sense of self. The ability can atrophy; certainly this means a submersion if not loss of self. Indeed, within certain quite secular, quite transnational, placeless, family-less social groups, that submersion is scary; transcending the self is considered more loss than gain.

This is how some see libertarianism – without loyalty, without a submersion of the self in something greater. But the closer we are to a non-arrogant, non-assertive, but quite real deferential libertarianism, the more we feel that responsibility. Then we see libertarianism as encouraging each of us to define what is more important than we are, not assuming nothing is. The more we think the more we value that liberty & fear its loss. And thus, the more we feel responsible for establishing, wherever and whenever we can, that open marketplace of ideas.