THE FOURTH OF JULY Weekend is normally a time for reflection about the American Founding and renewed commitment to its enduring legacy. But in recent years the anniversary of American Independence has also become an occasion to reflect on the way America's heritage is under continuous assault by the determined legions of the political left. This attack has been mounted by an intellectual class based in the media and in America's politically correct educational institutions. Their inspiration is a set of discredited 19th Century dogmas masquerading as "progressive" nostrums, and not even the collapse of Communism has been able to reconcile their alienated psyches with the American cause.
These thoughts were brought into focus by three unrelated but thematically coherent incidents that occurred during the holiday respite. They include an Internet post concerning the Pledge of Allegiance as it is taught in our public schools; a dialogue about "patriotism" arranged by the New York Times between neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz and Nation editor Victor Navasky; and the release of Mel Gibson's epic film, "The Patriot," which is about this history itself.
The ritual of civic renewal is important to Americans in a way that it is not to the citizens of other nations. Their patria have been created out of common bonds of blood, language and soil. Their national identities are not intrinsic – as America's is -- to a set of abstract principles and ideas. The singularity of the American identity lies in being forged through a conscious commitment to what until recently was still referred to as an "American way of life." The construct "American" was defined by the Founding, beginning with its Declaration that announced the creation of a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all human beings are created equal and that they are endowed with a natural right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. To be anti-American is not only to reject the heritage of this past, but a future that is "American" as well.
Until recently, the public schools in America functioned as a crucible of its citizenship. Immigrants who came to America seeking refuge and opportunity were educated in this social contract by their teachers. At the beginning of every school day, students would pledge allegiance to the flag of a multi-ethnic republic that was united into one indivisible nation by the commitment of all its citizens to a common national ideal. For these immigrants, public education was a process of assimilation into an American culture that had pledged itself to liberty and justice for all. But now this contract is under siege by radical multi-culturalists who condemn America and its heritage as oppressive, and valorize instead the culture of the "Other" – of peoples this nation is alleged to oppress. In this perverse -- but now academically normal – view, the world is turned upside down. The nation conceived in liberty is reconceived as the tyrant to be overthrown.
How effective is this campaign? A Zogby poll, taken in January, showed that nearly a third of America's college students declined to say that they are proud to be Americans. This can be considered a direct result of the fact that their left-wing professors, as a matter of course, teach them to be ashamed of their country's present and its history.
The Internet post I came across was from a Sixties list, and it encapsulated the attitude that has caused this to happen. The post was written by Jeffrey Blankfort, a photographer who supplied the media with romantic images of the Black Panthers, during their struggles with law and order in the 1960s. Blankfort is now a public school teacher, and an unreconstructed missionary from the hate-America school of radical thought, perhaps the most enduring legacy of his radical generation to the national debate. This is what Blankfort wrote:
"In the schools in which I have subbed and then taught, very few students stand for the pledge of allegiance unless coerced to do so by their teacher. Most of the students have either African, Latin American or Asian ancestry. When an occasional student does stand, I ask, in a friendly manner, if she or he can tell me of any moment in history where the inhabitants of this land actually enjoyed 'liberty and justice for all,' and beyond the words of the pledge, to show me any proof that such was ever intended."
In other words, for Jeffrey Blankfort and his comrades, gone is the role of public education as an assimilator of immigrants and minorities into the American culture; gone, too, is the task of integrating them into the opportunities offered under the umbrella of "the American dream." It has been replaced by a subversive mission whose agenda is to warn them against the very society their parents had freely chosen. The students are addressed not as members of a free community freely choosing their futures, but as though they were dragged to these shores (and kept here) in chains. Thirty years ago no teacher would have thought to abuse his authority over school children in this manner. But now educational institutions all the way from university to kindergarten have been thoroughly politicized by a "post-modern" left that respects no institutions and no standards, and for whom everything is political, including the lives of small children.
This is an authentic movement of sedition, and it is new as well. In fact, I have a personal way of measuring just how new. My father was a Communist teacher during the Thirties and Forties, unfairly purged in the McCarthy era from the New York City school system. But not for an act like this. For he did not, so far as the record shows, violate his classroom trust; nor did he intrude his personal political agendas into his lessons. Even though my father belonged to a conspiratorial party that took its orders from a foreign power, it would have been absolutely unthinkable for him to attack America in its promise ("show me any proof that such [liberty and justice] was ever intended") as today's leftists reflexively do.
