December 6, 2000 | Lecture on Political Thought
Strange as it probably seems in the week when all Americans are abuzz with the election--some abuzz with hope and some, of course, with nervous anxiety--I don't want to talk about the election. Rather, I would like to begin by taking you back to a certain truly dark and dangerous hour in 20th century history: the last week of May in the year 1940.
The German army is advancing through France like a knife through butter; in only a few days the Swastika will be flying over Paris. The Allied troops, primarily British, with a group of Belgians and Frenchmen who have refused to surrender thrown in, have been pushed back to the coast of the British Channel and are gathering, huddling really, along the waterfront of a French harbor town called Dunkirk. The British Admiralty decrees they must be taken out of there immediately and to aid in this job presses everyone in England who owns a private boat, no matter how small, into joining with the British Navy on the rescue mission. The participation of small boats turns out to be providential, because by the time the British expedition reaches Dunkirk, German bombardments have killed thousands of British troops and put the port out of commission. Thus the men have to be ferried out to the ships by British fishermen and Sunday sailors who are able to navigate close to the shore and take the men off the beach. It takes something like a week to complete this operation, and in all 198,000 British, and 140,000 French and Belgian, troops were saved to fight another day.
Now, say what you admiringly will about the famous stiffness of the old British upper lip, or shake your heads if you will in wonderment at the sheer grit involved in the operation of getting all those men out of what would otherwise have been a massive German deathtrap, the truth is, Dunkirk represented a vast and terrible Allied defeat. This defeat was, you might say, a special gift to Western Europe from a group of British men of so-called reasonableness and good sense, who during the preceding decades had prided themselves on being political realists (we have such men ever with us, it seems). These were the men who had two years earlier cheered the outcome of the journey of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, to a place called Munich, where, boasting of "peace in our time," he managed among other things to hurl the Czechs into close to 50 years of ugly occupation, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists.
As it happened, only two weeks before Dunkirk, the men of so-called practical reason had at long last lost the confidence of the British nation, and the Prime Ministership was handed by his failed and demoralized predecessor to a member of the cabinet named Winston Churchill. This Churchill, as we all happily know, set about to carry his nation with him in what turned out to be the salvation not only of Britain but--it is no exaggeration to say--of no less than Western civilization itself.
The reason I have presumed to remind you of something many of you here today know every bit as well as I is that few things provide so perfect an example of what I want to discuss as the story of Britain in May of 1940. It would, of course, take a year and a half and the near destruction of the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor--another bitter defeat--before the United States was to join the war. Meanwhile, this little island off the coast of Europe, having taken a terrible pasting in the air war known as the Battle of Britain, managed by spirit alone, as it were, to induce the Germans to aim their sights elsewhere.
Now most people would agree--certainly most of the British at the time would have agreed--that by himself Winston Churchill had a great deal, if not everything, to do with lifting the hearts and stiffening the spines of his countrymen. On the eve of a new administration in Washington it seems to me especially interesting to inquire just how he managed to do that. Did he say to the people "When this war is over, I'm going to guarantee you all free medical care"? Or did he say, "When this is over, I'm going to begin regulating those famous `dark, satanic mills' that have so famously been polluting our beautiful midlands"? Or did he say, "When this is over, I am going to assure all you pensioners a clean and fresh new flat and a worry-free old age"?
Now, we have just lived through one of the less inspiring presidential campaigns in living memory, in which we were invited to witness debates and seemingly endless campaign patter about such things as the cost of prescription drugs and only a couple of small and barely audible quibbles about how the United States should comport itself in an eternally turbulent world.
But I ask you just for a moment to set aside what might be a somewhat spoiled celebration, if celebration it should turn out to be, and consider the following question: What might have happened if someone running for office in the United States at some time in the recent past had stood up before the American public and said, "I have nothing to offer you but toil and sweat"--blood and tears being for the moment not particularly relevant--"I have nothing to offer you but toil and sweat, virtue, honor, and in the end, national greatness"? Do you suppose he might forthwith have been simply ridiculed or perhaps slapped into a straitjacket? Well, possibly, but let me tell you what I think would have happened: I think the whole damn country would have stood up and cheered.
Year in and year out we have been promised much, and now and then--for instance, 20 years ago--many of the things we hoped to hear were said, some even delivered. But when in the last half-century do you remember that anything truly difficult was seriously asked of us as citizens?
