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."