My father belonged to a party whose slogan was "Communism is 20th Century Americanism," and he believed it. The socialism of which he and his comrades dreamed was incompatible, of course, with the American founding. But in their minds the future to which they aspired was going to be a completion – not a rejection – of the American idea. Accordingly, they named their organizations after American icons like Lincoln and Jefferson, men now routinely demonized by the left as "racists" and (in Jefferson's case) "rapists." Even though what Communists like my father really wanted was a "Soviet America," they would say when challenged (and I actually did say when I was young and among them): "we're the true patriots; we want America to live up to its ideals."
As I was abruptly reminded this Fourth of July Weekend, there is a contemporary left that has revived this very line of self-exculpation along with political agendas of the "popular front" (now called simply "populist") familiar from the 1930s. A Fourth of July Weekend feature in the NY Times, even pitted Nation editor Victor Navasky as a proponent of this position against Norman Podhoretz, himself a former leftist now neo-conservative critic. Navasky's version of the Communism-is-20th-Century-Americanism line went something like this: "My definition of patriotism would involve fighting to make sure your country lives up to its highest ideals. And from that perspective, even those who burn the flag -- not all of them but some of them -- may have been as patriotic as those who wrapped themselves in the flag." According to Navasky, "going back to the beginning of our history … those people who fought to achieve the American dream of equal rights for all were scorned at the time as, in effect, unpatriotic and later on as Communists." By implication, therefore, the normal meaning of language is actually reversed. The charge of being anti-American is really an honorific applied to those "progressives" who are patriots ahead of their time, so to speak.
In a perverse way Navasky was right. Those Americans who fought for equal rights at the beginning of American history, were unpatriotic – but they were unpatriotic to England, not America. Later on, leftists did hypocritically invoke the First and Fifth Amendments during the time of McCarthy to hide their anti-American agendas from the American public. But they were in fact Communists who were loyal to the Soviet empire and who wanted to overthrow the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
Podhoretz did not exactly let Navasky slip through this loophole: "One can be critical of the country while loving it," he agreed. But he added: "I would submit that people who burned the flag during the Vietnam War or people who spelled the name of the country with a K to suggest an association with Nazi Germany or people who saw no difference between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, morally or politically, were not patriots." By choosing not to make the issue personal, Podhoretz was even being a little soft on Navasky, a man whose magazine supported every Communist dictator in their heyday -- Stalin, Mao, Fidel, Ho, even Pol Pot – and on every issue involving conflict between the United States and any of its sworn enemies during the Cold War, invariably tilted towards (and often actively sided with) the enemy side.
Unfazed by these considerations, Navasky held his ground: "Patriotism is best expressed in the struggle to make this a better place. And it is not best expressed in saluting the flag or in parades down Fifth Avenue, but in writing, in marching, in suing, in…whatever it takes to fulfill the promise of the Bill of Rights."
This is really the core alibi of the left. It is a favorite, for example, of the most prominent intellectual America-hater of our time, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, who invariably uses it to explain why he is able to muster such fervent hostility for his own country's imperfect democracy while speaking from the platform of a Marxist dictatorship, as he did in Nicaragua during the 1980s. In Chomsky's world, one's moral responsibility is to criticize one's own country, not that of its "victims."
But the hypocrisy here is readily exposed. If it is a more authentic form of loyalty to attack the failings of one's own house, then why are leftists, like Navasky and Chomsky, such fervent patriots of the left and so zealous in covering up its crimes? The Nation was perhaps the last media institution in America to admit the guilt of the Rosenberg spies, or the crimes of the Black Panthers, let alone of the monster Pol Pot. It has still not made its peace with the guilt of Alger Hiss. For decades Nation writers -- and leftists generally -- made pariahs of the Trotskyist critics of the Stalin regime and actively colluded in the cover-up of Communist atrocities throughout the Cold War. And they continue in the present to defame critics of the left, as (in the interests of full disclosure) they did myself recently. The purpose is always the same: to embargo discussion of themselves. It is hypocrisy of the very highest order to think of yourself as having a "social conscience" and as being a champion of dissent, while you shut off questioning in your own ranks and attempt to demonize those who disagree with you and turn them into unpersons and worse.
"What of it?" you might ask. "Victor Navasky is a genial man. The left has no gulags in America. The Soviet empire is dead. So what if Noam Chomsky is the most influential intellect on American campuses? So what if Sixties leftovers like Jeffrey Blankfort are busily indoctrinating multi-ethnic American youth in suspicions towards their own country? America can survive this."
