Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 11, 2001: A Defining Moment for Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

I was at home on that fateful morning, September 11, 2001. I woke up to news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center and watched the collapse of the South Tower on TV. I knew then that America and indeed the world would never be the same. On that beautiful late summer morn one of the major pillars of American exceptionalism came crashing down alongside the Twin Towers.

No longer would the two oceans guarantee America’s separation from the conflicts and hatreds of the Old World. For over two hundred years the United States had developed its republican institutions and its culture of liberty, rugged individualism, and “don’t tread on me” independence, free from interference by the aristocrats and warlords of Europe. There was no need for a huge military establishment and the intrusive authoritarian government that would accompany it; the perennial threats to liberty that Thomas Jefferson feared. The Second Amendment guaranteed that there would be men who knew how to use guns and who could organize themselves into voluntary militias when needed. No foreign army had dared set foot on the soil of the United States since that day in January 1815 when Old Hickory smashed the British army of Sir Edward Packenham at New Orleans. Frontier warfare with the Indians, while savage, was really just a nuisance that ad hoc citizen militias, with the occasional support of the small United States Army, could deal with. The lack of imperial predators in the New World and its geographical separation from the Old World helped make America unique and exceptional. It could permit liberty to flourish to an extent unthinkable in a nation surrounded by tribal enemies waiting to devour it. The most grievous wounds America suffered were those she inflicted on herself during the Civil War.

Andrew Jackson understood quite clearly what was at stake as he organized the militia of Tennessee for war in 1812:
But another and a nobler feeling should impell us to action. Who are we? and for what are we going to fight? are we the titled Slaves of George the third? the military conscripts of Napoleon the great? or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No, we are the free born sons of america; the citizens of the only republick now existing in the world; and the only people on Earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.
Americans could not take their rights, liberties, and property for granted. As much as we might like to ignore what Jacksonians think of as the dark world outside America as we pursue happiness, there are those in that world whom our pursuit of happiness fills with a burning rage. This lesson was brought home to Americans of our generation on September 11, 2001 amidst the death and destruction in the heart of our greatest city.

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the sneak attack, is credited with saying “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in 2001, like Hideki Tojo and the Japanese in 1941 did not understand Jacksonian America and its determination to assert America’s national honor and punish those who would do her harm. That miscalculation assured an aroused nation determined to avenge the attack. Ground Zero has, nine years later, become sacred soil for Jacksonian America. The 343 firefighters (along with police and emergency personnel) who went to their deaths while saving as many of their fellow citizens as humanly possible on that terrible day, rank with the 187 defenders of the Alamo in the annals of American honor and heroism. If not for their sacrifice the death toll that day would be much higher than the 2,977 who did perish, which was a toll higher than Pearl Harbor’s. Victor Davis Hanson, who understands Jacksonian America very well, concluded a discussion in The Wall Street Journal on “Why the Muslims Misjudged Us,” with a warning: “America has been a friend more often than not to you [the Muslim world]. But now you are on the verge of turning its people—who create, not follow, government—into an enemy: a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come.”

As time has passed, liberal progressive America and conservative Jacksonian America have drawn very different lessons from 9/11; differences that would shape the heated domestic politics and foreign policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Simply put, did the Islamic jihadists attack us for who we are or for what we do? The cognitive dissonance between left and right over the meaning of and proper response to 9/11 has grown so great that the two sides of America might as well be living on different planets.