In Vietnam, for example, we suffered more than 50,000 casualties, and yet Lyndon Johnson, the man who sent half a million men there to fight, was heard more than once to express his satisfaction with the way he had never, as he called it, "stirred up war fever"--meaning, he had never sought the full-hearted support of the public by explaining what we were doing in that war and why it was important to us. Then, for the sake of a little social peace, Richard Nixon went him one better by cutting our boys loose from ever being pressed into service, and thereby also cut them loose from the idea that they might owe something for the comfort and ease and safety of the world around them.
Ronald Reagan, who at least believed in the better angels of our nature, spent eight years cheering our hearts and straightening a few flabby spines on the subject of the Soviet Union versus democracy, but even he in the end demanded almost nothing of us.
Instead, this is how it has been for nearly 40 years now: angry women have continued to storm the halls of government declaring that their already unimaginably privileged lives must be freed of any and all remaining traces of difficulty, while a lot of insulted and angry men for their part have taken this as an excuse to begin ducking out on what used to be considered their hallowed obligation. Angry black officials have by means of a whole variety of gestures insistently demanded of the government something that could only be provided to them by themselves. Meanwhile the schools have largely given up on the task of educating, and colleges have been surrendering their once-honored franchise to every passing anti-intellectual ism. And everywhere we have turned, we have been almost unrelievedly showered with smut, on television, on the Internet, in bookstores, in the movies, on the magazine stands, where even what were once called "ladies' magazines," purveyors of fashion and recipes, now feature advice in every issue on how to achieve for both oneself and others a heightened sexual satisfaction. We are so bombarded with stimulae to prurience that most of us have reached a point where we barely notice any more.
And in general, any hope of our bringing some clean, fresh air into such vital areas as the relations between the races, as well as those between the sexes, as well as into our classrooms, and into our public culture, any such hope day by day falls under the sway of our sloth. Instead, we require our politicians to promise that they will do for us all kinds of things that we must, and can only, do for ourselves.
Take one example that has lately become very popular among politicians, the schools. Our schools, no question about it, need to be forced to straighten up and devote themselves to teaching our children again. But let's be honest: what role beyond articulating his views can the President really play in such an effort? Start a new department, fund new research, or for the hundredth time add his prestige to some new gimmick or program? And how long have such forms of presidential action already been taken--and with what results?
We have been saying for years that something must be done about the persistent use of drugs among the nation's kids, to use another example. But what is it that the President or the political system is supposed to do? Pass another law, or better yet, pay some third-world government to send its army after the growers? And what do we do in the meanwhile? Resolve to find a way to protect our children from themselves or demand action from anyone and everyone so long as it is not us?
Then there is the issue of the low and brutish quality of public entertainment, particularly those forms of it that are so eagerly consumed by our children. Again, ask yourselves with full honesty what useful power a President--or any other politician--is actually able to exercise with respect to this problem. Is he the one mandated to keep watch over our children? While we do what? Demand that everything threatening to their well-being be made by the authorities to go away?
The truth is, we tend to wait for someone else, someone high up--call him Mr. President or Mr. Speaker or Mr. Justice--to fulfill responsibilities that are, and must be, primarily our own. We ask the men we elect to fight with the schools in our stead, to turn our children away from drugs in our stead, and, in general, to clean up our culture in our stead. Pass a law, we demand, or finance a new program, or sometimes perhaps just offer some consolation and sympathy.
I am certain that it is precisely our will to have others do our work for us--not only assure the condition of our bodies but also the condition of our spirits--that leaves so many of our fellow citizens complaining of an inexplicable feeling of boredom, and, beyond boredom, of some indefinable and untreatable case of the blues.
"I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," said the man to a people suffering the first murderous sorrows of what was to be a long and murderous war, a people--and here is the point--who as a nation would never again in history be so gallant and high of spirit as they were when they opened themselves to this stern call.
Now we, too, are at this moment in a kind of war--not a bloody war, of course, not a war that will smash our houses and swell our graveyards, but in its own way decisive: a war of minds and spirits to determine whether a people as unimaginably wealthy--wealthy beyond the dreams of potentates of old--as vigorously long-lived, and as blessed by fortune as the American people can sustain a decent national life.
At the dedication of the Civil War graveyard at Gettysburg, as any schoolchild ought to be able to tell you but probably can't, Mr. Lincoln spoke of our nation as one "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and the war over which he presided was a test to determine whether, in his words, "any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." He did not, as we know, live to see the ultimate outcome of that test, but we certainly have. Indeed, it is we who are its most privileged beneficiaries: citizens as we now are of the oldest continuous democratic government in the history of the world. Just think about that for a minute: the oldest continuous democratic government in the whole history of the world.
