As September 11 passed, I found myself thinking about the Ground Zero mosque, and the bizarre on-again, off-again story of planned Koran burning in Florida. Why, I found myself wondering, have these stories come to the fore?
I’m more and more convinced that these strange episodes—as well as the even stranger fact that a significant number of Americans think Barack Obama is a Muslim—have almost nothing to do with Islam. Instead, they have everything to do with America.
I don’t think it is remotely rational to think that Islam poses a threat to American culture. But is rational to think that our elites are perfectly capable of selling out middle America to maintain power. This fear is percolating below the surface of what seems like a public fixation on Islam.
What I mean is this: It’s not hard to imagine that cherished symbols and real economic interests will be sacrificed so that our elites can continue to dominate American society and maintain their disproportionate power in the global economic system. It’s not hard, because it’s happened in the past.
By my reading of the 1960s, the atmosphere of crisis, stoked by student protests and black riots, and punctuated by horrifying assassinations, led to a very rapid and radical change in the basic mechanisms for allocating status and rewards in America. Basically, white middle class males got shafted in order to make room for aggressive programs designed to defuse tensions by incorporating blacks and women into the structures of power.
We can argue until we’re blue in the face over whether this was necessary or just. I’m inclined to think it was probably necessary, though initially done with a ham-handedness that was surely unjust. So-called social justice has a way of justifying a great deal of actual injustice. But that’s not my point. I want to focus on the historical facts of the matter: law schools suddenly had functional quotas; foundations, corporations, government appointments suddenly adopted new criteria.
All this was done for many reasons, some noble, but some rather cynical. One need not formulate conspiracy theories to identify a coordination of action that served to secure a system that was tottering—a system dominated by the liberal establishment.
Many commentators chalk up Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 to white backlash. No doubt so. But I would add a deeper fear of betrayal. It’s easy to forget how profoundly a spirit of concession dominated Jimmy Carter’s presidency (and continues to dominate his subsequent advocacy). We were to concede to the Soviets in order to secure peace. We were going to concede to declining standards of living in the face of an energy crisis, or in order to secure environmental goals. In sum, a patriotic lumberjack in Oregon was being told to be less assertive, colder in the winter, and learn to live without a job.
Most of us feel the profound stresses that global capitalism has put on American society, and we recoil from the spectacular violence of Islamic terrorism (which to my mind is far less threatening that the jarring changes being forced by a globalized economic system, for we can meet terrorism with superior intelligence and force). And we listen to liberal elites, so quick to describe every fear as based in ignorance or prejudice or bigotry. Thus denounced, its not surprising that we fear that our leaders will sell us out.
Again, it’s not an irrational fear. As I pointed out, it’s happened before. And some signs suggest it will happen again. For example, one of the most perplexing features of the Obama administration is its unwillingness to score points on free throws. What I mean are the easy points—the salute the flag and kiss the babies and pound the chest and talk up America moments. There is something about contemporary liberal elite culture that shrinks from the usual patriotic theater of American life.
Or take another example. The great American universities such as Harvard and Yale are remaking themselves as international institutions with an international constituency. The impulse is clear. These flagship institutions of the American elite are beginning to see America as a limitation to be overcome, just as fifty years ago they saw their WASP base as a limitation that had to be overcome. These and other elite institutions want to dominate whatever emerges as the most powerful cultural system in the new global context. They want to be at the center of whatever hybrid of longtime American power and new powers that the coming decades produces.
So, again, cold analysis suggests a the general and unarticulated fear among ordinary Americans that they are going to be “betrayed” is not irrational, and to my mind this is what raises blood pressure whenever questions of patriotism and cultural identity come to the fore, as they have with the mosque controversy.
As I step back, I’m not sure I share this fear.
Perhaps my ambivalence is based in a suspicion that this evolution of elite loyalties is inevitable. I think it naïve to imagine that almost all flavors of American elites, conservative as well as liberal, aren’t angling for position in a changing world. Wall Street has shown itself more interested in Wall Street than America, far less so, in fact, than Yale or Harvard. Insofar as American conservatism is wedded to strong affirmations of capitalism, as a political movement it is fundamentally committed, at least in part, to the radical cosmopolitanism of an omnipotent global market. Witness columns in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that urged Obama to let the American auto industry go under—as if millions of people and the distinct culture of Michigan were of no particular moment.
This cosmopolitanism has be invisible for a long time, because more than fifty years of American economic dominance after World War II created the illusion that the needs of the American economy are functionally equivalent to the global economy. That illusion is now unsustainable. The Bush administrations grandiose foreign policy reflected an effort to turn Americanism into a principle of global transformation—freedom and democracy for all! Again, the illusion has been show to be just that.
I’m not sure what I think. America may lack the DNA necessary to be an inwardly turned, parochial nation, so our destiny may be to be led by elites who, like aggressive entrepreneurs, are willing to change business plans, cut employees, and do whatever is necessary to succeed. The rest of us may have to hope that, in the long run, we’ll be carried along and enjoy at least some benefits of their continued dominance.
But I remain anxious if not exactly fearful. One item should be at the topic of the list of any young conservative’s to-do list: articulate an account of a genuinely conservative cosmopolitanism that remains loyal to people and place.
Heck, it should be on a young liberal’s to-do list. One key element of the Nazi rise to power was the myth of betrayal at the end of World War I—“the stab in the back.” I don’t want to see that history repeated!