Herbert London is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books) and most recently America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
Do I Live in America?
In Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward the principal character is mesmerized and put to sleep for decades. When he awakens, the world has changed; the socialist impulses of Bellamy and his technological predictions (quite accurate it turns out) are very much on display. Most noteworthy, individual aspirations have been converted into collective designs; wealth has spread and new forms of technology litter the landscape.
While I find myself disagreeing with much of Bellamy's philosophical disposition, it strikes me the exercise of looking back is a useful one. Suppose for example I was mesmerized in 1965 and awakened in 2009. How might the nation appear to a pilgrim who has been asleep for more than four decades?
For one thing, I might ask if I live in America. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was predicated on the idea that race and ethnicity should be neither a handicap nor an asset in public life. In 2009, by contrast Ms. Sonia Sotomayor, despite a lackluster record as a judge, is likely to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice because of her Hispanic background and her "empathetic" experience with the poor and downtrodden.
In the 1960s it was clear despite growing cynicism that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Our Founders recognized the nexus between biblical prescriptions and political institutions. By 2009 America has become a nation that has deracinated the Judeo-Christian tradition from public life. In fact, President Obama said, the United States is one of the largest Muslim nations in the world even though roughly 3 million Muslims live in this nation of 320 million people.
In the 1960s SDS and many anti-war supporters marched in candlelight vigils to protest the war in Vietnam, but despite hardcore radicals, most Americans and certainly most legislators supported their country. By 2009 a substantial number of Americans want to see the U.S. lose a war in Iraq and be forced into an ignominious surrender in the Middle East.
In the 1960s General Motors was the world's largest car manufacturer and a company that stood as an example of the nation's economic strength. In 2009 G.M. is in bankruptcy, more than 60 percent of the company is owned by the government, and half of its brands have been removed from the market. Moreover, the nation's free market -- described by Europeans pejoratively as Anglo-Saxon capitalism -- has now been replaced by the command economy with Washington largely in control of the means of production. Eighty percent of American International Group is now owned by the Federal Government; 30 percent of Citicorp is in the same position; federal authorities imposed a merger on the Chrysler Corporation, and, if President Obama has his way, health care representing 17 percent of the economy will be controlled by the federal government as well.
In 1963 American students reached the apogee on SAT tests and international exams in science and math vis-a-vis foreign competitors. By 2009 the U.S. students scored near the bottom in these international tests, notwithstanding an enormous increase in educational spending in the last four decades.
There are days when I think it would be best if I could remain asleep in 1965. The nation was somewhat innocent, as was I. Socialism was a concept mocked here and abroad, even in the Soviet Union by homegrown intellectuals. The United States was a hegemon on the world stage, often criticized, but also recognized as a world power. It was inconceivable that any president, in the presence of world leaders, would apologize for the transgressions in American foreign policy.
Race was being subordinated as a concept for employment and college admission in the sixties, despite the Jim Crow legacy of the past. God was in his heaven and much was right in the world.
Now I question whether the America of 2009 is American at all. Is this merely an aberrational moment or are we headed down a new and, in my judgment, a dangerous direction, one inconsistent with our traditions and principles?
Perhaps someone will wake me from this disturbing dream and say, yes, America is well, and still the land of the free. But I've come to learn that being mesmerized can be very discomforting.
The Ugly American
Listening to the American tourists traveling in France, it is apparent we are in the "age of Obama." The Ugly American has morphed into the Apologetic American, the one who is sorry for everything. This American apologizes for breathing French air; for being colonists; for appearing arrogant.
It is hard to fathom how this new American can apologize to the insufferable French for arrogance or colonialism, but there you have it. American tourists merely ape their president. In this period, Americans are unequivocally sorry.
Now in order for these tourists to appear genuine, they must impose historical amnesia on themselves. Forget the role 19- and 20-year-old soldiers played in liberating France during World War II. Forget American blood that seeped into the sands at Normandy. Forget the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-torn France. In fact, forget much of the 20th century.
Rewrite history so that the French appear as sophisticates and Americans hopelessly "nouveau arriviste." Not only must you rewrite this history, it must be rewritten by the Americans themselves. They will be their own revisionists.
