The Magazine

The Redistribution of Honor

From the April 28, 2003 issue: Winners and losers in the postwar era.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By FRED SIEGEL and JOEL KOTKIN
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LIKE ALL HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT CONFLICTS, the war in Iraq has produced its share of "winners" and "losers." Yet beyond the fates of individuals or organizations--Jacques Chirac, Jean Chrétien, Brent Scowcroft, the New York Times, the BBC, the National Organization for Women, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the United Nations make the losers cut with ease--what really will matter is how first 9/11 and now this war have redistributed our ideals of honor for the coming generation.

This shift in the moral hierarchy is far more fundamental than party politics. For the first time since the era of civil rights and Vietnam, when racism and a dishonestly defined war undermined the authority of our institutions, the fundamental concepts of who is to be admired, and who is not, are being shaken and reshaped.

Following the earthquake of the 1960s, honor and glory in America tended to go to "victims"--racial, economic, and sexual--whose rights had been abused. Anxious to hold on to that alignment, an angry Al Sharpton speaking in the wake of 9/11 insisted that "we don't owe America anything; America owes us." Taking up Sharpton's sentiments, a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus last month either voted against or abstained on a House resolution in support not of the war, but of our troops.

Today, in a rediscovery of courage, a virtue long disdained by feminists, the most honored are the people who give of themselves--the police officers, firefighters, and soldiers, whatever their gender or race, we ask to defend us against criminals, terrorists, and thugs. The Todd Beamers and Jessica Lynchs are the ones who make us proud, and unite us, as Americans.

Part of what's driving the change is that the United States, which has been famously indifferent to the past, has acquired a keen sense of recent history. Since 9/11, we've been paying attention in the classroom of world events, and learning lessons that are quite different from what many of our top religious, intellectual, and media leaders had been preaching. Rather than reigning as the source of evil in the world, it is the United States that has taken the lead in bringing down tyrannies in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In the conflict between the freeze-dried radicals for whom it is always 1968 and those who see in today's crises a repetition of earlier battles--against slavery, Nazism, and communism--it is the latter who have been vindicated by events. But the media and political elites who came of age in the anti-American, anti-capitalist era of the 1960s have been slow to grasp that Vietnam turns out to have been the exception, not the norm.

This explains why, after 9/1l and the overthrow of Saddam, the dishonored elites have continued, in Seneca's phrase, to be "resolute in their madness." Nowhere is this more obvious than in the nation's religious establishment. With few exceptions, our mainstream church leaders vehemently opposed the war. The pope warned of dire results. The National Council of Churches predicted "tremendous loss of lives," "years of chaos and suffering," and an "increase in acts of terrorism." Muslim leaders--except perhaps a few in Iraq and Kuwait--saw little more than another attack by infidel "crusaders," working in tandem, of course, with the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Thus we have found mainstream religious figures like Bob Edgar, who moved seamlessly from being a liberal congressman to leading the National Council of Churches, at antiwar rallies. There they were joined by those who advocate the suicide bombings by children of other children, allies to regimes that brook no faith but their own, as well as the "pagan" nation of lightly churched areas such as San Francisco or the west side of Manhattan.

The hierarchies of established Protestant faiths--from the United Methodists to the Mennonites, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians, and the Presbyterians--were virtually unanimous in their unambiguous hostility to the war. Most of the clergy, notes Dr. Wade Clark Roof, were products of the "ecumenical education" of the '60s and early '70s, which embraced a theology of social action and liberation, often to the exclusion of traditional morality. "This," says Roof, has "created a gap between what the religious leaders say and what the people in the congregations think" that's been widening steadily since the late '60s, when "we started to see the decline of mainstream Protestantism."

R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame, an opponent of the war, sees a similar trend among Catholics, where most congregants--including the swelling number of Latino parishioners--support the war, as do, according to the polls, most churchgoing Americans. Combined with the continuing fallout from the sexual abuse scandals, this is likely to give credence to the more conservative Catholic lay groups and intellectuals, like Michael Novak, whose views on the war seem far more grounded in contemporary reality than those of the clerical elites.

The other big religious winners will be others who have been favorable to the war--fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, conservative-leaning Jews, even anti-Saddam Shia clerics. Such groups had already been gaining ground in the battle for the religious hearts and minds of Americans; their embrace of the current realities, as opposed to '60s flashbacks, guarantees that their voices, and ideas, will be more valued in the years ahead.

A SIMILAR REDISTRIBUTION of honor may even be in the offing in the academy, where antiwar sentiment among professors seemed to many like a splendid opportunity for a second adolescence. Over the last few months, it was the university faculties--with their Saudi-funded Arab study centers, Arabized left-wing professors, black nationalist enclaves, and tenured radicals--who fomented and marched. But the student army never materialized. Campuses never closed, and for the most part the students, even at places like Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale, basically went about their business. A poll conducted by the Yale Daily News found about half of students supported the war. Polls showed that most young people supported the war, and even before the campaign vindicated such views, two-thirds expressed strong confidence in our military leadership.

