Holding It Together
What are we barreling toward?” asks Peggy Noonan in her latest book. “A difficult time, I think,” she says. Has this famous Washington speech-writer become a pessimist? Is she referring to economic hard times? No. She is referring to a future attack on the United States. She therefore writes: “We know we live in an age of weapons of broad and immediate destruction, that they can be deployed against civilian populations by any group with the will, money, and mad focus to do it.” Even more alarming, she writes, “I think a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even, in some cases, unnoticed, a sense that the wheels may be coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks, that in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed anytime soon.”
Today’s economic troubles are part of a larger unraveling. We do not hear much talk – in newspapers or TV – about this unraveling. People are still trying to be optimistic. They are expecting the market to turn around. They tell themselves that weapons of mass destruction will never be used and are therefore useless. They do not attempt to explain why the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans want these “useless” weapons. People pretend it is “peace for our time.”
What else can they do? They dare not admit that nuclear proliferation is ongoing, that war is inevitable. They dare not admit that time is running out, that our enemy is at the gates. “It came to me as a reordering thought,” Noonan explains in her book, titled Patriotic Grace. “I’d felt a version of this sentiment since 9/11, and maybe you did too.” But there is much more to this than the shock of what happened on 9/11. Noonan is hinting at future events that will make 9/11 appear insignificant by comparison. According to Noonan, our age “is an age of portable nukes, biochemical weapons … [and] nation-states that can send missiles containing warheads across oceans.” Year to year, decade to decade, the situation is increasingly tenuous.
To fully admit our nakedness before the destructive power of modern weaponry is to admit the great predicament of our time. “I came to think this,” writes Noonan: “the old ways are over, the old politics are over.” In writing this, she has grasped the essence of our dilemma. Noonan has peered into the abyss, and nothing can ever be the same again. The policies of the hour are unsustainable. The political rhetoric on the television is out-of-date. The hedonism and liberalism of recent times cannot possibly endure what follows. “We have to sober up, we have to change,” says Noonan. “This is a time for seriousness, for high-mindedness, forbearance, and reason.” But who will force soberness upon us? Noonan questions the competence of our leaders, of our government. “Is there a grown-up in the house?” she asks.
I remember the words of a famous Russian defector who wrote, “Americans are not serious people.” The days immediately following 9/11 saw a glimmer of seriousness, a glimmer of redemption, but it was not sustained. It was quickly brushed aside and we were told to go forth and shop. Americans would continue to defeat their enemies by living better than their enemies – as we did during the Cold War. But I am sorry to say, real victories aren’t won in this way. Real victories are won by suffering and sacrifice. And this is something we have avoided, something we can no longer avoid. We can no longer sustain the shopping mall regime. We can no longer sustain our permissiveness. Noonan sees “a future hard time as … a central fact … by which history will judge our current actions.” The current political debates are already over. The unfolding crisis has already determined the outcome.
When you are at war, you must be united. When you are facing an enemy, you must band together. Either we are a nation, or we are nothing. Either we sustain our country, or the country dies. We look around today and see two faiths locked in mortal combat. On the one side we find socialism. On the other side we find capitalism. It sounds like the Cold War, doesn’t it? Only the front lines of the war shifted from Germany and central Europe to the United States of America. The great revolution approaches, the great subversion having been accomplished. The United States is letting its nuclear arsenal deteriorate. The Russians are modernizing and building their arsenal. Noonan quotes Reagan: “Man has never developed a weapon he didn’t ultimately use.” About this statement, Noonan writes, “And that is only the external threat. The domestic ones are all around us, in the air, and we know them well: Will the banks fail, is the system built on anything but faith, and will the faith hold? Will we keep our coherence as a country, will we hold together, can we continues as a sovereign nation at peace with itself?”
Coherence, in this case, depends on self-knowledge. And the first rule of life is to “know thyself.” This applies to nations as well as individuals. And here is where we have gone wrong: America is not an ideology, yet some of us have attempted to make it into one. America is land and people, history and society. To make it into an ideology is to make politics into religion. And once politics becomes a religion, domestic disagreements become irreconcilable. They become conflicts; that is, they become a war of ideas. What Noonan wants is “a renewed sense of protectiveness toward America.” Her argument is for “peace and preparedness.” There is no ideology in this argument. It is basic. It is down to earth.
“We need the best possible national defense,” writes Noonan, “coupled with an attitude of wisdom, forbearance, and peacefulness toward the world.” We need civil defense “worthy of the name,” and national unity. To achieve this, she says, we need “patriotic grace.” And she is right.
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