October 20, 2003

On American Liberty and Destiny

A world divided against itself cannot stand. Governments cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

This morning I read a pocket essay by Demosophia entitled: "Imminent Threat in Florida and Iraq." which uses the Florida Recount controversy and the Iraq incursion to illustrate how opposing factions, internationally and nationally, view the concept of "imminent." I commend it to you for its balance and lucidity.

Still, as I read the following excerpt from it, I felt the author had hit on something important although at right angles to his central point:

"... it would seem to me that the real issue isn't "imminence" but the same issue that was at stake in the Florida Recount: uncertainty. And to some people uncertainty means freedom and license, while to others it means constraint and caution. To Saddam, as to the Japanese High Command, the uncertainty of the US and its allies was freedom and license. It represented operating parameters, and opportunities. To Byrd and Kennedy uncertainly meant the possibility that a threat didn't exist. I might even say it meant the probability that the threat would not materialize unexpectedly. So, to them it also meant freedom and license. To the Bush people, on the other hand, uncertainty meant the possibility of a really nasty surprise somewhere down the line. And for an executive, to be on the receiving end of a "day of infamy," is something to be avoided.
My first reflection was to note that for George W. Bush being on the receiving end of a second "day of infamy" was a main motivation behind his policies.

I also found myself thinking that the author had, in passing, also mapped the fault line at the core of our present political impasse.

One would think that with 3,000 dead and the nation's economy suffering a body blow from which it has taken two years recover, Americans of all political persuasions would still possess an adamantine unity. We all know this is not the case. Our politics of faction grows more bitter and divisive by the day and, absent another blow from terrorism, will continue in this wise through the 2004 elections and beyond.

In addition, the historic isolationism of Americans seems to be once more on the rise. Victor Davis Hanson’s remarks this week in "The Vision Thing: Convincing Americans to stick with a crazy Middle East." underscore this:

“...as I gauge current American public opinion, there is a rising weariness of the insanity abroad, and it will only grow unless administration spokesmen habitually address — weekly, daily, even hourly — such exasperations and counter them by appealing to the innate American sense of idealism and generosity.

“Otherwise, we will finally go ballistic at enemies as loud and obnoxious as they are impotent, further sickened that our old allies are not even neutrals but themselves sound off like near enemies. Most Americans, tragically so, do not find from 30-second film clips that the Iraqi people are all that sympathetic a lot, but rather — after the war, the looting, the suicide bombings, and the complaining — that they are not worth the billions of dollars and the lost lives. And it is precisely that innate unease with ingratitude that the Democrats and the press have tapped into, at last finding some resonance with the American people.

Hanson’s dour meditation and Demosophia’s characterization of the two poles of the “political uncertainty principle” seem to fit the parameters of our politics and our national mood this autumn.

In one corner, wearing the Rainbow trunks, we have the party of “liberty and license” exemplified by the shrill Democratic Party and its crop of candidates touring the talk shows. Their policies are, leaving aside the central rallying pivot of hate for the person of the President, drenched with nostalgia for “those thrilling days of yesteryear” when the Liberal vision of a perfectable society was ascendant. When neither hating Bush nor yearning for the past, their policies seem to be those that could only be enacted as those of a “President Bartlett” in an administration to be known as “The West Wing -- This Time for Real.” Fear and loathing blended with nostalgia and fantasy does not, I think, make for a viable party.

In the other corner, wearing trunks monogramed with the dollar sign, a hard hat obsessed with deficits and encumbered with a large crucifix, we have the party of “constraint and caution.” Nominally Republican this faction is exemplified by forces within the current administration, such as State, that act as a brake on the administration’s plans to take out increasing military insurance against the clear and present enemies of the United States. Hence, the seemingly endless Minuet with the United Nations over Iraq and Israel that we endure as a self-imposed check on our power.

More dangerous still are the rabid isolationists (in all but business), that infect the Republican Party because they have no place else to go. These are the factions symbolized but not contained to the realm of Mordor trumpeted by Pat Buchanan. They counsel us to retreat from the world at large and lounge upon the soft sofas of Fortress America. They hold that the mere possession and threat of power is more important than the rational projection of that power. In this they wallow with the equally dysfunctional Democrats who hold that a possession of a pure morality is more important than the projection of that morality through the export of American institutions and values.

Both these factions seem to me to be effete, irresponsible and irrelevant. Yet they seem to dominate our political discussions through their polarizing influences and the endless sideshow of their partisan squabbles. The fascination with these positions is a nightmare from which we must now struggle to awake.

To do so we must become aware that neither of these factions can answer the central question that History is currently proposing to these States.

Simply stated that question is whether these States are prepared to take the Spirit of the Revolution begun here over two hundred years ago, and extend it to the world at large wherever it is needed, or whether that Revolution of the Human Spirit, continuous for over two centuries, will now be judged to have found its limits in the early 21st century.

There are those on both sides of the political uncertainty principle who believe our Revolution is over. They believe its meaning is now no more than something antiquated, quaint and vague. Something not ready for global prime time at the beginning of a brave new world order. History, beginning on September 11, 2001, has opened for us another way, a clearer and more certain path, through the unwitting sacrifice of the vastly diverse group of our citizens, civilian and military, that died that day.