Liberal elite progressives more or less blame America for provoking the wrath of the radical Islamic jihadists by our policies and actions in the Middle East. They agree with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that America was an accessory to the crimes of 9/11; that “in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.” In 2005 Imam Rauf gave a lecture in Australia on the conditions needed for coexistence between the Muslim world and the West. Responding to an audience member who asked why moderate Muslims don’t do more to stop the jihadis, Rauf accused the United States of perpetrating a level of injustice and bloodshed in the Muslim world that dwarfed 9/11.
The complexity arises, sir, from the fact that - from political problems and the history of the politics between the West and the Muslim world. We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US lead sanction against Iraq lead to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it.
Rauf implied that moderate Muslims would not seriously confront the jihadis until the United States and the West accepted responsibility for “its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world.” Writing off Muslim civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Gaza to collateral damage in the war on terror might look good on paper, but the hatred it aroused in people whose lives it destroyed would doom any American attempt to win Muslim hearts and minds. (See Pamela Geller’s extensive discussion on her Atlas Shrugs blog.)

So, Imam Rauf argued, America could not fight Islamic jihadist terror because it would only create more Islamic jihadist terror. This was a perspective widespread among liberal progressives in Europe and America too. America got what it deserved on 9/11 for its imperialism, its militarism, and its trashy pop culture. Susan Sontag, writing in the New Yorker a week after 9/11, spelled out the elite liberal consensus on the reasons for the attacks:

The disconnect between last Tuesdays monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
Since the attack was not provoked by who we are but by what we do, the only proper response was a retreat from nationalism and its symbols and toward greater conformity with the institutions and public sentiment of the world community. And it would be far seeing intellectuals like Sontag, immune to the siren songs of patriotism and American exceptionalism, who would lead a childlike public away from such retrograde notions as a desire for justice or revenge against those who’ve attacked your country. Liberal feminist Katha Pollitt wrote a piece in The Nation called “Put Out No Flags” which captured this attitude. When her 13-year-old daughter, a student at Stuyvesant High School just blocks from Ground Zero, suggested flying a flag out their apartment window, Pollitt was outraged.

Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I’m wrong—the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we’re both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins’s Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that's hers, but the living room is off-limits.
Actually there was no wave of harassment against Muslims. Most Americans did not assign collective blame to those who adhered to the faith of Islam. Nonetheless, nothing good could come from honoring the flag, as it symbolized all that a progressive feminist found repulsive in her own country. Nor would Pollitt countenance the use of force against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Macho militarism American style could not liberate the most oppressed people of Afghanistan, its women. American power could never be asserted in the cause of liberation; it would just be Vietnam redux. “At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society—the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists.” That is the Jacksonians. Islamic jihadis flying planes into buildings might be a crime that should be handled by the criminal justice system, but the true threat America faced came from her own multitude of jingoists, bigots, and warmongers.

Anatol Lieven, writing in the London Review of Books, likewise feared that the trauma of 9/11 would unleash all the worst impulses of Jacksonian nationalism. Al Qaeda, Lieven opined, had unwittingly provided Jacksonians with a new boogeyman, a new evil other, on which to focus their instinctual hatred and paranoia. Jacksonians had been “conditioned to see themselves as defenders of ‘civilisation’ against ‘savages’ – a distinction always perceived on the Christian Right as in the main racially defined. It is no longer possible in America to speak openly in these terms of American blacks, Asians and Latinos – but since 11 September at least, it has been entirely possible to do so about Arabs and Muslims.” Lieven believed that the Bush administration, in collusion with right-wing Zionist nationalists in Israel and America, would exploit this upsurge of nationalistic Islamophobia to push America into an unnecessary war in Iraq.

Jacksonians, “the radical nationalist Right in the US” which Lieven called the dominant force in the Bush administration, possessed an “absolute and absolutely sincere identification of themselves with the United States, to the point where the presence of any other group in government is seen as a usurpation, as profoundly and inherently illegitimate and ‘un-American’.” Jacksonians in general and the Bush administration in particular, were hell bent on “kicking Saddam’s ass” (my words, not Lieven’s) to overcome the humiliating legacy of defeat in Vietnam. In doing so they robbed America of a precious opportunity to regain the moral leadership of the world community. Lieven finds nothing of value in Jacksonian America, which he believes is fatally flawed by a culture of parochialism, white supremacy, and now Islamophobia. As a liberal internationalist, Lieven’s ultimate goal is to firmly embed American power within a multilateral framework controlled by institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. This will ensure that America’s power will be restrained and used only for constructive purposes as defined by the consensus of the international community. “What we see now” Lieven concluded with genuine sadness “is the tragedy of a great country, with noble impulses, successful institutions, magnificent historical achievements and immense energies, which has become a menace to itself and to mankind.”

