The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Noonan: Are You Feeling Sufficiently Guilty? If Not, I Can Aid

Posted on | April 23, 2011 | 11 Comments

by Smitty

Another Saturday, another Peggy Noonan column to fisk. In this episode, some hypothetical Afghan strawman shows up to judge America for its sins. For a far more hyperbolic take, see The Onion’s Election 2000 coverage.

Noonan Smitty
I want to talk a little more this holiday week about what I suppose is a growing theme in this column, and that is an increased skepticism toward U.S. military intervention, including nation building. Our republic is not now in a historical adventure period—that is not what is needed. We are or should be in a self-strengthening one. Our focus should not be on outward involvement but inner repair. Bad people are gunning for us, it is true. We should find them, dispatch them, and harden the target. (That would be, still and first, New York, though Washington too.) We should not occupy their lands, run their governments, or try to bribe them into bonhomie. We think in Afghanistan we’re buying their love, but I have been there. We’re not even renting it. So far, so good. Curious when you were in A-stan, Peggy, but there is no need to ask if that was when the King was still around.
Our long wars have cost much in blood and treasure, and our military is overstretched. We’re asking soldiers to be social workers, as Bing West notes in his book on Afghanistan, “The Wrong War.” Strategy is always subordinate to policy. Hopefully your analysis grasps this.
I saw it last month, when I met with a tough American general. How is the war going? he was asked. “Great,” he said. “We just opened a new hospital!” This was perhaps different from what George Patton would have said. He was allowed to be a warrior in a warrior army. His answer would have been more like, “Great, we’re putting more of them in the hospital!” Now, what happened between Patton and Petraeus? One hopes that the rest of the column ponders that, because it’s fairly important to grasp what’s gone wrong before offering fixes.
But there are other reasons for a new skepticism about America’s just role and responsibilities in the world in 2011. One has to do with the burly, muscular, traditional but at this point not fully thought-through American assumption that our culture not only is superior to most, but is certainly better in all ways than the cultures of those we seek to conquer. We have always felt pride in our nation’s ways, and pride isn’t all bad. But conceit is, and it’s possible we’ve grown as conceited as we’ve become culturally careless. As Victor Davis Hanson put it in a speech I saw on PJTV, and transcribed:
History tells all of us that nobody gets a pass. Your [country’s] perpetual existence is not guaranteed. If you do not believe in yourself, and believe that you’re better than the alternative, and have the educational skills to come to that empirical judgment, then there is no reason for you to continue, and often you won’t.
Not to place America above criticism, but don’t sell her out, either, Peggy.
We are modern, they are not. We allow women freedom, they do not. We have the rule of law, they do not. We are technologically sophisticated, they are the Flintstones. We have religious tolerance. All these are sources of legitimate satisfaction and pride, especially the last. Our religious pluralism is, still, amazing. All of your points are both true, and, under serious attack at the moment.
I lately think of Charleston, S.C., that beautiful old-fashioned, new-fashioned city. On a walk there in October I went by one of the oldest Catholic churches in the South, St. Mary’s, built in 1789. Across the street, equally distinguished and welcoming, was Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Jewish congregation founded in 1749. They’ve been across from each other peacefully and happily for a long time. I walked down Meeting Street to see the Hibernian Society, founded in 1801. My people wanted their presence known. In a brochure I saw how the society dealt with Ireland’s old Catholic-Protestant split. They picked a Protestant president one year, a Catholic the next, and so on. In Ireland they were killing each other. In America they were trading gavels. What a country! What a place. What a new world. I love Charleston, too.
We have much to be proud of. And we know it. But take a look around us. Don’t we have some reasons for pause, for self-questioning? Don’t we have a lot of cultural repair that needs doing?
Why yes: yes, we do. Starting with the last century, and the Progressive twits who’re eager to scuttle what is good about the country.
Imagine for a moment that you are a foreign visitor to America. You are a 40-year-old businessman from Afghanistan. You teach a class at Kabul University. You are relatively sophisticated. You’re in pursuit of a business deal. It’s your first time here. There is an America in your mind; it was formed in your childhood by old John Ford movies and involves cowboy hats and gangsters in fedoras. You know this no longer applies—you’re not a fool—but you’re not sure what does. You land at JFK, walking past a TSA installation where they’re patting the genital areas of various travelers. Americans sure have a funny way of saying hello! I’ve actually met somebody, a restaurateur, who more or less fits the description proffered. And he can’t wait to get the frappé out of here, and back to the States: he’s only in this place because the money as a translator is too good, and the economic debacle visited by the current Administration is too bad. A representative sample? maybe not, but let’s see how your argument unfolds.
You get to town, settle into a modest room at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue. You’re jet-lagged. You put on the TV, not only because you’re tired but because some part of you knows TV is where America happens, where America is, and you want to see it. Headline news first. The world didn’t blow up today. Then:
Click. A person named Snooki totters down a boardwalk. She lives with young people who grunt and dance. They seem loud, profane, without values, without modesty, without kindness or sympathy. They seem proud to see each other as sexual objects.
Well, if you’re a serious, moral, religious type, you don’t let people dump trash in your head. If you’re a secular person, you may watch the trash. Your random businessman is more likely to fit the latter category. Even if the former, said businessman is probably not a Salafist idealogue.
So, are we supposed to feel guilty about American culture, or are we trying to take some accurate, objective look?
Click. “Real Housewives.” Adult women are pulling each other’s hair. They are glamorous in a hard way, a plastic way. They insult each other. Should we make one the Speaker of the House, so that the plastic chick can insult us all, and our Constitution? I just heard some Afghans using some profanity today. Cat fights happen. Should we censor this, perhaps the way they might do in Iran? I mean, I don’t consume this sort of thing anyway: no skin of my nose.
Click. Local news has a riot in a McDonalds. People kick and punch each other. Click. A cable news story on a child left alone for a week. Click. A 5-year-old brings a gun to school, injures three. Click. A show called “Skins”—is this child pornography? Click. A Viagra commercial. Click. A man tried to blow up a mall. Click. Another Viagra commercial. Click. This appears to be set in ancient Sparta. It appears to involve an orgy. Would suicide bombings satisfy you? What is your prescription, then?
You, the Kabul businessman, expected some raunch and strangeness but not this—this Victoria Falls of dirty water! You are not a philosopher of media, but you know that when a culture descends to the lowest common denominator, it does not reach the broad base at the bottom, it lowers the broad base at the bottom. This “Jersey Shore” doesn’t reach the Jersey Shore, it creates the Jersey Shore. It makes America the Jersey Shore. I simply do not grasp your guilt management protocol, Peggy. Nor do I think your Afghan strawman necessarily would, either. I mean, if America is such an open sewer of iniquity, why come here in the first place? Note that I’m not defending the lousy items you mention as such. It might be that I have a much deeper taste for Puritanism than you. However, wisdom knows that external forces like law and guilt are not conducive to the desired inner renewal.
You surf on, hoping for a cleansing wave of old gangster movies. Or cowboys. Anything old! But you don’t find TMC. You look at a local paper. Headline: New York has a 41% abortion rate. Forty-four percent of births are to unmarried women and girls. Viva Progress! Godlessness sure produces some ugly fruit, don’t it?
You think: Something’s wrong in this place, something has become disordered. This is subtle. ‘Has become’. Ancient Commenter Solomon is pertinent:

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.
Eccl 7:10

In other words, wallowing in nostalgia will get you nothing but flack from bloggers.

The next morning you take Amtrak for your first meeting, in Washington. You pass through the utilitarian ugliness, the abjuration of all elegance that is Penn Station. On the trip south, past Philadelphia, you see the physical deterioration that echoes what you saw on the TV—broken neighborhoods, abandoned factories with shattered windows, graffiti-covered abutments. It looks like old films of the Depression! Kabul still has Soviet-era rubble. This is the fruit of Socialism, as we feed Progressive Cthulhu, Peggy: sycophants will also be devoured as we achieve Ultimate Equality.
By the time you reach Washington—at least Union Station is august and beautiful—you are amazed to find yourself thinking: “Good thing America is coming to save us. But it’s funny she doesn’t want to save herself!”
Look, the Afghans I’ve met are very Present Tense people. They’re just simply not this abstracted. But allow me not to get in the way of your fable.
My small point: Remember during the riots of the 1960s when they said “the whole world is watching”? Well, now the whole world really is. Everyone is traveling everywhere. We’re all on the move. Cultures can’t keep their secrets. Watchin’ what? That liberty can produce sin? American Greatness, too, is being squandered to feed Progressive Cthulhu. When you’re willing to step up to the plate, and understand that you’re more in the problem column than the solution column, Peggy, you truly shall have turned a corner. Do it soon, lady.
The whole world is in the Hilton, channel-surfing. The whole world is on the train, in the airport, judging what it sees, and likely, in some serious ways, finding us wanting. The world is doing the same things. Does American Exceptionalism, and the liberty upon which it’s founded, imply that the U.S. should assume some watered-down theocratic role? Should we implement, for example, Roman Catholic Social Justice Doctrine?
And, being human, they may be judging us with a small, extra edge of harshness for judging them and looking down on them. Who is judging whom, and how?
We have work to do at home, on our culture and in our country. A beautiful Easter to St. Mary’s Church of Charleston, and happy Passover to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Sure, as individuals.


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