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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Peggy Noonan's Diagnosis and the Big American Idea

She saith, emphasis mine and in bold where present:
While Americans feel increasingly disheartened, their leaders evince a mindless . . . one almost calls it optimism, but it is not that.

It is a curious thing that those who feel most mistily affectionate toward America, and most protective toward it, are the most aware of its vulnerabilities, the most aware that it can be harmed. They don't see it as all-powerful, impregnable, unharmable. The loving have a sense of its limits.

When I see those in government, both locally and in Washington, spend and tax and come up each day with new ways to spend and tax—health care, cap and trade, etc.—I think: Why aren't they worried about the impact of what they're doing? Why do they think America is so strong it can take endless abuse?

I think I know part of the answer. It is that they've never seen things go dark. They came of age during the great abundance, circa 1980-2008 (or 1950-2008, take your pick), and they don't have the habit of worry. They talk about their "concerns"—they're big on that word. But they're not really concerned. They think America is the goose that lays the golden egg. Why not? She laid it in their laps. She laid it in grandpa's lap.

They don't feel anxious, because they never had anything to be anxious about. They grew up in an America surrounded by phrases—"strongest nation in the world," "indispensable nation," "unipolar power," "highest standard of living"—and are not bright enough, or serious enough, to imagine that they can damage that, hurt it, even fatally.

We are governed at all levels by America's luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists but they're not optimists—they're unimaginative. They don't have faith, they've just never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don't mind it when people become disheartened. They don't even notice.
A few thoughts, just as they occur to me:

"Mindless?" I am pretty close to agreeing. Too many people--I will admit to this being true of both sides of the political aisle, though I think it is worst on the Far Left side--no longer think. They do not evaluate the facts of the current situation in light of man's nature and the historical record. Instead, they rearrange and regurgitate sound bites, trying to define the terms of the debate so as to make themselves look better. Whether they are right or wrong matters less to them than whether they can lob a zinger at you.

Yes, I definitely am aware that this thing we call America is fragile in some ways. It is very fragile indeed. Sometimes, I wonder if people really understand what America, the real America is, or was, and what it is now turning into.

I'm not unaware of the realities of cultural and racial backgrounds when it comes to nationhood. Indeed, when it talks about "the nations," the Bible isn't really talking about the modern political state at all. It's talking about what the missionaries call "people groups" today. A nation is bound together by language, by shared experiences and cultural values, by shared history and ritual--but in America's case, at least, that is not all, or was not all, it is bound together by. America, more than any other nation in the history of the world, is, or was, bound together by an idea: the idea, drawn from Biblical thinking, distilled over six hundred years or so of Scots/Anglo/American political thinking and experience, that men are created equal by and before an almighty God, that they have intrinsic rights granted by that God which cannot be legitimately denied by any institution of man, since they were not granted by and do not proceed from any institution of man. I am always somewhat pained to have to point out to modern audiences that I am not at all making this up. Our history is shot through with it. You can start with Lex, Rex and follow the trail all the way up to our Declaration of Independence, which states the idea in terms as flat and stark as those I have just used, even though penned by the most deistic of our Founding Fathers. If there is a genuinely American Idea, this is it. It is an idea big enough to allow people from widely disparate backgrounds and with terrifically different cultures to come together as a nation. No doubt having a common language, having the same heroes, telling the same stories, etc., is important, but for America, the American Idea is the most important element in national unity.

Big ideas can unify people. I have seen this over and over again. But when I say, "big," I am talking about "big," not what some idiot politician thinks of as "big," but really, genuinely and truly big. When a politician talks about big ideas, he may be thinking of universally guaranteed health care, or a particular scheme of taxation. That is not really big. Nations do not coalesce around tax ideas or health care plans. Those are not national raisons d'etre. But the idea that you--yes, you--stand in the same status before God as any wealthy man, any ruler of nations, that has ever lived? That you have the same intrinsic rights, by the nature of your being, as any other man, that those rights cannot be taken away, not legitimately, by anyone? That all men bear the imago Dei, the image of God, and can all relate to one another on that basis?

Those are big ideas. Those can provide a basis for national unity amongst people from diverse backgrounds. But we are losing those big ideas. They are not taught in our government schools. Fewer and fewer people teach them at home. Publicly mentioning them will only get you ridiculed. And as these ideas fade into the background, as fewer and fewer people appreciate them for what they are and what they do, the nation--our nation, the American nation, a nation unique in the world's history--splinters. As a nation, we no longer have a vision of man that allows us to resist the pressures of disparate backgrounds.

Yes, America is strong--strong as long as it holds firmly to the idea that undergirds it. But when that idea is abandoned, when it is no longer taught, no longer understood by the mass of people born in this country, it will be very fragile indeed.

As to the rest of Ms. Noonan's remarks, I have to agree: much of what is going on now reflects a very shallow view of history. These people seem not to have realized that there has never, not once in human history, been a nation so strong, so stable, so utterly invincible as not to be capable of self-immolation and self-destruction. They don't seem to realize that they have the power to destroy the country, or that the practices they are now advocating have greatly damaged other countries, if not destroyed them outright. They are guilty of hubris of a very high order, and they worry me.

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