Notes & Comments
October 2001



America's wake-up call

History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.
—Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics

We suspect that few readers of The New Criterion follow The Coup, a popular “hip-hop” group whose expostulations are said to exhibit “a strong anti-capitalist bent.” Our readers may therefore have missed the band’s web page. Until recently, it featured a picture meant as advance publicity for its forthcoming album “Party Music.” In the foreground were shown two members of the group, one of whom smirks as he presses a button on a detonator. In the background was an image of the twin towers at New York’s World Trade Center exploding.

That image was removed soon after the twin towers were destroyed by terrorists on September 11. But presumably this “anti-capitalist” band will find other ways of advertizing and peddling its new album. After all, anti-capitalist feeling generally stops well short of interfering with personal profit. And even with the image of the twin towers in flames gone, “Party Music” is likely to offer fans of hip-hop plenty to conjure with. There is, for example, the featured number “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO.” Such casual exploitation of violence is business as usual in the pop music world these days. But what does that say about our culture?

On September 11, The New York Times ran a long and flattering profile of Bill Ayers, who in the 1970s was a member of the Weather Underground, the radical anti-American group that was responsible for many acts of violence. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” Ayers says in the story’s lead. “I feel we didn’t do enough.” Well, we wonder how many people were reading those lines when two hijacked airliners screamed into the twin towers, killing some 6,000 civilians and bringing the United States to a momentary stand-still.

We have come to expect moral thuggery from the gutter-world of rap and hip-hop. But The New York Times? What does it tell us that our paper of record should run a chirpy profile of this affluent, minor-league terrorist and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a fellow member of the Weather Underground in the 1970s who was once on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted List? Written by Dinitia Smith, a Times staffer, the profile is a specimen of contemporary moral imbecility. Smith flirts with the spectacle of transgression even as she maintains a benignly nonjudgmental attitude toward these icons of violent radicalism. Her profile, timed to coincide with the publication of Fugitive Days, Ayers’s memoir of his life on the lam, was designed to boost a book that fondly recalls bombing the Pentagon and offers instructions for making bombs. (This was also the point of the friendly page-long interview with Ayers in The New York Times Magazine for September 16.) Smith gushingly dilates on Ayers’s “ebullient, ingratiating manner,” his “love affair with explosives,” his and his fellow radicals’ efforts to “smash monogamy.” She quotes a statement generally attributed to Ayers and that summarizes the philosophy of the Weather Underground: “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.”

Ayers equivocates about whether he actually said that. “It’s been quoted so many times I’m beginning to think I did,” he coyly reports, adding “it was a joke about the distribution of wealth.” Some joke. It is approximately as funny as his September 14 letter to the Times explaining that, after the World Trade Center bombing, his book is really “a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms.” Right. It is worth noting that Ayers is not only a newly published author but also a “distinguished professor of education” at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Shouldn’t lawmakers in Illinois pause to consider how they are “redistributing” the taxpayers’ wealth at their state university?

What is it about higher education that encourages political idiocy? Consider the case of Barbara Foley, a Marxist professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the wake of the deadly assaults on New York and Washington, Foley posted a message on the internet for her students. It dealt partly with readings for the class, partly with the terrorist attacks. “[W]e should,” Foley wrote, “be aware that, whatever its proximate cause, its ultimate cause is the fascism of u.s. [sic] foreign policy over the past many decades.”

Foley’s pontificating did not end there. She went on to advise her students that “we should be well aware of the ways in which this event will supply the ruling elite with a pretext for massive repression and control. airport surveillance will be, truly, on the tip of that iceberg.” (We preserve Foley’s avoidance of capitals since it is probably by design: capital letters being a linguistic sign of unwarranted hierarchy, you see.)

Such behavior by an “on-duty” college professor is completely inappropriate, of course. There is, first of all, the matter of gross insensitivity. What if some of her students lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling in those attacks? How would they like being told that the cause was the “fascist” foreign policy of the United States? There is also the larger issue of what an English professor is doing using official communications with her class as a soapbox for political proselytizing. Since when did memoranda about readings for a class in American literature become occasions for expatiating on the supposed evils of American foreign policy?

