Americanism vs. America
Ya gotta love a guy who can get blown up and keep his sense of humor. Especially when, for all his idiosyncrasies, he's an exemplar of a type that is so often, and so often justly, condemned: a liberal whose world was shaken to its foundations, almost literally, by a radical and, in reaction, became a neoconservative. His poignant soul-searching is a welcome counterpoint to the vitriol poured on his ilk from both Left and Right.
In his semi-fictional, semi-documentary account of the Lost World of the liberalism that dominated America from 1932 to 1968, he traces its arc from the Utopian vision that shone through the Depression/World War Crisis, through its realization in the postwar High, to the disillusionment of his generation's Awakening. He eloquently expresses nostalgia for the Good Old Days of the New Deal and struggles to understand What Went Wrong in the '60s, when liberalism overreached itself with the "Great Society" and in Vietnam and was crushed between the rock of radicalism and the hard place of reaction.
Now he rebounds with bumptious triumphalism. He retells the American story as a Grand Narrative whose climax is, of all things, the George W. Bush Administration:
The Puritan exodus from Britain to the New World; the American Revolution; the Civil War; and America's decisions to enter World War I [under Wilson], to challenge the Soviets during the Cold War [under Truman], to win the Cold War [under Reagan], and to fight Islamic terrorism [under Bush]. [p. 17]
His description of "Americanism" as the "fourth great Western religion" is intended to re-root the "American Creed" of liberty, equality, and democracy in our Biblical heritage, as opposed to secular modernity. The first obvious problem is that he never enumerates these "great Western religions." (Neither "the West" nor "religion" is even in the index.) The latest, Americanism, is grounded in the Revolution and Civil War; these were preceded by the Puritan Awakening, which was preceded by the Protestant Reformation; it's not clear, but most likely the first epochal event he has in mind is the Christian Conversion itself, not the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church of the West and the autocephalous churches of the East. The latter will probably come to mind only for someone as pedantic as myself.
The second obvious (to me, at any rate) problem is that he identifies America too narrowly with the Puritan tradition. The eldest of the 13 original States was founded by Cavaliers, and the birthplace of the Union was founded by a Protestant sect so far out they make the Puritans look tame. I won't even begin to go into the ethnic hodgepodge that has contributed our hybrid vigor to the Anglo-Saxon breed.
The third obvious problem is that, even as he decries secularism and explicitly rejects "civic religion" as such, he invokes Judaeo-Christian tradition to spiritualize and sanction a political project. In a nutshell, he posits the "American Creed" as issuing from "American Zionism," the belief that Americans are a chosen people and America a promised land, made into a global mission through "democratic chivalry." We, as the first, best, and greatest exemplar of the modern regime, are obliged to promote our ideals "for all mankind" (p. 79; cf. pp. 84-87).
This democratic boosterism sounds good to patriotic Americans tired of our country being routinely bad-mouthed at home and abroad. Wilson himself was modest enough to say that "America came into existence ... to show the way to mankind in every part of the world" (p. 156; emphasis added). And Truman "did not and could not propose that America rush to the aid of all threatened and oppressed peoples" (p. 191). That's all well and good. But Wilson did set out to "make the world safe for democracy," and it's hard to see how his foreign policy did any good for either our ideals or our interests.
It's not clear whether Gelernter supposes "American Zionism" to be literal or metaphorical; that question I leave to his concredents. What strikes me as odd, is that real Zionism was a political project to make the Jews once more a nation among nations. It was precisely a secularization of Jewishness. Some Zionists, Jewish and Christian alike, do ground Israel's legitimacy in the Biblical Covenant; but Israel's founders grounded it in history and culture, authorized by acts of the UK and UN, sealed by victory in a just war.
The status of the Jews as the Chosen People in the Promised Land sets them apart from the Gentiles, a peculiarity that persists in their exile. For all too many Jews, Americanism is a universal solvent, as Marxism used to be. They seek to escape from exclusion by abolishing all exclusiveness. Of course, Jews aren't the only aliens whose loyalty to America is contingent on us turning our nation inside-out: Dinesh D'Souza is a case in point. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The grandiose design to remake the world in our own image, however, casts us as Romans, not Jews. Now, the crass commercialism of Madison Avenue and Hollywood have already pervaded the world, and the religious enthusiasm of the Deep South and Utah are not far behind. The English language is already the de facto universal language abroad -- even as it is threatened at home by mass immigration and official multilingualism. Should we seal this process of Americanization by imposing our laws and institutions universally? Our experiments in Liberia and the Philippines are not encouraging.
As for the middle part of his story, I concur heartily with Gelernter's view that the Civil War was the fitting and successful conclusion of the Revolution. His description of Lincoln as "America's Last and Greatest Founding Father" should hardly be controversial, but is bound to raise the hackles of both die-hard apologists for the Old South and loony Lefties who hate America so thoroughly that for them, our best is of a piece with our worst. I, for one, must echo Daniel Webster's "Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable"; but the process of concrete nation-building is dearer to my heart than any abstract ideological development.
