Independence Day Eve


Whenever I hear someone claim that “our enemies hate us for our freedom,” I think first of the USS Vincennes and July 3rd, 1988. Twenty-two years ago today, Vincennes was as sophisticated as warships came and by far the most powerful surface vessel on Persian Gulf patrol. Sailors of other ships had given her the half-derisive, half-admiring nickname “Robocruiser” in acknowledgment of her AEGIS  – a new high-speed computerized target detection and tracking system designed to achieve absolute airspace dominance. AEGIS could neutralize any aerial threat, from low-flying strike planes to supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles.

Unfortunately on that Independence Day Eve, all the whizbang Yankee know-how that had gone into AEGIS couldn’t put Iran Air Flight 655 back together again when Robocruiser misidentified the airliner as a hostile fighter jet and blew it to smithereens. Onboard Flight 655 had been sixteen crew and two hundred seventy-four passengers, including eight infants. This inspired the kinder, gentler conservative Vice President Bush to be johnny-on-the-spot with PR damage-control: “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.”

The next thought which pops into my head when I’m told about freedom-haters is We think the price is worth it. With this response Bill Clinton’s ghoulish UN ambassador Madeleine Albright outdid Bush when she was asked by a 60 Minutes journalist if US foreign policy aims outweighed the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a side-effect of economic sanctions. Promoted to Secretary of State by Clinton as a reward for her genius at fielding delicate questions, Albright would later declare: “[I]f we have to use force [against Iraq], it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and see further into the future…”

It’s as if Albright were a character from the long-lost, extended Director’s Cut of Dr. Strangelove:  Yessir, nothing demonstrates that much-vaunted liberal humanitarianism and diplomatic expertise like telling Arabs throughout the world that a half-million Arab kids are expendable, and then for an encore assuring everybody that we possess supernatural powers à la Madam Cleo.

The third thing which comes to mind is neither an incident nor an embarrassing quote but an admission. If by “freedom” we mean what Bush II meant when he repeated the word 25 times in a 2,000-word inaugural address, then I hate us for our freedom too. If it must be put in binary terms of “with us, or against us,” then I cannot but count myself firmly in the “against us” camp in light of comments once composed by neoconservative Michael Ledeen, contributing editor for National Review.  According to this philosophical guiding lights of the “patriotic” “conservative” movement, the War on Terror is rightly a War on Tradition:

Creative destruction is our middle name, both in our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. They cannot feel secure so long as we are there, for our very existence – our existence, not our politics – threatens their legitimacy. They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.

In other words: It’s time for change, whether embittered losers who cling to Bibles and guns like it or not.

Setting aside the serpentine neoconservative tendency of trying to pass off Marxist doctrines as conservatism, Ledeen epitomizes the demented, self-contradictory absurdity of our age in seeking to rally Americans to a hallowed tradition of … annihilating tradition. Likewise, he seems oblivious to the fact that creative people must show at least enough respect to their vocation’s traditions to become masters of them. Only then can any positive innovation ensue. The very notion of progress only has meaning in the context of tradition, while the hideous, random meaninglessness of modern art’s worst excesses best represents Ledeen’s “whirlwind of energy and creativity.” (Let’s hear it for stale and ironic metaphors: Has anyone seen a whirlwind do anything remotely creative or constructive? Ever?)

Language is a tradition. So is the biological order embodied in a living being through the language of heredity. We may all pray that our genes never adopt Ledeen’s juvenile ideological disdain for patterns passed down from previous generations. Sure, creative destruction is swell – provided you’re not the one being destroyed.

Nonetheless Ledeen has a point, even if what he sees as Shiva-rific liberation might be called havoc, impoverishment and decay by less maniacal observers. From the beginning, like a tumor on the collective psyche, there has indeed been an anti-tradition tradition lurking in America’s intellectual class and general populace. From the beginning there has been a temptation to violate, subvert, and negate inherited understandings and mores simply for the thrill of it. From the beginning there has been an adolescent drive toward transgression, usually accompanied by a lust for domination and wealth and tragically intertwined with otherwise noble ideals. Many readers will be familiar with “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry’s rebuttal of the creative-destruction cult which Berry calls “the dominant tendency in American history”:

Generation after generation, those who intended to remain and prosper where they were have been dispossessed and driven out, or subverted and exploited where they were, by those who were carrying out some version of the search for El Dorado. Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities, the beginnings of domestic cultures.  They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible.

In “rad-trad” Catholic circles this utopian El Dorado search is sometimes identified with Americanism – which is not the healthy patriotism it is sometimes mistaken for, but rather a perverse fusion of secularized Puritanism with Enlightenment doctrines.  Particularly intense and systematic analyses of Americanism have been carried out by John Rao, history professor at St. John’s University and director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute.  Per Rao, “Americanism seeks to replace the nation with an ideology, patriotism with an ideological, fideistic religion.”  Furthermore, in valorizing revolution and rebellion, Americanism instills a pathological resentment of authority and metaphysical hierarchy.   This resentment is in the end detrimental not only to community but to authentic individuality too:

Americanism promoted an atomism that sneered at true community life with its panoply of authorities and traditions as the worst of plagues. This atomism did not understand just how necessary community was to save men from madness.  When this atomism infected country living, where [respect for community] was often great and perhaps most essential, it made rural existence intolerably lonely.