In our national political life, surely we shall not soon, if ever again, look upon the likes of President Abraham Lincoln--among other extraordinary things, one of the greatest of American writers. Nor shall we look upon the likes of Mr. Jefferson Davis either--a gentleman to put the hubbub and gracelessness of our current-day political transactions forever to shame. But what our Founding Fathers cobbled together--and perhaps they themselves would be surprised to discover--turned out to be a work of political architecture that has been able to withstand just about every kind of human foible and limitedness and treachery. There have not been, for instance, very many genuinely great men occupying the White House, nor are there likely to be many in the future. Genuinely great men, you might say, do not grow on trees. But the system does not require genuinely great men--that is its genius.
What the system does require, however, is a responsible citizenry. In this system, the politicians are to be advised and led by us, not the other way around. (It seems funny even to be speaking such a sentence in the presence of a group like you, the closest friends of the Heritage Foundation--for that, of course, is precisely what Heritage is and has ever been about.) What usually happens instead, however, is that the politicians do not so much listen to us as pander to the lowest of our lower natures.
Imagine telling people who think nothing of spending untold thousands of dollars on vacations and entertainment--I live in New York City, for example, when at Christmas time one can hardly venture into the streets for the crowds--or telling people who think nothing of eating in expensive restaurants and paying $80 for a theater ticket that they deserve to be given free medication. Imagine the politicians talking with a catch in their throat about society's injustices to the elderly (I realized not long ago with a considerable shock that that meant me). Imagine the politicians talking that way as if this were, say, the 19th century, when honesty requires the recognition that the elderly in this blessed, blessed country have on average a good deal more wealth than their offspring.
So the politicians, even the best of them, appeal to our baser instincts, in the belief that it is a sanctioned professional necessity for them to do so. And, alas, I guess we have given them a good deal of cause to believe it. Because we are busy people. Because we sometimes feel timid. Because, in the comfort of our unbelievably comfortable lives, we often grow slothful.
But how many of us did not stand up and cheer, for instance, when a man named Ward Connerly took it upon himself, virtually all alone, to set off a campaign against that ugly piece of social engineering called affirmative action. Or when a man named Ron Unz practically by himself successfully overturned in the State of California that too-long established injustice to children called bi-lingual education. Or when our own Bill Bennett stood before the board of Time Warner and caused them all, especially their particularly smug chairman, to grow pale simply by reading the lyrics of a particularly vicious rap song distributed by Warner Brothers Records and challenging them with the simple question, "What kind of people are you?"
As I said, we are in our own kind of war. There is no blood to shed, as there was for those whose monuments we are about to visit and who did so much--who in some sense did everything--to preserve for us our own good fortune. But if there is no blood to shed, there is sweat and there is toil, and with no single monumental figure like Mr. Churchill to hold us to the job, we, all of us, are on our own together.
Last week, I was in Budapest and learned something very important from those Hungarians. They live in a small country, still recovering from what the Communists did to them, and they have bitter internal political squabbles and say terrible things about one another, the Left about the Right and the Right about the Left. But they have something in common that to this day keeps their spirits enviably high, which is the communal memory of their revolution against the Communists in 1956. They were, of course, too weak to stand against the superior force of the Red Army and its tanks for long, but stand they did until they could stand no longer, and because of that, in a very moving way, they remain a people full of pride and hope, whoever their political leaders.
We not only have no Churchill to speak to us majestically of the toil ahead, we, unlike the Hungarians, have no oppressors to help us stiffen our spines. But precisely in our good fortune, it is time for us--all of us--to take upon ourselves the work of recovering what has been lost--in other words, to become the kind of citizens upon which the Founding Fathers once believed the American system would ultimately have to stand. Only then will we have the teachers and schools and artists and entertainers and, yes, the political leaders that we all so deeply wish and deserve.
This task is not one for a President, whoever he may be. Nor is it one for Congress, whatever its composition. The work I am talking about is the work of citizens--it is our work. We must lead them. Not merely by voting, but every day, with our voices, our shoulders, and our continuing determination, each and every one of us.
It is grueling and, yes, sometimes dirty work, the work of preserving and protecting and defending this blessed system, a system of which we are the uniquely privileged heirs. Toil, tears, and sweat are as necessary as they ever were. So I say, no time is better than now, and no one more appropriate than we ourselves. As we gather here at this meeting, for the time being without a President-elect, let us dedicate ourselves to fulfilling our own part in directing the future of this great enterprise.
Midge Decter is a member of The Heritage Foundation's Board of Trustees and former Executive Director of the Committee for the Free World. She spoke at a meeting of The Heritage Foundation's President's club.