Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday wrap-up: 9/11, liberal despair, and the promise of America

War against another superpower calls for extreme sacrifice; war against an abstraction sounds extreme. The language of the War Against Terror hasn’t been exceptionally bombastic. (Did George Bush ever say anything as utterly rhetorical as “Mr. Gorbachev, take down that Wall!”) Nevertheless, an axis of three evil midgets and a terrorist in a cave in Bora Bora never excused the Churchillian rhetoric that war leaders employ to keep people in line, focused on the enemy, and not on the errors of their government. 

No one will look back at the last decade with any of the bittersweet memories of genuine solidarity that emerged during World War II. The people of the United States have not rallied as one, and America’s critics haven’t dropped their guard. There will be no peace dividend, only unpaid bills.

The term “9/11 Decade” may be convenient for filing data. But it misrepresents the times. An ugly crime happened ten years ago. On that day, however, America was not dragged into a new order. 9/11 dramatized the underlying drama of existing as a spectacularly successful liberal democracy in a competitive, dangerous world. That drama—like all the others in her history—is being played out within a divided, noisy society.

George Packer, appropriately in the New Yorker this week, captured how the last decade has pulled people apart, especially liberals:

“For most of the decade after September 11th, liberals from New York and elsewhere felt marginalized, misrepresented, ridiculed, scapegoated, and worst of all, ignored. For this treatment to befall that group of Americans who, by their own lights, got the decade mostly right—to be so reviled and so vindicated—inflicted a kind of painful pleasure. But the enduring problem for liberals, as for everyone else, is not whether history will judge them wise or foolish regarding the war on terrorism; it is, rather, the way that the past decade has splintered them away from other Americans.”

In the United States, at least, one liberal—the president—still insists that America’s governing institutions aren’t too corrupt, too divided, or too representative to work. One should give him even odds that over the next year he’ll be able to pull, or shame, American liberals out of their funk and back into politics.

America’s logical allies—fellow liberals in other privileged places like Canada, not the 60,000 Chinese-born people who became legal permanent American residents last year—may simply continue feeling the pleasure of being pained by the conduct of American government.

Jeffrey Simpson writes in the Globe and Mail:

“Canadians now understand that the U.S. remains an indispensable trading partner, but it no longer offers a model for economic development. As for the U.S. political system, Canadians are horrified at what they see – with good reason.”

Tories in the 18th and 19th centuries invented and polished this line of thought. The proposition that America is permanently dysfunctional had to sit out the 20th century. However, it’s no less stale or more credible now as the sigh of western liberals.

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