Not that English professors have a monopoly on political pandering. Iraq’s Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan suggested that the attacks were “terrorist acts practiced by the American administration” against its own people. John Lahr, theater critic of The New Yorker, apparently agrees:

An acid thought keeps plaguing me. Isn’t it odd that on the day—the day—that the Democrats launched their most blistering attack on “the absolute lunacy” of Bush’s unproven missile-defence system, his “theological” belief in “rogue nations,” that the rogue nation should suddenly become such a terrifying reality. The fact that I could even think such a thought says more to me about the bankruptcy and moral exhaustion of our leaders even in the face of a disaster. In fear, the nation, to my mind, has always proved mean-spirited and violent.
Mark Steyn, who reported Lahr’s comments in Canada’s National Post, put it perfectly when he responded: “No, John. It says more about the bankruptcy and moral exhaustion of you: thousands of his fellow citizens die in a spectacular act of war and one of New York’s most glittering cultural arbiters idly wonders—in public—if Bush staged it to distract attention from criticism by Democrats.”

The horrific events of September 11 have often and accurately been dubbed a “wake-up call” for America. Who can forget the image of that Boeing 767 smashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center in a coruscating bloom of smoke and flame? We hope that that image—and the other heartbreaking images that followed in New York and at the Pentagon—will prove to be a reveille in at least two distinct senses.

First of all, we pray that those premeditated acts of butchery will succeed in rousing America’s military and foreign policy from the sentimental torpor it has labored under (with periodic moments of lucidity) since the debacle of Vietnam. President Bush was right to describe the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as acts of war. They were directed primarily not at physical targets but at a way of life: at American democracy and the freedom and political openness that nourish it. They were part of what Binyamin Netanyahu called “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” Murderous though the attacks of September 11 were—they claimed more American lives than the attack on Pearl Harbor and D-Day combined—we must assume that they were only the opening salvo in a protracted campaign against the West. In recent years, we have tended to conduct foreign policy alternately as a sort of diversity seminar sponsored by the ACLU at some college campus or, more cynically, as an instrument to increase political campaign contributions. We can no longer afford those infantilizing luxuries

Among other things, these latest terrorist attacks demonstrated with cruel vividness that all cultures are not equal. They showed that pledging allegiance to the values of Western democracy ultimately involves fighting against ideas and regimes set on destroying those values. Not only must we seek out and eliminate the individuals responsible for those acts of war, we must also identify the states that aid and abet terrorism and make sure they are rendered incapable of doing so in the future. The commentator Jonathan Rauch was quite right when he observed (pace Barbara Foley) that “the cause of terrorism is terrorists.” They, and the social and political networks that nurture them, must be eliminated root and branch.

America’s wake-up call has sounded in the corridors of the Pentagon and the State Department. It has also sounded in the culture at large. Will it be heeded? It is a clarion calling us not only to wake up but also to grow up. For almost two decades, The New Criterion has battled against the rancid pieties of modish multiculturalism. We have sought to expose the moral and aesthetic degradation of popular culture, the political malevolence of efforts to turn intellectual life into an ideological battleground, the adolescent posturings of privileged individuals who pretend that civilization is an impediment to true enlightenment. Some have regarded our efforts with impatience, some with admiration. But the time has come to confront the underlying political and spiritual realities of the so-called culture wars. We can no longer afford to coddle rock groups that preach violence and self-indulgence, journalists who glamorize felons, and professors who seek to poison the minds and hearts of their students. As for the repellent fantasies of cultural spokesmen like John Lahr, it is time they were roused from their phantasmagoric slumbers. Please note: we are not advocating that such messengers of nihilism be censored or persecuted. We are advocating that they be recognized for what they really are: decadent enemies of freedom. America can win the war against terrorism. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. But with courage, perseverance, and maturity we will prevail. The unanswered question is whether we are yet ready to grow up.

From The New Criterion Vol. 20, No. 2, October 2001
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