But few critics went as far as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who shouted to his congregation that 9/11 was payback for all of America’s historical sins. Wright’s long list of charges in his indictment of America included: ethnic cleansing of the Indians—“We took this country, by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapajo, the Navajo. Terrorism!”; slavery—“we took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism!”; unleashing death and destruction among innocent civilians in non-white nations from Grenada and Panama to Iraq and Palestine and beyond—“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.” Ominously titling his sermon “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall,” Wright presents in his tirade the normative liberal progressive critique of American history taken to the extreme and stripped of its usual polite and proper academic language. “America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.” One of Wright’s parishioners who may, or may not, have been in the audience at Trinity United Church of Christ that Sunday following 9/11 was Illinois State Senator Barack Obama.

Now even Jacksonians admit, however reluctantly and painfully, that there is a dark side to American history. Black slavery and the dispossession of the American Indians were indeed its darkest parts. The truth is that almost all nations (including the Muslim nations) came into being through long histories of invasion, conquest, bloodshed, exploitation, persecution, and dispossession. Most don’t give it a second thought today. Because America, unlike other nations, was founded on such high ideals, our failure to consistently live up to those ideals is all the more glaring. Hey, we’re only human. We have paid a terrible price at times for these failures. Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address famously concluded that the Civil War was God’s judgment on America for the sin of slavery.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
No nation has done more than America, for all of its sins of commission and omission, to add to the total sum of human liberty and happiness. American history can be read as a continuing quest to live up to, however imperfectly, and actualize our founding ideals. America continues to build that shining city upon a hill, to ensure that all Americans, whatever their race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, can enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jacksonian America, having done much to overcome its history of white supremacy, provides the world with an all too rare example of empowerment and assertion by ordinary people who pursue happiness, practice democratic self government, and refuse to bow down to their elites. None of America’s sins of commission or omission could ever justify the mass murder of 9/11, whatever the good Reverend Wright might care to say.

But don’t tell that to Nicholas De Genova, an anthropologist formerly at Columbia University and now at the University of Amsterdam. During a six-hour faculty teach-in at Columbia University’s Low Library on March 26, 2003, a number of professors denounced the war in Iraq (then about a week old) “as a neocolonial American attempt at world domination.” Most agreed that George W. Bush was a bigger threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. De Genova proved to be the most controversial speaker, launching an attack on American patriotism as nothing more than imperial conquest and white supremacy. "Peace is not patriotic," De Genova proclaimed. “Peace is subversive, because peace anticipates a very different world than the one in which we livea world where the U.S. would have no place.” He went on to say that “U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy. U.S. flags are the emblem of the invading war machine in Iraq today. They are the emblem of the occupying power. The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military.” De Genova finished his tirade by calling “for a million Mogadishus,” to wipe out the U.S. forces in Iraq. Historian Eric Foner (many of whose works I’ve read over the years), one of the organizers of the event, tried to tone down the impact of De Genova’s performance by insisting that patriotism can be defined in more positive (non-Jacksonian) ways. “I refuse to cede the definition of American patriotism to George W. Bush,” Foner said. “I have a different definition of patriotism, which comes from Paul Robeson: The patriot is the person who is never satisfied with his country.” Foner took issue with De Genova’s statements that all American patriots are white supremacists, saying that they were “idiotic” and uncalled for. “We do not desire the deaths of American soldiers,” Foner insisted.

