The Magazine

The Collapse of the Dream Palaces

From the April 28, 2003 issue: Mass destruction of mistaken ideas.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By DAVID BROOKS
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What lessons will they draw from the events of the past month? How will the fall of Saddam affect their voting patterns, their approach to the next global crisis? One way to think about this is to conduct a thought experiment. Invent a representative 20-year-old, Joey Tabula-Rasa, and try to imagine how he would have perceived the events of the past month.

Joey doesn't know much about history; he was born in 1983 and was only 6 when the Berlin Wall fell. He really has no firm idea of what labels like liberal and conservative mean. But now he is in college, and he's been glued to the cable coverage of the war and is ready to form some opinions. Over the past months, certain facts and characters have entered his consciousness, like characters in a play he is seeing for the first time.

The first character is America itself. He sees that his country is an incredibly effective colossus that can drop bombs onto pinpoints, destroy enemies that aren't even aware they are under attack. He sees a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill. He sees a federal government that can perform its primary task--protecting the American people--magnificently.

These are obviously not the things Joey would have seen if he had come of age in 1972, and his mentality is likely to be radically different from that of many people of the sixties generation. He is likely to feel confident about American power. He is likely to assume that when America projects its might, it is not only great, but good. Its pilots fly low, at some risk to themselves, to reduce civilian casualties. Teams of lawyers vet bombing targets to minimize unnecessary damage. Efforts are made to spare enemy soldiers who don't want to fight. The military, moreover, is fundamentally open to the press, allowing embedded reporters to wander amidst the troops. The ruling class is reasonably candid about the war's progress. The anonymous people in the corridors of power basically seem to know what they are doing.

The American system of government, moreover, is clearly the best system. In Joey's eyes, the United Nations is a fractious debating society. The European Union is split. The French are insufferable, the Germans both hostile and pacifist. The Arab ruling class is treacherous. Billions of people around the world seem to hate us, and while Joey is aware that there are some reasons to be suspicious of the United States, he resents the way so many people are over the top in their resentment, fury, and dislike. In short, Joey does not look around and assume that the world is moving toward some world government or global unity. When the chips are down, there are very few nations you can trust. Joey is both more trusting of America, and more suspicious of the world, than he would have been if he had formed his worldview in the 1990s.

The second great character on Joey's mind is the American soldier. When Joey thinks of youthful idealism, he doesn't think of college students protesting in the streets, he thinks of young soldiers risking their lives to liberate a people. These are the men and women Joey saw interviewed by the dozen on TV. They seemed to enjoy being in the military. They seemed to believe in their mission. They seemed to be involved in something large and noble even at a young age.

In Joey's eyes, the people who get to do the most exciting things are not members of the meritocratic elite--Harvard and Stanford alums who start software companies. They are the regular men and women of the armed forces, or, as he remembers from the days after 9/11, they are firemen and cops. They are people without prestigious degrees and high income prospects.

Joey naturally feels that while those soldiers are liberating a country and talking about duty and honor, all he is doing is preparing for business school. That doesn't mean he necessarily wants to enlist, but he is aware that there is something lacking in his pampered private life. He also sees, in the example the soldiers set, that discipline, neatness, professionalism, and openly expressed patriotism are kind of cool.

The third character Joey sees is the terrorist. He sees the people who blew up the World Trade Center. In Iraq, people like that piled into pickups and suicidally attacked tanks. They wore those black fedayeen gowns. In Israel, they strap bombs to their waists and blow up buses. Joey is aware that there are a lot of people, especially in the Arab world, who are just batshit crazy. There is no reasoning with these people. They understand only force, and they must be crushed.

Joey sees that some regimes around the world are sadistic and evil. They torture and mutilate their own people. They ignore the basic rules of warfare and civilization. Conflict with these people is inevitable. They lurk in the dark corners of the globe, and for some reason they think they should take out their problems on us. You always have to be on guard, because there really is evil about.

WHEN JOEY LOOKS at the talking heads on TV, he begins to form judgments about this country's political divides. First, he sees the broad majority of people who support the war, who, it seems to him, deserve to be called the progressives. These people talk optimistically of spreading democracy and creating a new Middle East. They have a very confident approach to what America can achieve in the world. People in this political movement include Christopher Hitchens, Dennis Miller, Paul Wolfowitz, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Richard Holbrooke, Charles Krauthammer, the staff of Fox News, Bernard Lewis, and George Bush.

These people tend to endorse progressive interventionism, not only in Iraq, but in places like Kosovo. They use the explicitly moral language of good and evil. Joey is a little nervous that they are not realistic about what can actually be achieved in this messy world. He's afraid they might bite off more than they can chew. But he gives them credit for their idealism, their hope, their grand vision.

The second group Joey sees he calls the conservatives. These people are far more skeptical of the war and grand endeavors of that sort. They emphasize all the things that could go wrong. They seem more prudent and less idealistic or visionary. They were not necessarily implacably opposed to the effort in Iraq, but they thought it imprudent. People in the conservative camp include Brent Scowcroft, Joe Klein, the State Department, John Kerry, Chris Matthews, Robert Novak, and most of the press corps.

When Joey listens to these conservatives, he thinks they raise some valid concerns. They serve as a useful brake on the progressives, but they are not exactly inspiring or hopeful, and their prognostications on Iraq proved more wrong than right.

The final group Joey sees on the political landscape are the marchers. These people are always in the streets with their banners and puppets. They march against the IMF and World Bank one day, and against whatever war happens to be going on the next. Joey is not sure what these people are for. They don't seem to have any alternative to globalization. They don't seem to know how to deal with the Taliban or Saddam. They just march against. Joey figures it must be part of their personality.

Joey knows that this is what people did in the 1960s, and he regards the marchers as vaguely archaic. He knows that they tend to come from Hollywood and academia. Joey is not hostile to those worlds. He loves movies and likes many of his professors. He just senses that they are cloistered worlds, removed from day-to-day reality, and he doesn't plan on spending his life there. Marching for peace is something people in those worlds do, just as Mormons devote a few years of their lives to missionary work, or Jews keep kosher. It does not occur to Joey to enter the subculture of the protesters, and what they say is not likely to affect him one way or another.

Joey likes to think of himself as fundamentally independent. He looks at the people living in their dream palaces--the Arabists, the European elites, the Bush haters--and he knows he doesn't want to be like them. He doesn't want to be so zealous and detached from reality. He's not even into joining political movements at home. But he is less independent than he thinks. He has started to acquire certain assumptions over the past months, which will shape his thinking in years to come. As a rule, these assumptions are the exact opposite of the assumptions he would have formed if he had been watching the Vietnam war unfold. His politics will be radically different from those of the Vietnam generation.

Moreover, new categories are crystallizing in his mind. These categories--who is progressive, who is conservative, who is reactionary--do not comport with the categories in the minds of people who came of age during the civil rights era, or even the Cold War.

Joey isn't one of a kind. There are millions of Joeys, and variations on Joey. Inevitably, then, in ways subtle and profound, the events of the past month will shape our politics for the rest of our lives.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.