From any point of view, this is sickening. The American apologist has nothing for which apology is necessary. If anyone should be bowing and offering thanks it is the French. When a Frenchman recently upbraided Americans for only speaking English, he should have been reminded that were it not for Americans the French would only be speaking one language as well, German.
Admittedly the French generally know more about wine than Americans, but when it comes to manners, what the French call, "politesse," Americans generally beat them at their own game.
Every time an American apologizes for Vietnam or "wrecking the Atlantic alliance" (to quote President Obama) I want to slap him into sensible thought. It was the French who left Vietnam with their tail between their legs and President Eisenhower and Kennedy who bailed them out.
It was De Gaulle who refused to join NATO and demanded a "force de frappe," a toothless response to Soviet nuclear threats. And it is the United States that is responsible for putting teeth in the European fighting force. Although probably uncharitable, some have argued that the French gave the United States the Statue of Liberty because she has only one arm in the air.
Now that President Obama has become an instant hero in France, ala J. F. K., it is not uncommon for a Frenchman to say at last America has put race behind it and selected a black man. Whenever I hear this comment I always ask, when will France elect an Algerian. My comment is usually greeted with silence.
President Obama has given impetus to the contemporary French argument that the United States may not be so bad after all. But this is an America that refuses to flex its military muscle; an America that appears confused and without direction. If one can find a stance in the new administration, it is the accommodative spirit that cannot distinguish between an enemy and a friend. It is an America that says pleasantries about Iran and castigates Israel. It is an administration that wants to turn back the clock in its dealings with Muslim nations, but refuses to mention the sacrifices Americans made for Muslims in the Balkans and Iraq among other places.
Although it is an unpopular position, I prefer the Ugly American to the Apologetic American: the one wearing the horribly garish Hawaiian shirt, the one who brags about American accomplishments, the person who knows America bailed out France and isn't afraid to say so, the one who interred political correctness, and the one who refuses to apologize for American actions. Americans sacrificed blood and treasure for Europeans. That is nothing to be ashamed of.
As I see it, we need a dose of Yankee-first patriotism. That surge of nationalistic fervor might do us some good and might even have a chastening effect on the French (notice I said might).
It is strange that I long for the Ugly American I once criticized, but whenever I hear the Apologetic American on the Champs Elysee, I only wish the past can be resurrected. Give me the Ugly American any day of the week rather than his contemporary counterpart.
The Iranian Election in Historic Terms
The 2009 election in Iran has exposed the problematic dimensions of President Obama's "soft power" approach. By any standard this election of Ahmadinejad appears to be a sham. Millions of votes were counted in just two hours after the polls closed. Internet sites were shut down. Protestors were beaten and arrested. And in the village where Mir Hossein Mousavi, the chief rival to Ahmadinejad, resides, anecdotal evidence indicates widespread tampering.
Yet, even though Vice President Biden said there is "some real doubt" about the election result, the United States government is committed to continued efforts at negotiation in order to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. "Talks with Iran," it was noted, "are not a reward for good behavior, they are only the consequence" of President Obama's decision that talks with Iranian leaders are in our national security interest.
But is that really the case?
A thunderstorm of protest across Iran clearly demonstrates that many Iranians, perhaps most Iranians, feel cheated. It appears as if the so-called "green revolution" has traction with a passion for change evident with youthful demonstrators on the streets of every major Iranian city. Despite efforts at suppression by government authorities, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter among other outlets offer a communications network for the disenchanted.
As I watched YouTube clips from the comforts of my home, I heard crowds shouting, "Death to the dictator."
Mousavi has formally asked the Guardian Council to annul the election result he described as a fraud. But there is little doubt his plea will not be heeded. How this discontent will unfold remains to be seen, but a network of young, middle class dissenters could emerge as a force putting pressure on Ahmadinejad and Iran's theocracy to take a less confrontational posture toward the West.