Well, it is true that the Soviet empire is dead, and that the threat of treason which the old Communist movement did in fact pose, is no longer a pressing concern. But the fact that the challenge has changed, means that the nature of the danger needs to be reconsidered as well. That danger can be assessed only within a framework of appreciating the way in which this country is a unique experiment, and is virtually the only successful, large-scale multi-ethnic polity we know. It is to the fragile construction of this multi-ethnic community that the contemporary left poses its threat.
Ever since Communism's ignominious collapse, the left has no longer bothered to defend its fantasy of the socialist future. Its spirit is now consumed by nihilism and its message entirely framed in the negativity of an indictment. This is a function it has always performed with great efficiency. It is immeasurably abetted in this task by the innocence (not to say ignorance) of Americans about the country they live in. In a recent survey of seniors at 55 of the highest rated American colleges and universities, including Harvard and Princeton, 80 percent of those questioned failed to get better than a D on a high-school level history exam and could not identify Patrick Henry, for example, as the author of the phrase "Give me liberty or give me death," let alone provide its context. (AP 6/27/2000) None of the 55 schools in the survey required a course in American history for graduation, and only 20% required their students to take any history classes at all.
Into this vacuum the left has marched with its corrosive ideological acid. Consider this anti-American, anti-white and astoundingly ignorant (but typical) statement by leftist historian Philip A. Klinkner in the July 3rd issue of Navasky's magazine The Nation – and imagine its potential impact on young black "progressives": "Throughout American history, in nearly every instance in which they have been given a direct vote on the matter, the majority of white Americans have rejected any measure beneficial to the interests of blacks." Given the fact that whites have been the American majority throughout the nation's history, it would be interesting to hear leftists like Professor Klinkner explain how blacks have made any progress at all, if they have not made it through the expressed will of the white majority -- how the slave trade was ended; how the slaves gained their freedom; how the Constitution was amended not only to outlaw slavery but to guarantee equal rights; how segregation was ended; how civil rights were enforced; how voting rights were guaranteed; how anti-discrimination laws were passed; how affirmative action was launched; how the welfare system was funded; and how African Americans became the freest, richest and most privileged community of blacks anywhere in the world.
Philip Klinkner is not merely a history professor, but a specialist in American race relations and civil rights -- a fact that speaks volumes about the politicized state of American universities and the toxic messages they disseminate in the guise of "education" to American youth. Far from being eccentric, Klinkner's view of the American past is a cliché of the views held not only by white leftist academics, but by their disciples in the leadership of what passes for the "civil rights" movement in the African-American community today.
One measure of how widely this anti-American sentiment has spread is the negative critical reaction to the July 4th release of Mel Gibson's The Patriot, a film that reassembles the elements of the national myth into a powerful homage to liberty and to the American colonists who gave their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to its cause. The film has been roundly faulted for its alleged anachronisms – in particular its projections of contemporary attitudes towards slavery and race into 18th Century South Carolina. Professor David Hackett Fisher, a distinguished Brandeis historian, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed piece, which appeared two days after the film's opening (7/1/2000): "Mr. Gibson plays a reluctant hero named Benjamin Martin, a widower with seven perfect children, a 'Gone With The Wind' plantation and a work force of free and happy Black Folk who toil in his fields as volunteers." Fischer then dismisses The Patriot as being "to history as Godzilla was to biology." These comments echo another post from the Sixties-list referring to a widely used college text (Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States) to the effect that "U.S. history was tainted from the very beginning" and that the slaves "had a better shot at freedom if they supported the British."
But it is a historical fact that there were free blacks in the ante-bellum South. Their presence in the film is not an oversight but a calculation. The Patriot forcefully embraces the idea that the American revolution and black freedom is one continuum. In the story, a black slave signs up with the rebel force because he is promised freedom after twelve months' service. But after the twelve months are up, he decides to continue with the rebels of his own free will because he understands (as these critics apparently do not) that in the conception of a new nation based on the proposition that all men are created equal lies the possibility of freedom not only for himself but for all.
Is this historically far-fetched? Well, actually, no. In North Carolina in 1774, the punishment for killing a slave was a mere year's imprisonment and the value of the property that had been destroyed. But 8 years later, when the Revolution had been won, the North Carolina legislature changed the law saying the old law was "disgraceful to humanity and degrading in the highest degree to the laws and principles of a free, Christian, and enlightened country," because it drew a "distinction of criminality between the murder of a white person and of one who is equally an human creature, but merely of a different complexion." The new revolutionary law made the willfull killing of a slave murder, and punishable by death.
Ideas have powerful consequences – none more so than in shaping the future. But so do negative ideas and negative images of the past.