The funhouse of the postmodern academics was built around the two closely related themes of postmodernism and multiculturalism. Together they displaced the idea of truth and its cousin, empirical evidence, with the notion of "narrativity." All the world was simply words. There was no reality, just a series of competing stories all of which were mere social constructs and none of which was more correct than any other. In political terms, the campus postmodernists identified with the pre-modern rebels against modernity in the Arab world. But with the war in Iraq, those on campuses who, like Al Jazeera, believed "Baghdad Bob's" account of events discovered that lo and behold there is such a thing as an empirically grounded reality.

Given tenure and the understandable reluctance of bright kids to get caught up in the PC maw of graduate school, the universities will be slow to change. But as students increasingly challenge the superannuated ideas of their aging professors and academics continue to be subject to popular ridicule as "shagadelic" characters--like Saddam and his love-nest--out of an Austin Powers movie, we may someday see the signs of a Prague Spring on the campuses.

Along with the academics and the clerics, the third group of big-time losers are the prestige media. The mission of the media is to provide accurate information. Yet for much of the war--indeed until the army and Marines broke into Baghdad--the New York Times was often as full of misinformation as the Iraqi minister of information. And not nearly as funny.

It was indeed painful to see that despite rapid advances through the desert and the remarkable steps to avoid civilian casualties, the BBC and CNN tried to portray the invasion as a disaster in the making, or an "acid flashback to Vietnam," as the unintentionally amusing Maureen Dowd put it. A typical experience was to hear left-wing dinosaur and onetime North Korea apologist Robert Scheer tell us on National Public Radio that immigrants--widely honored for their service--had served as "cannon fodder" for an imperial war. We wonder how well his comments would play, say, on Whittier Boulevard in Latino East L.A., where there are more American flags flying than in Santa Monica. Then again, you can say the same about Baghdad. For people like Scheer, America's triumph, and the liberation of Iraq, was all about the agony of defeat, notably theirs. Accuracy and honor, if sometimes marred by too much naked boosterism, go to Fox and MSNBC and bloggers like Andrew Sullivan for whom the war enhanced both reputation and ratings.

No catalogue of dishonor is complete without including Hollywood, an ephemeral constituency that includes not only Malibu and Bel-Air, but the tonier parts of Manhattan and Connecticut as well. When our troops shipped out, it wasn't exactly like the old days, with Bob Hope in their corner. Instead there was Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, and Barbra Streisand, who allowed their hatred for George Bush to become de facto support for keeping Saddam in power. Opposing the war even took time from their second favorite activity, supporting generalissimo Castro, who could always retire as a Hollywood executive.

Hollywood, like the other dishonored institutions, has much to answer for in this war (not to mention much before). Where were the famous Hollywood conservatives or the hairy chested heroes who play military supermen in the films? Not offering to take the next C-17 out to Kuwait to entertain the troops, and perhaps a bit scared of being on the reverse blacklist of the limousine leftists who control the likes of Miramax and Dreamworks.

FINALLY, there has also been a geographic redistribution of honor. You can divide Americans increasingly by their attitudes towards Europe. The academic and media elites tend to see Europe as the enlightened home of a more urbane civilization. Religious leaders relate favorably to the simplistic pacifism and inherent anti-Americanism that reigns among continental leaders. Europe's long-term economic stagnation, its widespread anti-Semitism, its inability, unlike America, to absorb different peoples and cultures, its financial support for Palestinian terror--all of this is of course roundly ignored.

For most Americans, the war revealed that the Europeans--notably the Belgians and the French--are reliably people without honor. But not all Europe has failed in American eyes. We honor most of all the British, showing themselves to be our true cousins, as well as those along the continental periphery, from Spain to Lithuania, who supported the cause of bringing down a hideous dictator.

America's internal geography of honor also was altered. Clearly, the heartland and the South, where support for the war was strong, have seen their vision of a just and powerful America carried out. At the same time, the denizens of the Northwestern druid belt, from Santa Cruz to Seattle--which became the hotbed of antiwar sentiment--emerge as losers. San Francisco during the war became Baghdad by the Bay for more reasons than one. Yet, despite the antiwar unanimity of the local media, academic, clerical, and political classes, in the recent Field poll 63 percent of the Bay Area at large supported the war.

The war has served to deepen trends already in place. The left, on the losing side of every major foreign policy debate of the past quarter century, is increasingly retreating into snobbery and conspiracy theories about neocon plots. At Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi, Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies, told the participants in a teach-in/antiwar rally that they were the "'A' students, who think for themselves," in contrast to the "'C' students with their stupid fingers on the trigger." History will not be kind when it comes to grading the professor.

In the 1960s, under the weight of the Vietnam debacle and a government that lied to its citizens, the margins moved into the center of American life. Today with a military that is more open and honest than the elites who disdain it, the margins are marginal again. The American center has held.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University; Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York.