The great argument of American civilization at this time is between those who covet our heritage and those who disdain our collective achievements. An example of this liberal Anglo-American antipathy to the accomplishments of Anglo-American civilization is on display in the new TNT mini-series "The Grid." On first impression, the show has the trappings of an "imperial adventure." The story involves a team of American and British counter-terrorist agents working to break a new global Muslim jihadist network that has launched a deadly Sarin gas attack in London. The series, which is to run on Monday nights from its two-hour premiere July 19 to its conclusion August 9, is a collaborative effort of Turner Network Television and the BBC.
In the name of what liberals call "realism," writers for "The Grid" sought to avoid black and white, us-versus-them stereotypes. As one promotional item on "The Grid" website stated, "Perhaps not every viewer will be ready to accept non-stereotypical terrorists, characters who aren't extremists in every way, characters who are depicted in such a way that we can actually begin to relate to them. But executive producers Tracey Alexander and Brian Eastman believe portraying these characters is an essential step in creating a better, more peaceful world." Or as Alexander puts it: "I think not only is it really important to look around the world and see what's going on, but also to look at the way people see us and are judging us. It's really the only way we can hope to kind of cook up some understanding."
This same ambivalence is shown by series star Julianna Margulies, who plays the counter-terrorism director on the National Security Council. Publicity releases made much of the fact that Margulies was flying into New York City on September 11, 2001. She landed just before the first hijacked jetliner slammed into the World Trade Center. Shocked by the attack, she recounts, "I needed to do whatever I could. And I did go down there and help. I cooked for the guys. I visited sick people. I felt, I'm from New York and it's my community and it's what I know and I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else."
Unfortunately, that feeling of a shared American community under attack did not last long. In regards to "The Grid" series, "What I love about the script is that it shows many points of view instead of just one," Margulies says. "One of my favorite scenes is the one where my character says, 'I cannot support a way of life in which Muslim women aren't allowed to eat, sleep, work or breathe the way they want to.' And after I'm through ranting and raving, one of my analysts, who happens to be Muslim, looks at me and says, 'Have you ever bothered to ask a Muslim woman how she feels about that?' I mean, the arrogance of someone assuming that they're miserable just because they don't live as we live!' Nothing is completely black and white in this and I found that to be really refreshing. And I hope that, if anyone gets anything out of this, they can sort of open up their hearts to the other side and stop pitting everybody against each other."
So much for the idea that America's role in the world is one of spreading progress or reducing oppression.
Margulies and others in the trendy Hollywood Left take this view, because they see America as inherently evil. In this sense, modern American society has much in common with its English forebears. British historian David Cannadine has described the way his countrymen look back at the 19th century when London was the capital of a global superpower. "On the Left of the political spectrum, the usual response has varied between guilt and anger – at the poverty and inequality, the hypocrisy and humbug, the snobbery and exploitation, the Philistine materialism and heartless laissez-faire, the imperial hubris and racial arrogance...But to those on the Right, the Victorian age was a time when Britain was truly at its zenith, when the country was the workshop of the world, when the pound was a sterling currency, when God was an Englishman and Englishmen were godly, when Britannia ruled the waves, and when the sun never set on the Empire's broad and majestic domain."
The same can be said about the current division of American opinion since September 11, 2001, with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the global war against Islamic terrorism putting on display the global power of the United States.
The antiwar movement is really a campaign against what is perceived as a negative form of American (or Western) imperialism. Most left-wing activists are not pacifists. They routinely embrace foreign regimes and revolutionary movements which use violence, including terrorism, in confrontation with American or other Western interests. Protesters routinely demand the immediate withdrawal of American and Coalition troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, voice support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel's "colonial occupation," and call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Haiti with a restoration of leftist demagogue Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Morale on the Right has been revived by the memorials that accompanied the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, a man who rallied the nation with his call to "make America great again." Reagan brought the country out of the "malaise" which followed the Left's anti-imperialist policies of defeat in Vietnam, non-intervention against the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran and passivity in the face of OPEC's oil price hikes. That dismal liberal era was best exemplified by President Jimmy Carter telling Americans to accept a diminished life by putting on a sweater and sitting in the dark.
Another British historian, who has advocated that the U.S. embrace its "imperial" greatness, is Niall Ferguson. In his recent book Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, he argues, "(E)mpire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before" as a means to "contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations." Americans need to act with confidence, and he advises they learn from the British experience.
Ferguson acknowledges there are problems. The main threat is not criticism by the anti-imperialists who want to see the U.S. withdraw from the world, and even suffer a decline in wealth and influence in favor of what leftists consider to be the more worthy cultures of the Third World. Most Americans want their country to be successful, and like most Britons, believe that their influence has helped advance world civilization.
The danger in modern America comes from cultural and economic changes that provide opportunities for the Left to gain ground in policy debates. American social conservatives concerned with rising decadence are in accord with the observations made by two leading scholars of the British Empire. Stuart Wood, who specializes in Australian history, has written about how, "notions of duty, service, loyalty, deference, stoic endurance, self-restraint and gentlemanly conduct were insidiously undermined by the erosion of the imperial edifice." Cultural historian Jeffrey Richards, writing on the modern cinema, has noted that "the classics of imperial adventure...embody values and attitudes that are anathema to present-day Hollywood."
Those with a so-called "imperialist" turn of mind see the United States as a civilizing influence on the world, as was the British Empire with its strong social movements against African slave trading and various barbaric practices in its Third World domains in the 19th century. Self-styled "anti-imperialists" (who are really merely opponents of Western civilization) reject this view because they loathe their own societies and do not want to see them serve as models elsewhere. On the contrary, they desire to portray at least a moral equivalence between cultures, if not a moral superiority in those lands which have not made a Faustian bargain for wealth and power as leftists believe the West has done.
The differences between Right and Left cut deep, with nothing less than the survival of the United States as the world's preeminent society at stake.