Political Observer comments.
Bret Stephens has something in common, with another Oil Man’s brat Wm. F. Buckley Jr. ! Both offered themselves as ‘the answer’ to American Decadence, and a loss of faith in American Exceptionalism’s Mission. Mr. Stephens hasn’t yet written his ‘God and Man at Yale’, because his father purchased a sinecure at The Jerusalem Post as his point of entry, into the rhetorical thickets, of an utterly corrupt Political Present. To use the notion of ‘Manifest Destiny’ outside its historical frame , is to engage in a reductivism with a point, as descriptive metaphor. The opening of his essay is awash in bumptious public moralizing, couched in a pastiche of critical evaluations of American arrogance:
Headline: This Is a Moment for America to Believe In Itself Again
Central to much of the skepticism regarding America’s involvement in the crisis in Ukraine is the question, “Who are we?”
Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little?
The Patient Reader will eventually reach Mr. Stephens’ summing up. It reminds This Reader of the arrogant, self-righteous, not to speak of the hysterical tone of Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’. A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741, although milder. Expressed in the tone of an ersatz regretful responsibility assumed by a superior being, himself, yet none the less … Which leads this writer to the question ‘what is self-belief’ but the careful wrapping of arrogance, expressed in World Historical terms?
The United States used to have self-belief. Our civilization, multiple generations of Americans believed, represented human progress. Our political ideals — about the rule of law, human rights, individual liberties, democratic governance — were ideals for all people, including those beyond our borders. Our literature spoke to the universal human experience; our music to the universal soul. When we fought wars, it was for grand moral purposes, not avaricious aims. Even our worst blunders, as in Vietnam, stemmed from defensible principles. Our sins were real and numerous, but they were correctable flaws, not systemic features.
It goes without saying that this self-belief — like all belief — was a mixture of truth and conceit, idealism and hubris, vision and blindness. It led us to make all sorts of errors, the acute awareness of which has become the dominant strain of our intellectual life. But it also led us to our great triumphs: Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th Amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.
These victories were not the result of asking, “Who are we?” They came about by asking, “Who but us?” In the crisis of Ukraine, which is really a crisis of the West, we might start asking the second question a little more often than the first.
Here in something Mr. Stephens has missed, as reported in his own newspaper!