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Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

What kind of a country you think you live in can affect your eagerness to defend it.

11:00 PM, Jan 8, 2006 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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IN HIS END-OF-THE-YEAR COLUMN, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne included this message from an irate conservative reader: "Most liberals and some Democrats hate this president and will do anything to bring him down, including siding with terrorists against the president." Noting that the same sentiment was expressed in different forms by many readers, Dionne lamented that "when big chunks of the country begin to view their political adversaries as something close to traitors, we have arrived at a very dangerous time."

But is it baseless to suspect that the left-liberal ethos impels some adherents towards ambivalence about the struggle against terrorism? History suggests that the issue is worth investigating. After all, the old American left felt ambivalent--or worse--when it came to the foreign policy struggles of its day. Chunks of the left opposed American involvement in the struggle against fascism until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. And even after becoming disillusioned with Communism, elements of the old left failed to buy into the Cold War. Many adopted the posture of the influential literary critic Edmund Wilson. As Joseph Epstein has pointed out, Wilson described our conduct towards the Soviet Union as "panicky pugnacity" borne not of our virtue but of "the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism."

The "new left" of the 1960s and 1970s rejected such world-weary moral equivalency and rooted openly for Communists. The standard chant of that era's student left was "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win." These leftists now have a stake in our society, and neither they nor their children have to worry about being drafted. Moreover, bin Laden and Zarqawi may cut less appealing figures, both personally and ideologically, than Uncle Ho, Chairman Mao, and Fidel Castro. Thus, there's no reason to believe that very many leftists root for, or sympathize deeply with, the enemy. But we shouldn't summarily dismiss the possibility that some leftists today feel ambivalent about the country they once considered criminal and that, always craving sophistication, they may have adopted something like Edmund Wilson's cynical view of America's latest conflict.

Consider the statements and actions of some of today's left-liberals. The most obvious example is Michael Moore. As Michael Barone reminds us, Moore has hailed the Iraqi terrorist insurgents as "Minute Men" who deserve to win, and on his website has called Americans the stupidest people in the world. By hitting the daily double of anti-Americanism--cheering for the enemy and denigrating his countrymen--Moore became a hero to the left and an ally of liberal Democratic politicians. According to Barone, about half of the Democratic senators attended the Washington premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's popular distillation of his views on the war against terror. And at their national convention, the Democrats honored Moore with a seat next to former president, and kindred spirit, Jimmy Carter.

But it is not just their fondness for Moore that suggests a deep ambivalence about this country on the part of many liberals. Isolated incidents of prisoner abuse caused Senate minority whip Richard Durbin to compare the United States to Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. Recent revelations about warrant-less electronic surveillance of calls from foreign al Qaeda operatives to the United States have spurred comparisons to King George III. Those who perceive America as being one New York Times story away from deserving comparison to some of history's most odious regimes must believe that the country is teetering on the brink of evil.

What if one were to take the left's moral worldview seriously? If the country is on such tenuous moral ground, as they proclaim it to be, then the highest priority--more urgent than dealing with an enemy that successfully attacks us only once every several years--is to make sure that the country doesn't spiral into something truly evil.

Thus, while most Americans find it unobjectionable that we use water boarding, or electronic surveillance of calls to the United States, to obtain information about al Qaeda plans, those who consider America morally ambiguous cannot accept such tactics. To do so, the familiar protest goes, makes us too much like the enemy. This incarnation of moral-equivalency-think is as potentially debilitating in the war on terror as Edmund Wilson's version was during the Cold War.

The other imperative for this crowd--also more urgent than the war on terror--is to move the country away from the brink of evil to higher moral ground. This means enacting the left-liberal agenda--government guaranteed healthcare for all, higher taxes on the rich, gay marriage, and so forth. But to advance down that road, Republicans must be vanquished. For some liberals, E.J. Dionne notwithstanding, it follows that they must do nearly anything to bring the Republicans and their president down, and that accomplishing this constitutes a higher priority than combating terrorism.

Many modern liberals seem unable to say what kind of country they live in. Most of the time, they speak as if they inhabit Frank Capra's Bedford Falls--a dull, nosy, and somewhat puritanical, but basically decent place where George Bailey and the forces of good fight to a stalemate with Mr. Potter and the forces of evil.

Deep down, though, they fear they live in Pottersville, minus the fun. The defense of Bedford Falls, for all of its flaws, would be a top priority; the primacy of defending Pottersville is less apparent.

Paul Mirengoff is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Power Line.