It has now created the suburb.  It has punished those who fled the structured community of the old city for the “freedom” of the outside world with the misery of lives spent on super highways and in soulless shopping malls.  The drive toward individual space has led to the creation of vast tracts of sameness across the entire breadth of the land… this “individualism” has been crowned by an insufferable and repulsive trendiness. If the suburbanite atomist is herd-like in his vulgarity, the city-dwelling atomist is machine-like in his obssession with pseudo-intellectual and cultural fads.

Thus those who reject authority qua authority wind up prostrate before naked power and capricious fashion.

As a heresy, Americanism leads Christians to give more weight to deists like Jefferson and Adams – or even venomously anti-Christian propagandists like Thomas Paine – than to centuries’ worth of Christian wisdom. One hopes Rao is indulging in rhetorical excess when he claims to have encountered Catholics “whose Church Fathers are really the Founding Fathers” and “think the main event in Sacred History came not with the birth, death, and Resurrection of Christ, but with 1776.” Then again, one cannot but wonder when reading some of the claims of Michael Novak: “Democratic capitalism calls forth not only a new theology, but a new type of religion.”

One wonders even more at “educated” American Christians who are as ignorant as they are indifferent to the teachings of, say, St. Augustine, and at “conservatives” who yawn at the figures and writers – pagan as well as Christian – who defined and shaped American as well as Western culture. George Washington was so impressed by the Romans that he had Addison’s play Cato performed at Valley Forge for his men to keep their spirits up: If we must worship the Founders as demigods in the pantheon of democracy, wouldn’t it behoove us to give a little attention to this “Cato” character they admired so much, as well as to the times in which he lived? Not to say that its relevance to the Founders is what makes Western civilization important; the point is that it is patently ridiculous to proclaim reverence for the former while dismissing the latter.

Nor do I suggest that we categorically denounce the Founders, for Americanism and anti-Americanism are equally erroneous ideologies. We err greatly if we refuse to recognize the virtues of Americans who came before us, and we err greatly if we refuse to recognize their human limitations – and yes, mistakes. Contra both Americanist and anti-American ideologues, conceding that there were grave flaws in the Enlightenment-intoxicated worldview of 1776 is not equivalent to scornfully chucking our entire history into the dustbin. In fact, de-deifying the men in question might be a first step toward reclaiming their better ideas, which have been mostly swept under the rug. No faction today even gives lip service to Jefferson’s belief that “small landholders are the most precious part of a state,” nor to his belief that American education should devote particular attention to Old English language and literature.

Why not? Because fallen human nature ensures that the Many only listen to the Founders when the Founders are wrong. Hence many “conservatives” who would shrug at the eradication of family farms and snicker at “useless” dead languages go right on to regurgitate uncommonly nonsensical, Paine-fully smug cant about a magical New World freed from the terrible bondage of European traditions. Presumably they mean traditions of self-reliance and ordered liberty, which were inherited in large part from the political culture of landholding Anglo-Saxon freemen. We haven’t quite shaken off those particular shackles entirely, but we’re certainly getting there.

Some of the worst cant is to be found on right-wing talk radio, as Thomas Fleming observes in the latest issue of Chronicles:

Much of what I hear on the radio is a kind of patriotic mythology packaged as American history. If the left demonizes the American past as an age of bigotry and repression, conservative pundits portray it as a golden age of individual liberty. In other words, they take the leftist language of liberation and read it backward, hawking the Constitution as if it were “Hope in a Bottle.” … Most conservative strategies are mere exercises in nostalgia.  If only we could go back to the principles of Ronald Reagan, to the halcyon days of the Greatest Generation, to the glory days of the American founding! Like utopian leftists, they think “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” before the snake entered the American paradise and corrupted it.

Fleming’s point is hardly one of pessimistic defeatism, however:

If we once decide to ignore the latest schemes by talk-radio shills like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, if we work within our homes and parishes and with private and religious schools, we cannot fix the country as a whole, but we can rear decent children, enjoy life, and preserve our little corners of American civilization.

Heresy against a heresy may be piety: Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution is Holy Writ. Neither can live up to its reputation as a quasi-divine shield against tyranny, any more than AEGIS could live up to the reputation of its Olympian namesake.  Like power, freedom is a good that can become diabolical when too much celebrated in and of itself. In Augustinian terms, America’s freedom-fetish is a textbook case of “misdirected love.” We must grow up and admit that freedom is but a tool for pursuing goodness, not goodness as such. It is not self-justifying. It is a means, not an end.

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