Gelernter rightly says that his topic is "Americanism and not America. America, the vast democratic nation north of Mexico, south of Canada, is different from Americanism--a religion proclaiming liberty, equality, and democracy" (p.5). This shows unusual modesty for those who assert, as he does, that
Most nations are based on no principles; they are based instead on shared descent or ethnicity. The United States is different. It has a religion because it must have one. Without one, it is a band of displaced persons and little more. [p.13]
This etherealization of America is as bogus as it is trite. He himself puts the lie to it by making universal "Americanism" the fruit of the Puritan offshoot of the Protestant branch of Western Christendom. The man devotes an entire chapter to "The World-Creating English Bible" (my emphasis), for crying out loud. And he points out that "Americans remain to this day more at peace than any other Western people with the Bible and Christianity" (p. 41; cf. p. 211). This religiosity, combined with the spirit of free enterprise, characterizes the peculiar American Right.
The flip side is that "American liberals tend not to believe in Americanism--or more precisely, in America" (p. 195). They are the Americans who are not at peace with either traditional religion or free enterprise. But they are, in this, no more "un-American" than "conservatives" who preach universal ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy at the expense of national security, cohesion, and sovereignty. "Americanism" is an ideological test; Americanness is a given.
Gelernter rightly observes that
The culture war that has split this country since the late 1960s is largely a war over America's Puritan legacy. Do we live with it or against it? [p. 39]The irony he overlooks is that post-Puritan New England (plus its Left Coast annex and cosmopolitan New York City) is the heartland of anti-Americanism.
When he comes to foreign policy, Gelernter portrays the previous ninety years as a protracted exercise in the universalization of the American project. He does have one brilliant insight:
World War II was only the semifinals in a long match for world domination. In the semifinals the United States played Imperial Japan; the Soviets played Nazi Germany. In the finals (aka [sic] the Cold War), the United States beat the Soviets....Europe today is essentially the Europe that emerged from the First World War [emphasis in the original] ... with its love of self-determination [except, of course, for the "commanding, brooding presence" of the EU] and its loathing of imperialism and war; its liberal Germany and its weak, shrunken, uneasy Russia (a shadow of its former imperial self); its map crammed with small states; its casual, endemic anti-Semitism; [its grovelling appeasement, now directed towards Islam rather than fascism]; its undertone of self-hatred and guilt; and, of course, its contempt for America. [pp. 172-179]
The Versailles system has been resumed and extended. Now all the empires are dissolved, including the USSR and Yugoslavia. (Bessarabia [AKA "Moldova"] and Kosovo have yet to fulfill their manifest destiny, but that's a matter of time.) The powers of "legitimacy in decadence" (in Paul Johnson's phrase) hide under the skirts of "collective security": now, instead of the League of Nations, they have the UN, NATO, and the EU with which to abase and aggrandize themselves in their perverse and paradoxical fashion.
There are two great, glaring discrepancies between the aftermaths of the First and Third World Wars, both of which Gelernter demonstrates implicitly.
(1) This time, the US has been coasting on the momentum of the Cold War. The disintegration of the USSR left us the great Power in the world (for about a decade). In the 1920s, Wilson was repudiated, and the nation turned inward again. As Gelernter points out: "FDR did not decide that America must enter World War II. That decision was made for us, in Tokyo and Berlin" (pp. 183-184; emphasis in the original).
(2) As he says many times in many ways, America was comparatively unaffected by World War I -- but subsequently, profoundly was affected by our temporary setback in the Cold War.
Vietnam was America's Great War, [emphasis in the original] its World War I. Vietnam made pacifism and appeasement the religion of America's cultural elite, just as the Great War did in western Europe. [p. 151].The backstabbers who cost us that battle in the Cold War are alive and well -- and Gelernter only speaks out on behalf of the arrogant fools who got us bogged down there in the first place. He duly corrects "four big falsehoods" (pp. 195-198), but completely misses two gigantic truths: (a) the brute fact that we lost; (b) the reason why we lost.
We were the Germans in that fight, South Vietnam our Austria-Hungary, North Vietnam our Serbia. The difference was that it didn't escalate into a general war. The conflict, not Communism, was limited by our policy of "containment."
9/11 unified the nation -- until we lost our way. Contemporary Wilsonianism has produced a twofold re-enactment of our Vietnam quagmire. The knee-jerk anti-Americanism of the Left, and the struthious isolationism of the Right, have both reasserted themselves.
In the glory days of imperialism, Iraq and Afghanistan, like South Korea and South Vietnam, would have been called "protectorates." It remains to be seen which way our protectorates in Sandland will go. All indications are towards the latter. In Korea, we fought the enemy to a stalemate in a conventional war, after which the South Koreans were free to build up their own nation. In South Vietnam, we tried to fight an unconventional war, simultaneously trying to do nation-building from above and abroad -- failing miserably in both endeavors.
Meanwhile, besides the menace of Islam we are faced with those of China and Mexico. In neither case is evangelical democratization appropriate. In the first place, the Chinese are just too big for us to push around. In the second place, whatever party happens to get democratically elected will be just as anti-American as the next, because the Mexicans have a vested interest in demographic imperialism at our expense. (I wouldn't count on the Cubans' gratitude for our opposition to Castro, either.)
Plain and simple, our foreign policy must serve our national interest, first and foremost our national security. I love my country simply because it is my own. With all due respect to Mr. Gelernter, I despise those fair-weather friends, those sycophants and idolaters who love it because it happens to be big, powerful, and full of hot air. I want America to be mighty so that no one will dare to fuck with us; I don't want to go out and fuck with anybody else.
© 2011 by Karl Jahn