I want to talk a little more this holiday week about what I suppose is a growing theme in this column, and that is an increased skepticism toward U.S. military intervention, including nation building. Our republic is not now in a historical adventure period—that is not what is needed. We are or should be in a self-strengthening one. Our focus should not be on outward involvement but inner repair. Bad people are gunning for us, it is true. We should find them, dispatch them, and harden the target. (That would be, still and first, New York, though Washington too.) We should not occupy their lands, run their governments, or try to bribe them into bonhomie. We think in Afghanistan we’re buying their love, but I have been there. We’re not even renting it.
Our long wars have cost much in blood and treasure, and our military is overstretched. We’re asking soldiers to be social workers, as Bing West notes in his book on Afghanistan, “The Wrong War.”
I saw it last month, when we met with a tough American general. How is the war going? we asked. “Great,” he said. “We just opened a new hospital!” This was perhaps different from what George Patton would have said. He was allowed to be a warrior in a warrior army. His answer would have been more like, “Great, we’re putting more of them in the hospital!”
But there are other reasons for a new skepticism about America’s just role and responsibilities in the world in 2011. One has to do with the burly, muscular, traditional but at this point not fully thought-through American assumption that our culture not only is superior to most, but is certainly better in all ways than the cultures of those we seek to conquer. We have always felt pride in our nation’s ways, and pride isn’t all bad. But conceit is, and it’s possible we’ve grown as conceited as we’ve become culturally careless.
We are modern, they are not. We allow women freedom, they do not. We have the rule of law, they do not. We are technologically sophisticated, they are the Flintstones. We have religious tolerance. All these are sources of legitimate satisfaction and pride, especially the last. Our religious pluralism is, still, amazing.
I lately think of Charleston, S.C., that beautiful old-fashioned, new- fashioned city. On a walk there in October I went by one of the oldest Catholic churches in the South, St. Mary’s, built in 1789. Across the street, equally distinguished and welcoming, was Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Jewish congregation founded in 1749. They’ve been across from each other peacefully and happily for a long time. I walked down Meeting Street to see the Hibernian Society, founded in 1801. My people wanted their presence known. In a brochure I saw how the society dealt with Ireland’s old Catholic-Protestant split. They picked a Protestant president one year, a Catholic the next, and so on. In Ireland they were killing each other. In America they were trading gavels. What a country! What a place. What a new world.
We have much to be proud of. And we know it. But take a look around us. Don’t we have some reasons for pause, for self-questioning? Don’t we have a lot of cultural repair that needs doing?
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Imagine for a moment that you are a foreign visitor to America. You are a 40-year-old businessman from Afghanistan. You teach a class at Kabul University. You are relatively sophisticated. You’re in pursuit of a business deal. It’s your first time here. There is an America in your mind; it was formed in your childhood by old John Ford movies and involves cowboy hats and gangsters in fedoras. You know this no longer applies—you’re not a fool—but you’re not sure what does. You land at JFK, walking past a TSA installation where they’re patting the genital areas of various travelers. Americans sure have a funny way of saying hello!
You get to town, settle into a modest room at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue. You’re jet-lagged. You put on the TV, not only because you’re tired but because some part of you knows TV is where America happens, where America is, and you want to see it. Headline news first. The world didn’t blow up today. Then:
Click. A person named Snooki totters down a boardwalk. She lives with young people who grunt and dance. They seem loud, profane, without values, without modesty, without kindness or sympathy. They seem proud to see each other as sexual objects.
Click. “Real Housewives.” Adult women are pulling each other’s hair. They are glamorous in a hard way, a plastic way. They insult each other.
Click. Local news has a riot in a McDonalds. People kick and punch each other. Click. A cable news story on a child left alone for a week. Click. A 5-year-old brings a gun to school, injures three. Click. A show called “Skins”—is this child pornography? Click. A Viagra commercial. Click. A man tried to blow up a mall. Click. Another Viagra commercial. Click. This appears to be set in ancient Sparta. It appears to involve an orgy.
You, the Kabul businessman, expected some raunch and strangeness but not this—this Victoria Falls of dirty water! You are not a philosopher of media, but you know that when a culture descends to the lowest common denominator, it does not reach the broad base at the bottom, it lowers the broad base at the bottom. This “Jersey Shore” doesn’t reach the Jersey Shore, it creates the Jersey Shore. It makes America the Jersey Shore.
You surf on, hoping for a cleansing wave of old gangster movies. Or cowboys. Anything old! But you don’t find TMC. You look at a local paper. Headline: New York has a 41% abortion rate. Forty-four percent of births are to unmarried women and girls.
You think: Something’s wrong in this place, something has become disordered.
The next morning you take Amtrak for your first meeting, in Washington. You pass through the utilitarian ugliness, the abjuration of all elegance that is Penn Station. On the trip south, past Philadelphia, you see the physical deterioration that echoes what you saw on the TV—broken neighborhoods, abandoned factories with shattered windows, graffiti-covered abutments. It looks like old films of the Depression!
By the time you reach Washington—at least Union Station is august and beautiful—you are amazed to find yourself thinking: “Good thing America is coming to save us. But it’s funny she doesn’t want to save herself!”
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My small point: Remember during the riots of the 1960s when they said “the whole world is watching”? Well, now the whole world really is. Everyone is traveling everywhere. We’re all on the move. Cultures can’t keep their secrets.
The whole world is in the Hilton, channel-surfing. The whole world is on the train, in the airport, judging what it sees, and likely, in some serious ways, finding us wanting.
And, being human, they may be judging us with a small, extra edge of harshness for judging them and looking down on them.
We have work to do at home, on our culture and in our country. A beautiful Easter to St. Mary’s Church of Charleston, and happy Passover to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.