The Spiritual Dimensions of Nationhood

I’ve said this before but no matter how many times it is said, it bears repeating: the threats that the United States face from a fanatical Islamic foe are made possible by our devotion to positions that undermine our heritage, accomplishments and founding.

It is not coincidental that I’m reminded of this condition by the passing of Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of The United States. This bestselling book, memorialized by the pseudo intellectual rants of the actor, Matt Damon is among the most influential textbooks ever published. Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a saccharine ecology which suggested Zinn was a “national treasure.” If so, it was a treasure of fool’s gold.

Zinn was not a historian in any real sense, but an ideologue who would envision only the blemishes in America’s past. For him, the American experiment was predicated on colonialism, imperial aims, exploitation and enslavement. But the curious matter is that Zinn’s brand of contemptuous nihilism, his anti-American posture and hatred of capitalism, have caught on among American elites.

Is it any wonder that a multi-cultural stance that denigrates our national experience and superordinates the goals of other nations is now the prevailing orthodoxy in our schools and colleges? If the United States is the world’s exploiter, the despoiler of the environment and the hegemon that restrains the impulse for liberation, why should it be admired? Alas, in many universities, the United States is the enemy. This condition cannot be laid at the doorstep of Mr. Zinn solely, albeit he is a central contributor.

However, the drumbeat of criticism has taken its toll. Students very often can tell you that Jefferson was a slaveholder, but know nothing about his framing of the Virginia Constitution. According to many, Columbus came to the New World in order to dominate and exploit the indigenous population.

That the United States has been the beacon of hope for mankind, that it has afforded its citizens an unprecedented degree of liberty and that its openness has yielded technical breakthroughs that have enhanced people across the globe, are conditions that students of an earlier time imbibed as if mother’s milk.

That has changed. The pseudo sophisticated cynics have come to dominate the academy. American history has been put through the cauldron of political correctness. At best, the U.S. is merely one of 192 nations with its own history that is neither special nor exceptional; it is simply unique. At worst, American history is a steamy tale of conflict: workers versus bosses, plantation owners and slaves, guardians of the status quo and change agents.

Invariably many of those who are force fed these arguments ask logically, “why should I defend this nation?”  If the United States is an outlier whose history infers struggle, the spirit necessary to sustain the nation may not be evident.

I often observe this spiritual enervation; this belief that our time, our glory has passed. In my judgment that explains, at least in some part, why radical Islamic ideas have gained traction in this nation. How do those who have lost confidence in the national heritage defend against a fanatical faith that has precise goals and direction?

The relentless critics of the nation may not have anticipated this result, but our homegrown radicals invariably express despair with what America stands for, or should I say, what they think America stands for.

Of course, not every American shares this anti-American sentiment, but I am confident a large segment of elitist opinion embraces it. The manifest form it takes varies. There are the cultural warriors who see America as depraved. There are the academics who win plaudits for nihilistic expression (vide: Howard Zinn). There are the radicals ready to leap into anarchy. And there are jihadists — homegrown jihadists — who have been radicalized by a faith that preaches triumphalism and a justification for violent behavior.

Our vulnerability does not stem from a lack of resources or even inept leadership, but rather from a void that emanates from not knowing what we believe. Our real enemy is a lack of confidence, of not believing in our own national achievements. Arnold Toyabee argued that civilizations die as a result of suicide, not murder. I am not yet willing to concede death, but there isn’t any doubt that America is at risk because of a loss of self confidence. What ails us internally is at least as threatening as the forces found externally.