Five years ago, on what was the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country, I offered this reflection as I recalled the horror of that day.
The confidence that assures the vulnerable and makes them forget their condition was shaken. We were all vulnerable now. In truth, however, this was not a new state of things. It was just that a generation of Americans unaccustomed to acknowledging it except in abstractions, was rudely awakened to a fundamental truth of human existence: the good things in life are fragile. We had taken our security and prosperity for granted and, even more, we had assumed that our liberty was a given and a permanent fact. Coming to know what to do with this realization would be the hard (and often thankless) work of the next decade (or more). Remembering that realization—though it then seemed impossible that we could forget—will be the work of the decades to follow this anniversary.
Five years ago, I was worried (and I still worry) about the way we teach our children about that day. I worry because I know what comes of failing to be frank with ourselves and with the kids. My generation, the one that history forgot and simply deemed “X”, may be the best example of that kind of failure. The events of September 11, 2001 marked for me, as they should have marked for all Americans, the end of comfortable assumption regarding the sanguine fate of our people. The assumption that life will continue to go on in more or less the same way it always has is toxic to a free people. We love to say “Never Forget!” Yet forgetting is our specialty.
It is now a cliche to say that “9/11 changed the way I looked at the world,” but for many people of my generation—people who grew up in the waning days of the existential threat of Soviet Communism—this is wholly true. In a way, we Reagan babies suffer from an embarrassment of riches. We have some vague memories of being seriously afraid of the Soviet Union and nuclear holocaust during the Carter years, but once Reagan was elected those fears began to dissipate and confidence grew. At the time and through a child’s eyes, our certain victory in the a Cold War seemed of a piece with the plot of Rocky IV or with the outcome of that famous Miracle on Ice hockey match in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. We were sure that freedom was the urging of every human heart and that it would ring just as sure for Eastern Europe as it was for us once history caught up to them and they figured it out.
America represented freedom in the world, not only for ourselves but against all others and all objections. My generation was proud and confident but, above all, we were ignorant of what our victory in the Cold War had cost and of how hard fought it had been. Our parents’ generation had fought in (and over) Vietnam, but they didn’t really talk meaningfully to us about it. We may read about it but we don’t remember it. Conservatives of my generation were free to assume that opposition to that war was an anomaly and mainly the work of some dirty hippies and commie holdouts. I don’t think we internalized just how deep were fissures in our society, mostly because we didn’t remember a time without them. Naturally, we thought, we won the Cold War in spite of them. Winning was just what Americans do because we were on “the right side of history” while the bad guys were always destined to its “ash heap.”
As we watched Communist dictatorships crumble in quick succession in the early 90s, our confidence grew. This was easy! The first Gulf War? Easy! All we had to do was to be tough like Reagan. If we stood up, the bad guys would have to stand down. It was all just a matter of time. Peace through strength was a mantra that in our constant and clue less reliable-telling took on the properties of political alchemy. We had missed too many steps along the way. We didn’t remember the struggle. And since experience is the best teacher, we did not really understand the many other conditions of freedom.
For some, but not for enough, 9/11 changed all of that. History, we discovered, does not have sides. There is no certain trajectory of things toward the right and the good. Liberty is precious precisely because it is always so precariously held. After an all too brief moment of heartfelt but also heartsick national unity, the deep fissures in our society made themselves felt again and felt hard. We seemed confused about what our next step should be. Victory did not come easy. History did not cooperate and reveal itself to all of the human hearts that were supposed to be longing for freedom. In fact, they seemed pretty clearly to be rejecting and spitting upon it. As clear victory did not come, there was much debate about what, precisely, victory should look like. If freedom was not wanted, maybe we could encourage it by forcing the spring. Then it would have to grow. Maybe that was the ticket.
Except it wasn’t. The Arab Spring was also a disaster. People cannot be given freedom and then expected to cherish and cultivate it. People have to want it and to earn it; maybe even including Americans who have counted it as their birthright inheritance. Maybe freedom isn’t the kind of thing that can be safely passed along to the next generation without some hard conversations and even harder lessons.
My generation and, now, also the Millennials, remain in the discovery phase of the many hard lessons about maintaining liberty. In the months after the September 11 attacks—as our false unity inspired by fear began to wane—one of our AG contributors, Mackubin Thomas Owens, wrote about how America’s mindless commitment to “diversity” was going to kill us and that we needed to reject it soon so we could remember the true source of American unity.
“Diversity” is the poisonous fruit of that toxic doctrine, “multiculturalism.” The latter—the discredited idea that race defines destiny and that blood determines who we are—would appeal to Hitler. Multiculturalists reject the principles of the Declaration because they see them as, at best, “cultural imperialism” and at worst, racism.
In America, ethnicity is an indicator of whence we have come, not whither we are going. It is precisely by rejecting ethnic politics and embracing politics based on individuality and equality of natural rights that have created the conditions of civility and domestic tranquility upon which American strength and prosperity rest. The increasing hyphenation of America bodes ill for these conditions.
Owens gave us some good advice when he encouraged us to reject the cult of “diversity” and instead counseled us to hearken back to what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” which, by appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” remind all Americans of every ethnic background that to be essentially American one must believe in and uphold the principles of our Declaration. It is only in this way that one truly can be “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh” of our founders. It is this core that should unite us. We can be born American, naturally. But there’s much more to becoming American than birth or birthright. In America, after all, it’s only fitting that birthrights have to be earned to be claimed.
It is to weep that this advice was not heeded. Instead, what we’ve seen as we continue to muddle along in the Middle East is a loss of American confidence abroad and an ever increasing Balkanization at home. The terrorists are winning because we are becoming more and more like them as we engage in petty tribal wars over questions like wedding cakes and bathrooms and take ghoulish delight in incessant scab picking about grievances related to race, religion, our history, and our national heritage. America’s first black President, the one who so many hoped would heal divisions and take us into the promised land of a post-racial society, has instead stoked all of these divisions in the service of a cynical political agenda. Divisions like these turn out to serve Democrat political interests. E Pluribus Unum? Eh, not so much. Diversity may not be America’s real strength. But it definitely accounts for the political strength of Democrats.
In the same essay, Owens mentioned in passing that:
Of course, the Founders did not believe, as do some of today’s liberals, that there is an absolute “right” to immigration and US citizenship. They held that since America is a polity based on consent as well as equality, citizens have certain rights against foreigners, one of which is the right to exclude immigrants based on a judgment regarding the character of those to be admitted. For instance, members of a particular religious sect might be rejected if that religion’s beliefs are fundamentally at odds with the principles that lie at the foundation of republican government.
It is almost as if he was peering into the future anticipating the ways in which we would botch this chance at national unity. Today, as we have become increasingly divided we seek also to be increasingly open to the world and its people—inviting ever more “diversity” and foolishly thinking it will make us strong. In our ignorance, we think this makes us good and generous and noble. In truth, we are inviting more and more division as we demand almost nothing from them. We have dropped the ball in asking people to earn their freedom. We do not even demand it of our own children. If native born Americans can no longer muster the energy or mobilize those “mystic chords” who can believe that all of these newcomers, with no one to teach them and no real incentive to learn, will?