Here’s a video in which various Harvard students assert that the United States is a worse threat to world peace than is the terrorist organization ISIS.
This isn’t a statistically-valid survey, and we don’t really know from it what proportion of Harvard students share these views. But there are certainly a disturbing number of highly-educated (or at least highly-credentialed) Americans who feel this way about their country. I am reminded once againtof an essay that C S Lewis wrote in March 1940. At that time, there was evidently a movement among British youth to “repent” England’s sins (which evidently were thought to include the treaty of Versailles) and to “forgive” England’s enemies.
Young Christians especially..are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…Most of these young men were children…when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happen) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society…The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor…A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”
Lewis points out that when a man who was raised to be patriotic tries to repent the sins of England, he is attempting something that will be difficult for him.
But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen.
It’s hard to believe that this was written more than 50 years ago–it’s such a bulls-eye description of a broad swath of our current “progressives.” (The only difference being that many of them today are a lot older than “in their twenties.”)
But now Lewis comes to the real meat of his argument.
All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But “my enemy” primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate…If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names–Colonel Blimp and “the businessman.” I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians, and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion. (emphasis added.)
And here comes the two-by-four, right between the eyes.
The communal sins of which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class–its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment.
Exactly. Many “progressives”–and not just the religious ones–have uncritically and without reflection adopted the ideas and values of “their own age and class”–and, while doing so, they have congratulated themselves on their courage and independence of thought. Thus, they can enjoy a great feeling of righteousness without running the risk of condemnation by those whose opinions really matter to them. Who cares if the conservative authority figures–such as the Bush administration back when it was in power–would disapprove of your statements (if they ever heard of them, which they likely won’t), when there are so many nods of agreement in the faculty lounge or among the other associates at the law firm? Those are the people you see ever day, after all, and the ones who really matter for your career…
There are some “progressives,” particularly among the Trustafarians, who are indeed driven by a personal sense of guilt, but I think this motivation is pretty clearly the rare exception rather than the rule. For the most part, “progressives” feel no personal guilt at all…they think the rest us, those outside their circle of assumed moral superiority, should be the ones feeling guilty. And regarding Frost’s formulation, if you observe these people pursuing their careers and their social status goals, it’s pretty clear that the typical “progressive” has no problem at all “taking his own side.” What they do have a problem with is taking the side of the larger society, whose history and the majority of whose members they hold in contempt.
The Lewis essay is titled “Dangers of National Repentance,” and appears in the collection The Grand Miracle.
The attitude represented by the Harvard students in the video, like the attitude represented by the young Brits of whom Lewis wrote, can be thought of a sort of societal auto-immune disease.