This, of course, is precisely the dilemma President Obama now faces. On the one hand, he has staked out a position as a negotiator with the Guardian Council -- the twelve member clerical body associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, he must recognize that overtures towards the existing regime run headlong into the emerging grassroots spirit for change. If through negotiation he legitimizes the mullahs, he will lose the youthful demonstrators who have put their lives on the line for liberalization.
The question the president must address is which side of history will he be on. Will he consider the passion for change inexorable or will he, like Ahmadinejad, consider the demonstrations like the unrest after a soccer match?
The backdrop for President Obama's stance is the Iranian enrichment of uranium and probable development of nuclear weapons. Should the president embrace the view of demonstrators, his negotiation position will be compromised. Should he negotiate with the mullahs lending legitimacy to the present regime, he will be seen as the opponent of democratic reform. What if the negotiations do not result in the cessation of Iran's nuclear program? Will this investment of political capital be viewed as a foolish gesture that only alienated those who might bring about a regime change?
Clearly history has a way of intruding on grand designs. The demonstrations on the ground could be the beginning of a major shift in the fortunes of Iran. A stable Iran, without imperial goals, could set in motion reforms that might cascade through the region. Is this the beginning of the end for the Iranian theocratic state or is this merely a momentary pause in the move for ever tighter controls on the Iranian people?
President Obama had better be prepared to answer these questions since the pace of change could be unpredictable. On one matter there cannot be any doubt: the confidence in "soft power" espoused by the president has been called into question. He sits on the horns of a dilemma, and historical movements will decide questions he has only started to consider.
Is Iowa at the Cusp of Change
Here in the heart of the heartland in Sioux City, Iowa, a "pitchfork mentality" is emerging. In a town that has stockyards and a meatpacking company that yields what locals call "aroma alley," the Republican base, which has been in retreat since the presidential election, is energized and the Democratic majority is growing angry at its own leaders.
Two issues have emerged as critical: a government plan to prevent the deductibility of state taxes on the federal tax form, and a state Supreme Court decision to mandate homosexual marriages.
If subject to a vote these proposals would lose 85 to 15 percent according to recent polls. Yet the state court is seemingly oblivious to public sentiment and is intent on making the law rather than interpreting it. And the Democratic majority in the legislature anticipates a revenue windfall if the tax proposal passes, a windfall it cannot resist.
These two issues are the front burner matters in a state that voted for Barack Obama in the presidential election. But support for the president is evaporating quickly. In Sioux City even the Democrats at a recent rally contend "he is moving too fast and too far." Iowans believe America is sliding into a command economy that imperils freedom. Despite the claims by hard-core leftists like Janeane Garofalo that these cross-country tea parties are nothing more than discontent with the president's race, I couldn't find a scintilla of evidence to support this claim.
The concern is real and deeply felt uniting most Republicans and many Democrats. These are rumblings in the heartland that President Obama should heed, although that doesn't appear to be the case. Iowa farmers don't know John Maynard Keynes, but they do know a power grab when they see one. Fiercely individualistic Iowans are resistant to a Washington bureaucracy that wants to tell them how to live and work. Priming the pump is seemingly acceptable as a method for kicking the economy into gear until the decisions affect personal behavior.
I don't know if Americans are yet ready for a second American Revolution as some bloggers are suggesting, but I do know that in a state conservative in outlook and disposition, anger is building that may be unprecedented. The "I'm angry and won't take it any more" refrain at rallies is often bipartisan with some Democrats saying if we only knew "this is the change we've been waiting for," they might have kept on waiting.
Admittedly the Iowa caucus launched the Obama campaign for president about which some Iowans are quite proud. Many state Democrats argue it is still too early to assess the president's performance. That may be true, but the policy directions established with the Stimulus Bill, the Appropriations Bill and the budget proposal indicate an enormous transfer of capital from the private to the public sector and an accompanying transfer of power as well. This change cannot be overlooked even for those inclined to support the president.
It is possible that if there is an uptick in the economy, the public mood may change. However, it will soon be obvious blame cannot be leveled against former President Bush for the problems Obama inherited. Both the proposals and the state of the economy will soon belong to President Obama and his team. Therefore excuses and rationalizations are not likely to fly.
