The Magazine

A Darkling Plain

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Leo Strauss wrote of the “all men are created equal” sentence in the Declaration of Independence, “The passage has frequently been quoted, but, by its weight and its elevation, it is made immune to the degrading effects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust.” Doesn’t this also hold for the closing lines of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach?

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The passage is familiar. But as one surveys the American landscape on Washington’s birthday in 2013, it seems particularly apt.

The plain is darkling. The world grows more dangerous. Yet we heedlessly slash our military preparedness. Iran hastens toward a nuclear weapon, which would pose an existential threat to Israel and signal a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet the president nominates for secretary of defense a man who is patently unqualified for the position, who despises Israel, and who has a record of being exceedingly solicitous of Iran. We win in Iraq and make progress in Afghanistan, thanks to the valor and sacrifice of our troops, and the president puts these accomplishments at great risk because he chooses to pander to public war weariness rather than attend to America’s national interests.

Our political armies are confused or ignorant. A foolish and dangerous sequester looms, one both parties promised would never happen. But neither party now can be troubled to put forth a credible proposal to avert it. President Obama views the moment as an opportunity for scoring cheap political points. Republicans are so desperate for a “victory” over Obama that they now embrace Obama’s foolish idea, and so are willing to sacrifice national defense for minor cuts in domestic spending which will in no way fundamentally change our trajectory toward national insolvency and a nanny state. Meanwhile, Obama postures on guns and immigration as Republicans calculate their every move tactically, looking intently in the rear-view mirror.

So it’s a darkling plain. And there’s no point hoping that illumination will come by a bolt of light or that ignorant armies are suddenly going to become enlightened.

On the other hand, we needn’t succumb to Arnold’s apparent despair, or to his counsel to retreat to private life. Arnold wrote Dover Beach in 1851. The next year, across the Atlantic, the great American statesman Henry Clay died. Abraham Lincoln eulogized him:

Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. .  .  . He loved his country partly because it was his own country, and mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human right, and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen, partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that free men could be prosperous.

One suspects the world-weary Arnold would have cast a skeptical eye on Clay’s zeal for the cause of human liberty. But American conservatives can both learn from the wisdom of Arnold and capture the spirit of Clay. Conservatives will surely be moved by Arnold’s evocation of the tremulous cadence slow that brings the eternal note of sadness in, and by the Sea of Faith’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear /And naked shingles of the world. But what American isn’t also inspired by Lincoln’s tribute to Henry of the West?

We know that in politics the plain will rarely be sunlit and the armies rarely enlightened. But surely American conservatives can do better than simply add to today’s confused alarms of struggle and flight.

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