Foner’s remarks speak to what Peter Beinart calls the “patriotism of dissent” with which liberal progressives are most comfortable, as opposed to the Jacksonian conservative “patriotism of affirmation.” This goes to the heart of the intellectual and emotional chasm separating liberal progressives and Jacksonian conservatives. Put simply, Jacksonian conservatives affirm American exceptionalism, believe that the nation embodies the ideals of the founders, and want to preserve America as it was founded and as it is. Liberal progressives dissent from American exceptionalism and want to transform America into something better, something they believe more closely approaches the founding ideals. “If conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, liberals often see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past.” Jacksonians celebrate the greatness of America’s history and affirm America as a national folk community bound together by its history and culture. Liberal progressives don’t. “For liberals,” Beinart writes “America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it.”

Liberal progressives believe that patriotism means challenging America to live up to her ideals and take her to task when she doesn’t. One of the finest statements of the patriotism of dissent comes from Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist leader. Delivering an oration in 1852 titled What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass refused to celebrate the national holiday because “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” The downside of the patriotism of dissent is that it leads liberal progressives to celebrate abstract ideals but not the flesh-and-blood nation that more often than not lives up to them. And this in turn leads progressives to see themselves as citizens of the world rather than citizens of the United States.

The day after the teach-in, De Genova tried to clarify his remarks in a letter to the Columbia Spectator:

In my brief presentation, I outlined a long history of U.S. invasions, wars of conquest, military occupations, and colonization in order to establish that imperialism and white supremacy have been constitutive of U.S. nation-state formation and U.S. nationalism. In that context, I stressed the necessity of repudiating all forms of U.S. patriotism. I also emphasized that the disproportionate majority of U.S. troops come from racially subordinated and working-class backgrounds and are in the military largely as a consequence of a treacherous lack of prospects for a decent life. Nonetheless, I emphasized that U.S. troops are indeed confronted with a choice—to perpetrate this war against the Iraqi people or to refuse to fight and contribute toward the defeat of the U.S. war machine.
This goes far beyond a patriotism of dissent. Need I say that this is 1960s New Left radicalism, which having been decisively rejected by the American people, finds its last refuge in the elite ivory tower. This is a mindset that sees AmeriKKKa—the U.S. war machine and the mind-numbed robotic citizenry whose patriotism supports it—as the true focus of evil in the world. Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are the champions of liberty as they work to bring down the real evil empire. Matthew Continetti, then a Columbia student who attended the teach-in, concluded that liberal academics really do see the world in radically different terms than most Americans. “Let's pretend that al Qaeda didn't kill 3,000 innocents,” Continetti writes, “and that merciless regimes like Saddam Hussein’s wouldn't help them do it again and again. Tenured professors ensconced in Ivory Tower echo chambers — like those in the Low Library rotunda on Wednesday night — can afford to turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of a dangerous world. The rest of us cannot.”

I can understand why Jeremiah Wright has such venomous hatred for America. Black Liberation Theology, offensive and misguided as it is, nonetheless has just cause for grievance against America’s history of white supremacy, slavery, and Jim Crow. But Nicholas De Genova? What explains him? Or all the other privileged academics and intellectuals who have been among the biggest beneficiaries of American democracy. The U.S. Army that De Genova wished to rain a million Mogadishus on is the force that guarantees his freedom of intellectual inquiry. All the rights enshrined in the Constitution would mean nothing without brave men and women willing to put their lives on the line to defend them.

Ralph Peters, in a 2006 Weekly Standard piece, provides the best explanation I’ve found for this phenomenon of “unreasonable, even fanatical anti-Americanism” among the global and American intellectual and media elites. “How” Peters asks, “has the most beneficial great power in history been transformed by the international media into a villain of relentless malevolence?” The answer turns out to be quite simple: “In their secular way, the world's media elites are as unable to accept the reality confronting them as are Islamist fundamentalists. They hate the world in which they are forced to live, and America has shaped that world.” But why should this be so, considering how well the intelligentsia has done in the world America has shaped? Well, “The problem is that they wanted a different world, the utopia promised by socialist and Marxist theorists, an impossible heaven on earth that captured their imagination as surely as visions of paradise enrapture suicide bombers.” The intellectual elites, for all their professed secularism, actually share an irrational faith with the Islamic jihadists.