As I see it, the tea parties are a genuine cri de coeur. They arise as a plaintive eruption from the grassroots. Where this will lead is anyone's guess since these events are dispersed across the country. At the moment no one to my knowledge has attempted to translate the evident frustration into a political movement. But that could happen.
President Obama has chosen to ignore or dismiss these actions. That is a major error. He would be far wiser to address the concerns directly. The longer the anger festers, the more it becomes an impediment to his political fortunes. 2010 isn't far off for a congressional realignment and 2012 isn't far either for a Republican in the White House. These tea parties may auger a change as formidable as the one America once experienced in Boston Harbor.
Obama on D Day
On June 6, 1944, the United States and its allies launched the largest air and sea armada in world history. The purpose of this mission was clear: liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi despotism.
The landings on the Normandy beaches led to unprecedented death and destruction. American soldiers leaving their amphibious landing crafts measured their life expectancy in minutes. In the first hour of battle hundreds lost their lives and in succeeding waves thousands were killed as the beaches at Omaha and Utah were soaked with the blood of young men in their teens and early twenties.
At Pointe du Hoc Rangers scaled the sheer cliffs on rope hangers. When one was killed by German bullets another stepped on the precarious rungs. Of the 224 Rangers who scaled those cliffs only 90 survived, but as historians observed, rarely in history has there been such a display of courage, fortitude, and sacrifice.
This was the beginning of a great epoch in history that led ultimately to the defeat of Hitler's Germany. But history has a way of describing the big picture and leaving out the tales of individual bravery by young men who a year or two earlier were playing high school basketball, working on a farm, or applying to college. History called their number and they responded. Tom Brokaw called them "America's greatest generation."
It is hard to know if they made history or history demanded heroic deeds from them. Perhaps it was a little of both. But standing in the cemetery at the Normandy Beach and observing row after row of those who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves, I am humbled by those who died so future generations could live freely.
There is another thought that crossed my mind in this crowded necropolis. I don't understand how anyone, much less the president of the United States, could apologize for American actions abroad in the last century or this one. With all the mistakes and miscalculations, there has never been a force for good more notable than the United States military.
Ask the citizens of Caen, Bayeux, St. Lo, Archante what they thought about G.I.s in their midst. Residents of these towns were saved from enslavement by Americans who fought Panzer divisions in their backyards. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley left devastation in their advancing wake, but they brought with them armies that yielded freedom and set the stage for a level of prosperity Europe has enjoyed ever since.
It is difficult for most Europeans to remember the past. After all, who wants to remember an uncle that bailed you out of a jam? Here in Normandy, however, conditions are different. Citizens of this region were there on the front line. Omaha Beach is Bloody Omaha to them and the American flag still stands as a reminder.
This June, the 65th anniversary of D Day will be celebrated. For most Americans and most Europeans it is simply another day in late spring. Some octogenarians may remember that fateful day when the liberation of Europe began. Many, however, knowing nothing about history will be disinclined to pay any special attention to the day.
I recall seeing Steven Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan, in which, with extraordinary verisimilitude, the director recaptured the events at Omaha Beach. As the film began and the bloodshed was evident, a young lady seated behind me asked her friend "What war do you think this is?"
For the fallen heroes lying in their graves this ignorance is lamentable. Perhaps it explains why President Obama can apologize and apologize again and many Americans can applaud, or at the very least, accept his gesture for foreign consumption. I cannot. I am appalled that we can ignore, forget, or rationalize away American heroism.
I don't think we should ever apologize for what the United States has done to extricate millions from the yoke of totalitarian control. It is not arrogance to recall the limbs that were shattered and the bodies broken to set history on the course of democracy, imperfect as it is.
Before President Obama stands supinely before the G-20 again and engages in a form of national self-flagellation, I would urge him to stand amid the crosses and stars in Normandy cemetery and recall the sacrifices made by those youngsters so that he could be president of the United States and breathe an unadorned version of freedom. *
"A people . . . who are possessed of the spirit of commerce, who see and who will pursue their advantages, may achieve almost anything." --George Washington