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A Socratic 'America know thyself': READ IT!
on August 13, 2010
Foreigners, from de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce to Hugh Brogan and The Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge, often see America more clearly than do Americans. In the post-World War II period, R. L. Bruckberger's IMAGES OF AMERICA (1958) and Jean -Jacques Servan-Schreiber's THE AMERICAN CHALLENGE (1967) presented an uplifting picture of America. Two generations later, Englishman Anatol Lieven paints a troubling picture of a country that is a far cry from John Winthrop's' "city upon a hill."
Has America changed so profoundly over the past fifty years or is Mr. Lieven simply highlighting historical cycles that, at least for the moment, had resulted in a near `perfect storm?' His 2004 book has prompted both praise [see Brian Urquhart's Extreme Makeover in the New York Review of Books (February 24, 2005)] and brick bats. This book is not a polemic. Rather, it is a scholarly analysis by a highly regarded author and former The Times (London) correspondent who has lived in various American locales. He has a journalist's acquaintance of many prominent Americans and his source materials are excellent.
I applaud his courage for exploring the dark cross currents in modern-day America. In the tradition of the Delphic oracle and Socrates, he urges that Americans `know thy self.' The picture he paints should cause thoughtful Americans to shudder. Personally, I found his book of a genre similar to Cullen Murphy's ARE WE ROME? THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE FATE OF AMERICA.
I do not consider Mr. Lieven anti-American in his extensive critique of American cross currents. That he wrote this in the full flush of the Bush/Cheney post-9/11 era suggests that he might temper some of his assessments after the course corrections of the Obama administration. My sense is that Mr. Lieven admires many of America's core qualities and that this `tough love' essay is his effort to guide Americans back to their more admirable qualities.
Mr. Lieven boldly sets forth his book's message in a broad-ranging introduction:
* "The [U. S.] conduct of the war against terrorism looks more like a baroque apotheosis of political stupidity;"
* "Aspects of American nationalism imperil both the nation's global leadership and its success in the struggle against Islamic terror and revolution;"
* "Insofar as American nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist version of Israeli nationalism, it also plays an absolutely disastrous role in U. S. relations with the Muslim world and in fueling terrorism;"
* "American imperialists trail America's coat across the whole world while most ordinary Americans are not looking and rely on those same Americans to react with `don't tread on me' nationalist fury when the coat is trodden on;"
* "One strand of American nationalism is radical...because it continually looks backward at a vanished and idealized national past;"
* "America is the home of by far the most deep, widespread and conservative religious belief in the Western world;"
* "The relationship between the traditional White Protestant world on one hand and the forces of American economic, demographic, social and cultural change on the other may be compared to the genesis of a hurricane;"
* "The religious Right has allied itself solidly with extreme free market forces in the Republican Party although it is precisely the workings of unrestricted American capitalism which are eroding the world the religious conservatives wish to defend;"
* "American nationalism is beginning to conflict very seriously with any enlightened, viable or even rational version of American imperialism;"
* "[George W.] Bush, his leading officials, and his intellectual and media supporters..., as nationalists, [are] absolutely contemptuous of any global order involving any check whatsoever on American behavior and interests;"
* "Nationalism therefore risks undermining precisely those American values which make the nation most admired in the world;" and
* "This book...is intended as a reminder of the catastrophes into which nationalism and national messianism led other great countries in the past."
Mr. Lieven addressed the above points in six well-crafted and thought-provoking chapters that I find persuasive. For some readers Chapter 6, Nationalism, Israel, and the Middle East, may be the most controversial. I am the only living person who has lunched with Gamal Abdel Nasser and David Ben-Gurion in the same week. I have maintained an interest in Arab-Israeli matters ever since. I find that Mr. Lieven's assessment of both the United States' and Israel's role rings true. While he does not excuse Arab leaders for their misdeeds, he clearly documents a history in which the United States has repeatedly subordinated vital U. S. regional interests in favor of accepting whatever Israel chooses to do.
In 1955 American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, "The most prominent and persuasive failing [of political culture] is a certain proneness to fits of moral crusading that would be fatal if they were not sooner or later tempered with a measure of apathy and common sense." I am confident that Professor Hofstadter would agree with me that AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG is a timely and important book.