This path is best found through two questions we must each now ask ourselves. The first is if, in our time and in our soft, rich, lax and “uncertain” America,

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 a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.“

The second question we must ask ourselves, if we answer in the affirmative to the first, is if we believe, to paraphrase Lincoln, that “A world divided against itself cannot stand. Governments cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

We have, as a nation and as a people, in the last few decades become tedious in our pursuit of the good life to the exclusion of all else. We have become, in our dedication to the secular life of the body and the world dimensional, increasingly slothful and selfish as a nation. We have tarried in our Xanadu while the forces of Totalitarianism have hardened their hold over their captive populations and pursued philosophies and weaponry with which to hold Freedom hostage to Terror.

In the last two years we have begun to haltingly roll back this tide but now, this autumn, our will seems to waver under assaults from within and without.

The issue placed before us by the reconstruction of Iraq is whether we have it in our national character and our gift to export the values of the Declaration to the vast areas of the world still held in the grip of a medieval Totalitarianism, or whether our factions of uncertainty, be they those of liberty and license or of caution and constraint, will remove our gift from the world’s tree of life and we will, for but a little time, continue in the foolish idyll from which we awoke one September morning.

Several years ago, a bestseller entitled “The Greatest Generation,” recounting the nature and achievement of the Americans who triumphed over the Great Depression and WWII, drew attention to those who had given us the rich and lavish society we now inhabit. It also underscored the fact that those Americans were departing these scene. Implicit therein was the recognition that their children and grandchildren now hold the positions of power and influence that direct America’s destiny. Absent the wounds of Vietnam, whose scars still bend the attitudes of many in politics and most in the media, these descendants of the Greatest Generation have not until now had to deal with a global war. That time is now upon us.

One message contained within “The Greatest Generation” was that America’s finest hours lay behind it. That may be. Perhaps our politics of faction and uncertainty will prevail. Perhaps we will decide that the “unalienable rights” of the Declaration will be made available not to all men, but only to those lucky enough to escape from the Middle Ages to the West. Perhaps we are no longer able to “pay any price and bear any burden” to extend Freedom across the face of the world and to end, once and for all, the slavery of Totalitarianism.

If so we confirm our enemies’ assumptions that we will not be able to tolerate a daily death rate in the single digits, where our fathers and mothers withstood a war in which the daily deaths could not begin to be listed in the final 15 seconds of a newscast. If so, then our finest hours will indeed, to our shame, lie in our past.

I reject this thin and tepid interpretation of America’s soul. I prefer to believe that this nation will find it neither easy nor possible to immunize itself from History. I believe that America still has a greater destiny, no longer manifest but just as inevitable, to continue the greater mission of the Western Enlightenment that found its first and fullest expression within these States.

There are those among us and in the world at large who maintain that America is the greatest present threat to the people of the world, but we know this to be a lie. What is true is that America and what it represents is the greatest present threat to those governments, religions and institutions that still enslave their people. If you need to know “why they hate us” this is your answer.

No nation is immune to history. I believe we shall, through coming trials of ice or fire, find it within ourselves to use our power and our preeminence at this moment to extend our principles to wherever Totalitarianism currently reigns, and to expunge it from the world. In this, I believe our finest hours still lie ahead.

Posted by Vanderleun at October 20, 2003 10:26 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Dear Mr. Vanderleun,

You've nailed the question: Pax Americana or Lax Americana? Sacrifice or appeasement? Free speech, free enterprise and free elections, or 9/11 every month and Bali bombings on the weekends?

The truly scary thing is how many people want to live in a bubble world, not realising till too late that freedom entails responsibility, and that liberty is, sadly, too often paid for in blood. We either learn, or we perish.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Ness.

Posted by: Peter Ness at October 20, 2003 12:11 AM

"In the other corner, wearing trunks monogramed with the dollar sign, a hard hat obsessed with deficits and encumbered with a large crucifix, we have the party of “constraint and caution.” Nominally Republican this faction is exemplified by forces within the current administration, such as State, that act as a brake on the administration’s plans to take out increasing military insurance against the clear and present enemies of the United States. Hence, the seemingly endless Minuet with the United Nations over Iraq and Israel that we endure as a self-imposed check on our power."

The way I see it is that we need to exert leadership, which I think we are. Where the UN is willing to follow, we leave the door open. Where they aren't, we go on without them. Eventually, if we do things right, that 90:10 opposition we meet, especially in continental Europe, will turn around.

Robert Kagan has written an excellent book on the differences between the US and Western Europe: *Of Paradise and Power*. There's nothing like getting people invested in a project, to turn around their prejudices. It's a difficult balance though. And if we intend to ask the Europeans to place their "paradise" in jeapardy, by making the appropriate investments in a military force that would give them some voice in the project, we ought to be able to ask our own citizens to do something similar. By, for instance, cutting back on oil consumption. Or, better yet, investing in alternative energy sources. Of course, that would mean coopting the "light greens" to some extent, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

You know, the one thing that Michael Moore is right about (although he presents the case dishonestly) is that the less money we spend on oil the less money will go into supporting extremist madrasas and terrorist cells. I only hope God forgives me for saying Moore is right about anything. But that's just good common sense, and sometimes even bad people have that. And a leader with the guts to ask Americans for a little participation might be surprised to find how willing they are.

If what defines us as Americans is something more that the Big Mac, the expecting too little of us is like settling for a "second best" version of happiness and fulfillment. And the world might actually be inspired to find that we too think the superficial stuff isn't up to snuff.

So I take your point about "political uncertainty." I think we can wring some of it out, with a little intestinal fortitude.


Posted by: Scott at October 20, 2003 9:50 AM