Monday, April 24, 2006

Preaching and Practice

This runs as a deep, unconscious current in the modern American psyche. In Europe, it flows the other direction, and very much on the surface.

Timothy Garton Ash, writing in "Commentary" in 2005 (article since vanished behind subscription wall) noted that American wars -- especially the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War -- ultimately have been seen in their outcomes as "morally redemptive."

America's wars are exceptional in that they've generally turned out victorious and generally been fought elsewhere. Without doing irrecoverable damage to the homeland, they have made American society stronger, better, more true to its virtues.

[Yet the South, which did suffer horribly in a war it lost, also found a sense of moral cleansing, as well as a strengthening mythology, in the long struggle and inevitable defeat.]

Especially in the realm of social equality, the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War shamed or forced Americans into doing what we know ought to have been done long before, but which we were too lazy or distracted to accomplish.

George Kennan foresaw such consequences at the start of the Cold War:

Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.

He knew, to win it, we'd have to start practicing more of what we preached. And so concern over how America would be perceived abroad maneuvered a reluctant Eisenhower into backing Supreme Court desegregation with presidential authority.

Great advances in civil rights also were made in the immediate wake of the Revolution and World War I. It was the years of peace that allowed reaction's tide to rise and roll them back.

The contrast with Europe, as Ash pointed out, couldn't be more stark:

[M]uch of present-day European consciousness is still shaped by the senseless slaughter of World War I and, in Germany, by the Nazi debacle. Thus, in the decades after 1945, the Germans sought to reclaim their moral standing by, as it were, unloading their sovereignty onto a host of international institutions and by turning their children into pacifists. Since this was a transformation we applauded, it should not surprise us that Germans now denounce the American strategy of preemptive war.

Principled wars are one of the major engines of progress in America. It doesn't mean wars ought to be sought. But when they are forced on us, they have undone decades of social sloth in a few quick, hard years.

Which is one reason it depressed me to see the progressives so utterly reject the bid to overthrow Middle Eastern tyranny and bring democracy to Iraq, and even in some cases to deny that there was such a thing as a "War on Islamist Terroism." And which is one reason it depressed me that, after Sept. 11, Bush simply told Americans to go about life as usual, and still hasn't spoken in any large way of sacrifices or collective efforts.

That fight necessarily involves the Bush Administration with allies such as European homosexuals hounded by Islamists, feminist Muslims, persecuted black Africans in Darfur, and non-Christian religious minorities in Iran and elsewhere. It involves the White House in a core conflict against the very idea of theocracy and religious fundamentalism.

And holding the moral high ground in such a war will force us to straighten up and fly right at home. It offers progressives the leverage they need to effect changes that have waited years for their chance.

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