Peters, a true Jacksonian, finds it particularly offensive that the global intellectual elites present anti-Americanism “as a progressive, liberal movement, when it's bitterly reactionary, a spiteful, elitist revolt against the empowerment of the common man and woman (the core ethos of the United States).” This of course is why Jacksonian America and its most representative figures, like Sarah Palin or the men and women of the military, bring out the worst bile-spewing paroxysms from elite intellectuals. Another trait they share with the jihadis. Peters concludes his analysis with these thoughts on why Jacksonian America so infuriates those who oppose liberty:

Americas triumph shames the Middle East and Europe alike, and has long dented the pride of Latin America. But the brotherhood of Islamist terrorists and the tribe of global intellectuals who dominate the media are the two groups who feel the most fury toward America. The terrorists dream of a paradise beyond the grave; intellectuals fantasized about utopias on earth. Neither can stomach the practical success of the American way of life, with its insistence on individual performance and its resistance to unearned privilege. For the Islamists, Americas power threatens the promises of their faith. For world-intellectuals, America is the murderer of their most precious fantasies.
Jamie Glazov elaborates on Peters’s analysis in his book United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror. Glazov believes that 9/11 restored a sense of meaning and purpose to an anti-American left that had been devastated by the collapse of communism. Looking back to 1991, Glazov recalled many liberal progressives who “walked around like the life had been taken out of them,” lamenting that “There’s no alternative to capitalism anymore.” Finally, ten years later, “9/11 gave them their lives back. Their chins were up, their chests were out.”

The utopia of the liberal progressives, the “perfect world” of “equality and fraternity and brotherhood,” like the paradise of the Islamic jihadists, can only be built on the ruins of the existing world shaped by America. And this is why many on the anti-American left, some quite openly, celebrated 9/11. If “the new earth has to be built,” Glazov explains, “the old earth has to be destroyed. And guess who helps cause destruction? Islamic Jihad. Ground Zero very much represents the old earth.” Glazov goes on: “The destruction of the old earth and that’s why the Left celebrated ground zero. It represented the destruction upon which the new earth could start being built.”

In the American political tradition the individual’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness take precedence over any political institution. This was how Henry Thoreau put it in his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”: “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.” This is the key, Glazov believes, to understanding the burning hatred of leftists and jihadists for America. The individual’s pursuit of happiness is simply incompatible with the dreamed of all-encompassing utopia. “In this formula, the sacredness of the individual is the political faith. For the believer and the Islamist, such a formula is anathema. The individual’s right to pursue happiness, enshrined in America’s foundations, interferes with the building of the perfect unified social order; human joy and cheer are tacit endorsements of the present order that both leftist and Islamist utopians want to destroy.

Glazov’s analysis really applies to the left-wing extremist fringe. Most American liberal progressives did not celebrate 9/11 and its massive destruction and loss of life. But they did, at the very least, provide rationalizations on why America had it coming, why America was to blame for the tragedy she suffered on September 11, 2001. Aaron Klein on his WABC radio show (September 19, 2010) said that the mainstream liberal media will not interview Islamist leaders and spokesmen because they would be unable to hold on to their illusion that the jihadis attack us for our policies. Jihadist leaders, when given the microphone, make no secret that their goal is to impose an Islamic caliphate on the world. Jacksonians, like Ralph Peters, understand quite clearly who the enemies of liberty are. So in the wake of 9/11 Jacksonian America, as it has done so many times before, rallied to the flag and girded itself for the generation-long task of pulverizing Islamic jihadism, sending it to the same ash heap of history where it had sent Nazism and communism.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan